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Interview: Chris Russell, traffic officer

12 January 2018

‘If we genuinely care, people pick up on that’

Being a Highways England traffic officer is a great job. We’re often helping members of the public who may have broken down, or been in­­volved in a collision. My out­­­station’s at Chelston, near Wel­­ling­­ton, in Somerset.


Four years ago, I retired from the fire service, where I served as a retained fireman for nearly 40 years in a fire station close to the M5. I’d been working on the motorway since the late 1970s, and I’ve had a lot of experience working in the motorway environment; so that’s why I was attracted to the role of traf­­­fic officer. I’d often work as a traffic officer supporting the fire service, or the other way round.


We also retrieve debris from the motorway. It’s amazing what falls from vehicles: things like kitchen sinks, sofas, armchairs, top boxes, and bicycles. All of these can cause a lot of damage and even injury if they’re hit by oncoming traffic.


We put out lane closures to direct traffic around an incident. We often support the police with rolling road-blocks and other road closures. If we’re at the scene, that often allows them to leave that situation to attend further incidents. I don’t know how driverless cars would be able to understand rolling road-blocks, al­­though obviously they wouldn’t get tired or distracted.


I was expecting to work on Christ­mas Day, but found out at the last minute that I didn’t have to. The roads were gridlocked in the days lead­­ing up to Christmas: it was hard to get anywhere, even with the flash­­ing lights on.


There’s a winter safety message we want to get out for people, because they very often don’t have coats, haven’t put anti-freeze in the car, and so on.


If I could change one thing about our present traffic problems, it would be tailgating. Many incidents are caused by people driving too close to the vehicle in front.

We can help people if they have a crash or breakdown and don’t know what to do next. With the fire service, it’s more hands-on, with people injured in vehicles. As a new Christian I wondered: can I pray for people? Praying on the motorway, praying in church — the two things felt very different. The Lord showed me I most definitely should, and I was often able to pray quietly with people. Lots of times I prayed with someone unconscious in a vehicle — not a long prayer — and the Lord showed me some answers which built my faith.


I grew up in a small village where I first went to church. Good people there befriended me, and seeds were being sown which came to fruition in 1980, when I lost my old job; but we found a new house and this job — and the very best thing of all was that we gave our lives to the Lord.


Soon after that, I went out to a crash — a small saloon car in a head-on collision with a lorry — and prayed on my way. I found the driver buried in the front of the lorry with metal up to his chest, but we got him out, and he was chatting away. A col­­league said: “That’s a miracle,” and I felt the Lord saying: “You need to pray in every situation.”


Lots of times, it doesn’t happen the way we want. But we learn through that, and that’s still no reason not to pray. Each incident is different; just be open and talk to the Lord about it. I’ve seen a lot of answers to prayer: perhaps not so spectacularly. We just need eyes to see it, and a heart to know it.


The fire services go out to pretty hor­­rendous things. Being able to pray is a major help. You can’t make sense of it always, otherwise we’d have a magic wand and it wouldn’t be faith. But we learn through all these experiences.


When I started to read the Bible, the words came alive. It was different from anything I’d ever read before. It was like the words were speaking personally to me. They grew more important over the years, and I became passionate about studying God’s word, leading others in small groups and preaching. In 1994, I was licensed as a lay Reader at Willand, a medium-sized village church. I lead and preach, and take funerals, mainly in a town church near by. In recent years, I’ve done a number of “Pause for Thought” presentations for BBC Radio Devon. It’s my passion to make the gospel known, and to relate it to some life story.


I’ve been married to Josie for 42 years. We have three grown-up sons and eight grandchildren, plus an­­­other on the way; and we’re special guardians to our grandson, who now lives with us. I’m 64, and thinking about retirement; but he’s settled here, despite having major surgery last year, and it’s been amazing the bond that we’ve managed to make. We’re exhausted, and we’ll have the school runs and everything else to do next year; but what better calling could there be in retirement than to care for a little lad like that? To see his face in the morning is our re­ward.


Christian life is a journey, but it’s also a once-and-for-all turning-point. I was and still am on a journ­­­ey, with sometimes huge challenges on the way. Some people come to know the Lord quietly and gradually through a spiritual journey, while others have a definite, dramatic, life-changing experience of God. The discovery that God is alive and loves us, however it happens, is glorious.


Some people think it’s morbid, taking funerals; but it’s a wonderful opportunity if you can visit a family, help them have the kind of service they want, and feel, sad as it is, that they did at least do the right thing. It’s a huge responsibility, and diffi­cult when you don’t know the fam­­­ily. Preparation is the key; and, if we genuinely care, people pick up on that, really appreciate it, and that’s the best witness.


Even now, there are ministers who know very little about Readers. They sometimes use them to fill in the gaps rather than enabling them to use their gifts. I also think that, because many of us have other full-time work, and that what we do is done in our spare time, it can be hard for Readers to feel part of the church team. I’ve had some good vicars, but, in general, I think the full-time clergy protect their free time perhaps more than Readers do.


I love the sound of the sea. I love nature and birdsong. When I’m not working, I like walking with the family, listening to music, reading, and making bread. We recently bought a caravan so that we can get to the coast with my grandson as much as possible.


My mum and dad have been the greatest influences on my life; but in the Church, I’d say Billy Graham or David Pawson.


I pray most for the world to be as the Lord created it to be. And for peace and justice in family life.


My hope comes from knowing that God has a plan for the world, and our future in him is secure. That all things will come together in perfect union with Christ. That there will be no more death or mourning or cry­ing or pain.


If I could choose any companion to be locked in a church with, I’d like Peter or Paul. It would be just won­derful to spend some time with either of them.


Chris Russell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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