The key to everything

Royal Brompton Hospital
By Luke Blair     27/03/2023

I have finally found the one person who holds the key to everything, knows everyone, and knows how to open every door – literally.

He is of course the security man – in this case, the security man who opens something like 50 doors, gates and security grilles, at the start of the Royal Brompton Hospital’s day.

“I always check in here – we’ve had homeless people coming in to sleep” he says, a few minutes into our hike around the offices, corridors, basements, rooftops, and plant rooms, that make up this typically labyrinthine piece of NHS estate.

In some ways it is obvious that a public building, which in one sense never closes its doors, will attract people who find themselves homeless. Some of the places they end up are under desks in the hospital’s basements. Others are on comfortable sofas in seldom-used rest areas.

The security man does not though just ‘evict’ them. “We’re not just bouncers, are we? We’re the NHS. It’s our job to help people.” Some he has helped to “sort themselves out”, others he guides to different support services.

Some of the other nooks and crannies we visit are interesting – like the gigantic boiler room that heats the many acres of NHS estate that sit above it, and the rooftop which allows you commanding views over Chelsea. Others are slightly less appealing.

“Be careful where you’re walking – some people use this to do their business,” he says as we open an outside door onto a flight of stairs leading to the street.

He has also encountered rats, who congregate around the waste bin areas. “The waste service were short-staffed so I leant a hand and one day this rat jumped out at me and ran round my feet.”

The security man not only has to make sure that people – and animals – who shouldn’t be in the hospital are not in the hospital, but also that those who should be there are being, well, sensible. Such as not setting the fire alarm off with a toaster.

“That alarm has a smoke sensor, so if you put the toaster in this room, it will go off even if detects just a little bit of steam. You want to put it in that room, where it’s a heat sensor alarm – then it won’t keep going off.” Said with a smile and a bit of friendly ribbing, the toaster is moved.  

It’s the same technique the security man uses when it turns out that someone who has worked here for more than 20 years has forgotten to switch off his office alarm before opening his door, instead of after opening his door.

This one actually causes a bit of an adrenalin rush, as we go running off down the corridors to find out who or what has set the alarm off. A bit of joshing, and the incident is all sorted.

The sudden burst of activity has made me realise what a physical job it is too. By 9am, after two hours on the go, we have covered over 7,000 steps, and my legs are feeling it.

An unenviable job too, you might think, dealing with rats, soiled staircases, mundane incidents caused by momentary forgetfulness, pounding the same corridors over and over again every day. But the security man loves it.

“Every day is completely different. I love it. You just never know what’s around the corner.”

Yesterday, it turns out, he had helped out when a baby only a few months old had gone into cardiac arrest. “We’re just on hand to help fetch stuff and be an extra pair of hands when needed.”

Of course that also involves people one might typically associate with security issues – people who are angry, and want to lash out. “If people get angry it’s often not their fault. It might be the meds they are on, or because they are anxious or upset about something that’s happened to them.” Even those whose behaviour is shockingly bad get the security man’s even-handed, understanding approach.

Formerly a hod-carrier and then a driver in the hospital transport service for more than 20 years, the security man says his current role is a lot less stressful and more rewarding.

“I just like to help people and I have trouble sitting still, so this job is perfect for me really.”

It’s an attitude that has made him not only very happy with his job, but someone who conveys that attitude to everyone he meets. Whether it’s “hello doc” or “hello prof” or “alright mate?”, he is greeted wherever he goes with a smile and a brief chat or exchange of jokes, everyone using his first name. “I deal with everyone here – patients, homeless people, doctors, professors.” And clearly, they all know him.

It is easy to forget that such things matter. At a time of high pressure, in a national institution like the NHS that is under so much stress, these little points of positivity and light help everyone to get through their day just that bit more easily.

“You make the job your own, don’t you?” says the security man and, with a friendly farewell, he is off to help someone else, unlock another door, or just say a cheerful “alright?” to the next member of staff he happens to come across.