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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

LONDON'S FIRE FIGHTERS by Malcolm Saville


there is no fire fighting service in the country upon which so many calls are made, nor with such a proud record of achievement, as the London Fire Brigade. Although all Londoners are thrilled by the clang of the warning bell as the scarlet appliances-they are no longer called Fire Engines for that name belongs to the age of steam-roar through the crowded streets, not very many citizens know how a fireman is trained for his job, how he spends his duty hours or, indeed, anything of the efficient organization behind the wonderful service.
The first thing to realize is that however efficient such an organiza­tion may be it is the men on the job who really count. Many of us today are inclined to believe that mechanization and a scientific approach is the answer to all our worries. Machines have their part to play in the lives of us all, but it is what men are which determines their behaviour when faced with danger or a crisis. The Fireman, the Coastguard or the Lifeboatman is trained first to save life. The Fireman's second duty is to save property from fire and after that, as we shall see later, he is called upon to undertake many curious responsibilities. The working life of a fireman anywhere is exacting and highly disciplined. He must be strong, courageous and cool-headed. He must work sometimes by day and sometimes at night, in any weather and at all times of the year. He must, indeed, work for thirty years before he becomes eligible for a full pension and he may, in the course of his duties, risk his life many times a week.
But we are going to study London's Fire Brigade in particular — not because its firemen are any braver than their mates elsewhere-but because London, with its density of population, its narrow streets and many areas in which the risk of fire is very high, is probably unique.
How many times a day do you think London's fire fighting appliances are called out? Difficult to say, but between the beginning of April and the end of December 1948 the Brigade answered 13,515 alarms, of which 4,560 were fires and 1,607 chimney fires. 5,264 calls out of the total were false and malicious, which only goes to prove the stupidity of some people! Some of the other calls were mistakes which were not deliberate and there were a number of demands for special services apart from fires.
You will understand that although sometimes the Brigades may suspect, and with very good reason, that an alarm is false, every call must be answered in case the risk is real.
The fires of London are fought from 58 land stations and 3 on the Thames. Not every station carries the same number of appliances and equipment as each is graded according to the fire risks of the district which it serves. You will realize, for instance, that the danger of fire in a district like Clerkenwell, where there are many cabinet-making factories, is greater than in a residential area. The districts served by the 58 stations are divided into four divisions, two north and two south of the Thames. The Headquarters of the London Fire Brigade are just over Lambeth Bridge on the south side of the river.
Although some stations are obviously bigger than others all must have these features.
(1) The Watch Room, which is the "nerve centre" and has a man always on duty, day and night. To this room come all calls from street fire alarms, although in London these are gradually being abolished. The man on duty here is a trained fireman who takes his turn in the watch room just as he takes a turn at cleaning the appliances and going to fires. With relief for rest and meals the man in the watch room works from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. for the day shift. All fire stations use the 24 hour clock.
(2) The Appliance Room is the one part of the Fire Station which most of us see for it is on the street level with great doors which swing back at a touch, and from which the appliances roar out into the street a few seconds after the alarm has been given. The number and type of appliances vary at each station-those on whose ground are high buildings have a turntable ladder which can be extended to 100 feet in addition to two pumping appliances, one of which will certainly carry a ladder escape on wheels.
(3) The Office. This is the room from which the station is man­aged by the Station Officer.
(4)  The Mess Room or Canteen where all meals are taken.
(5) The Recreation Room where there are facilities for games and many of which are now fitted with television. It is here that the men on night duty sleep, half-dressed, on camp beds. The Mess and Recreation Rooms are invariably above the Appliance Room to which there is access by a metal pole down which the crews of the appliances may slide when the alarm sounds.
It is not always understood that firemen do not live at their stations but have homes and families like anybody else. Some, in London, have to travel quite a long way to their work, and now it is time to learn something of these men and of how each station is manned.
Like any other organization where efficiency is essential the per­sonnel of a Fire Station is well disciplined and can, indeed, only work so long as all the men know who gives orders, who takes them and why.
A typical station in the London Fire Brigade is manned by two Station Officers (equivalent to commissioned rank in the Armed Forces), 2 Sub-Officers (who might be sergeants), 4 Leading Firemen (lance-corporals), and 36 Firemen. Half of this personnel works by day and half by night and duties are equally shared throughout the year.
Before a recruit is accepted by the London Fire Brigade he must undergo special training at the "school" at Headquarters for twelve weeks. First he must pass certain mental and physical tests. The former are not very exacting but the latter are more arduous, including the lifting and carrying of his own weight for 100 yards in 40 seconds without showing sign of stress or strain. During his three months period of trial and learning in the school he will listen to many lectures, do a lot of drill, study the appliances and their machinery, learn the discipline of a Fire Station, together with something of First Aid and of the special Breathing Apparatus which is carried to every fire so that the men may work in dense smoke. He will also be tested to see if he can stand heights. If, by any chance, he does not pass these tests, at the end of the third month he will probably be sent back to school for a second period of training. Recruits are accepted between the ages of 19 and 31. Each man must be at least 5' 7" in height with a chest measurement of 36" with a minimum expansion of 2". He is not generally considered to be a real fireman until he has served for two years in a station.
