A Day In The Life Of… a Service and Safety Assistant

08 Apr 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, HE Comms Executive at Unite Students
In our new feature series A Day In The Life Of…, we’ll be introducing some of our people on the front lines at Unite Students, working to make students’ accommodation experience the best it can be. Our first interviewee is Shane Chessum, who works as a Service and Safety Assistant across our nine sites in his hometown of Sheffield.

Q: Tell me about a typical day - or should I say night - in the life of a service and safety assistant at Unite Students.

A: Predominantly, we work nights. A typical night shift is 10 hours. I get there 20 minutes early to check my emails and get up to speed with the latest events and reports. Then at 8pm, we respond to calls and do our night checks. Our typical night check across all 9 sites would include a thorough check of each building - starting with the offices, then we check the keys and audit the main fire panel to identify any faults. If we do identify any faults, we contact the contractor to get them back up and running as soon as possible. 

We walk around all the floors and all the blocks; if there's a lift, we catch a lift to the top floor, then walk down. Some of us are getting a little older! Starting at the top, we walk around the block and check all the fire safety aspects - dry rises, emergency door exits, windows, flat doors, fire doors - to ensure they meet safety regulations. We complete a full log and take photos as well. 

In between that, we’ll typically be responding to lockouts - students are notoriously relaxed with their fobs, cards and keys. They never fail to amaze you - you can have some that are locked out three times in one night; they’ve left their key in their room three times! [laughs]

Three times in one night - that's almost an achievement really! 

I do remember one girl achieving that three times! That’s student life, isn’t it.

We also respond to fire alarm activations throughout the whole city. That's quite challenging, because upon activation of the alarm, we get notified immediately; within seconds, usually. We have a 10-minute window to attend to it - regardless of where we are at that moment - and identify exactly where the alarm’s coming from, as well as what triggered the alarm, which sensor and so on, and then contact the emergency contact centre and provide them with the details. Up until now, it's always been people smoking in the bedroom, cooking and shower steam, things like that. Up to now I've not actually had to respond to a fire.

There’s also antisocial behaviour and noise complaints. Because of Covid, the students can't go out and are letting steam off, so we've seen some parties on-site - we’re there to monitor that and report it, break the parties up and send the non-residents away. Then we’ll write a report for management and the university, and they’ll deem whether it's necessary to issue any warning letters. We keep a log of all the incident reports and the flat meetings that we have, and we sometimes conduct the flat meetings as well, to follow up the night after and issue those warnings. That’s been very challenging of late, but the company's been great with providing PPE for that. We also get flat disputes to respond to.

Sometimes we respond to worried parents getting in contact with us - we get quite a lot of that. We haven't heard from a student for three days, they won't answer their phone, their brother said they were posting worrying messages on social media, and obviously the Covid situation doesn't help - it can exacerbate that. 

I'm also a Welfare Lead too, so I take a very keen interest in the students’ mental health. I go round where possible, time permitting; checking on some students who have had problems or are seeking help from their university which we’ve signposted, pointing them in the right direction. I’ll follow it up with a chat and a cup of tea, and then see how they are and keep the lines of communication ticking over. I always say, “I don’t want you festering in your flat worrying.”

So, that’s a typical night. 

It’s clear how many different responsibilities you have, and how wide-ranging your role is. I imagine the welfare side of it can sometimes take a toll - do you get much support from Unite Students when there are difficult issues to respond to? 

I’m relatively new to the role, so I've not much history to fall back on, but I have no complaints whatsoever. Unite Students are fully supportive, and I am confident that - should I need help or assistance in whatever area - someone at Unite would be able to help, there would be someone there. I'm very confident of that. 

 

That's great news. You’ve highlighted a few ways in which your role has changed since the pandemic began - how else has your role changed since the start of pandemic? 

At the very beginning - as a team - we were very big on social distancing, very big on wearing masks. Because of the situation, we weren’t able to interact with the students as much as we could before. It seems to provide almost a little bit of a barrier there; we couldn't interact with them as well as before. We had a very worrying period at the end of October - five or six of our team all went off with Covid within a two-week period. That was very worrying, because some of us are quite a bit over 50, so I was very concerned. I did consider taking some time off work because of my age, and I didn’t know if I was going to be next! There was a lot of fear there, a lot of fear. Where there were parties, we would remind the students that they were putting themselves and us at risk.

We had to be very careful; I carry hand sanitiser and wash my hands regularly. But it’s not a job you can do remotely - if someone's locked out, they’re locked out, so you’ve got to physically go there. You observe the two-metre rule, but sometimes when they're drunk, they just walk up to you.

Really, it didn't change dramatically, the nature of the role. It can be difficult to determine what's an emergency. You never actually know what you're walking into. It's a very interesting job in that respect. We can have quiet shifts where we’re able to literally just patrol around and just do regular checks at our leisure. We also deal with maintenance issues and power outages, faulty appliances, leaks in the winter... the role covers a wide range.

We have check-ins all the year round; international students can arrive at any time. 10 o’clock at night you could have someone arriving from Nigeria, you could have someone else arrive from India at 2 o’clock in the morning. There are check-ins all around the clock. So we need to determine where we’re putting them - with recent events, there’s a quarantine period - but after that, it’s determining what flat they’ll be going to, whether they've got the necessary bedding packs, kitchen packs and food packs, as the universities have been providing food packs for students in quarantine. We take them up to the room, show them how to use the key system, show them around and help them to settle in.

Recently we’ve had a lot of international check-ins, almost every night. It’s always interesting chatting to students from around the world, it really is. An Indian lad came last week and his first words were, “I can't believe how cold it is!” Well, you’ve just come from India, where it will be about 35 degrees, to England, where it’s minus two! So, I said, “We're beating you at cricket,” and he laughed. It’s that interaction which we could hopefully get back after Covid, after the restrictions we have in place.

On the plus side, with the students, 99% of them are fine. We can come to work and have fun, interact with them and so on. You won't believe the requests I've had - young girls asking, “How do I lose weight?” Sometimes they tell you about their relationship issues! [laughs] It's good fun, it really is. 

I've asked you already how Unite Students supports you with the welfare side of things. But have you had all the support you’ve needed throughout the pandemic? 

The company’s always been supportive, and there's been plenty of communication both from the head office and the local senior management for Sheffield. There’s always been plenty of info and guidance coming through to us. The company have been great in that respect, without a doubt. 

The good news is, since we had five members of our team go off [with Covid], they all came back to work within few weeks - which in itself is good - and no one else has fallen ill with it since. We got through that.

 

You’ve mentioned a couple of interesting scenarios you've had to deal with in your role… 

You get many weird and wonderful requests! I like young people - you have this great banter with them at times. Hopefully, we can return to that more, because it really is a vital part of the job. People are reassured as well, especially the girls - if they’re coming home after a night out and they see us around, they’re reassured; sometimes you get lads who make a nuisance of themselves and won’t take no for an answer, and we have to get involved in some cases. 

It's a job I would recommend to anyone considering it. When I saw the advert - I've never worked in a service industry; I’d come from manufacturing, all my life, from when I was 15 years old - it was completely alien to me. But I saw the job adverts, and I don't know what it was, but it sounded interesting - completely different and wide-ranging. It just captured me, it captured something. I’d been out of work for five or six months. 

When I started, I said, “Am I going to like this?” There's only one way to find out!

 

What advice would you give to anyone that wanted to go into a similar role to that in student accommodation? 

Go for it. It's very interesting and varied. I believe at Unite Students, there are opportunities for people to progress after they've gained experience and been there for a year or two. It can be challenging at times, it’s such a wide-ranging and varied job. You never know what is coming up, which is a good thing. I’d advise anyone to give it a go, see where it takes them.

 

And finally, what's your favourite thing about working for Unite Students?

Maybe it’s a little cliched, but we have a great team and we work together as a unit. I would single that out as the most significant factor. We also have a good management team who are supportive of us and listen to our concerns and any needs we may have.

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Jen Steadman is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.