The "Non-Commissioned Officers" of the Fire Brigade-Leading Firemen and Sub-Officers—are promoted from the ranks according to their keenness and ability to take responsibility, and indeed all Commissioned ranks-Station Officer, Assistant Divisional Officer, Divisional Officer, Deputy Chief Officer up to the Chief Officer himself-have started at the bottom of the fireman's ladder and there is no other way to the top. Every man who comes in as a recruit to the school at Lambeth has an equal chance of gaining the highest honours the Fire Service has to offer, and many of these positions in all parts of the country today are held by men who gained their experience and learned to take responsibility in the London Fire Brigade.
The duties of the Ordinary Fireman are very varied. When he is on the day shift and reports at 9 a.m. he must attend the daily roll-call at which he will be told on which appliance he will be working during that day. When the alarm sounds, wherever he may be in the station and whatever he may be doing during his duty hours, he must reach his appliance in the shortest possible time. Apart from actual attendance at a fire his duties are at the discretion of his Station Officer. He may have to attend drills if his superior feels that his men were not up to the standard which he expects at the last fire attended. He will certainly have to take his share of cleaning his own equipment and keeping the appliances and the station itself spotless, and such duties take priority as soon as the appliances return from a fire. When he is on Night Duty it is unlikely that he will be given much drill although he will have to do some cleaning of kit and in winter attend lectures given by his Station Officer. After supper he will usually turn in at about 11p.m.-partially dressed and with jacket ready for a quick get-away. Should the alarm sound he will be in his appointed place within a few seconds, fixing his helmet and the rest of his gear which is already in its place on the appliance. If he is not called in the night he will almost certainly be up by 6.45 in time to tidy up before he goes off duty at 9 a.m.
A Station Officer will make every effort to vary the duties of his personnel as much as possible and we have already noticed that each ordinary Fireman must take his turn in the Watch Room. Drivers are not so often interchanged.
The Station Officer himself is entirely responsible for the clean­liness of his station and the training and efficiency of the men serving under him. He must be satisfied that every appliance is in perfect work­ing order and see that it is tested constantly. Drills are at his discretion and except for a few specialist duties his men, as we have learned, must be trained to do more than one job. But his responsibilities cover the whole of the ground which his station serves. He must, for instance, inspect every hydrant at least three times a year. The number of these varies with the districts but in the County of London alone there are 32,000, and as the new Housing Estates develop this number will certainly increase.
I mentioned earlier that street Fire Alarms are gradually going out of use but, until the telephone supersedes them, hundreds of these have to be inspected periodically and maintained in working order. Until recently there were 1,732 of these alarms in the County of London.
The Station Officer must also be ready for consultations with any business or organization which may need his advice and his duties also include periodical inspection of serious fire risks, such as the Docks, factories, warehouses or markets like Covent Garden, where there was a very serious fire in the winter of 1949.
It is now time to describe how the fire alarm system works in any of the London Fire Brigade's stations and how the organization is able to send additional help wherever it is wanted in the shortest possible time. You will remember that there is a fireman on duty in the Watch Room of every station all round the clock and he is the only man who does not leave the station on an alarm.
There are two ways by which this alarm may reach the Watch Room. The first is the familiar system of the "Closed Circuit Alarm" seen so often at street corners, which sends its message direct to the nearest station when the protective glass is broken and the handle inside pulled. The most noticeable aspect of this apparatus at the other end is a glass-fronted case about two feet long protecting a one inch wide strip of paper running between two spools of shining brass. When the street alarm goes into action a loud warning buzz is sounded in the Watch Room and, at once, the strip of paper is punched with small slits as it unwinds from left to right. Above the apparatus is a white card on which is printed the location of every street alarm in the station's area with a number before it—e.g. 34 —Boswell Street, 12 — Hanworth Square. The punched slits in the strip of paper give the key by numbers so that if the alarm comes from Boswell Street the paper tape would show first three slits in a row, thus — — —, and then a space followed by four more slits. This signal is then repeated twice, as the man in charge sounds the alarm bells throughout the station where coloured lights also go up to indicate which appliances are to be sent. He must next give the driver the location of the fire and then notify the same to Headquarters by telephone, together with the time of the alarm and the number of appliances sent. Finally he will enter these details in the Watch Room logbook so that a complete record, with times, is always available.
You will understand, I am sure, that when answering an alarm it is always advisable to assume that the fire is serious. Lives may be lost and property destroyed unless enough fire-fighting appliances are quickly on the spot, and as each station has only a limited number available, Headquarters make up the first attendance by sending additional help within a few seconds. This is done in this way. Station "A" sends all its appliances to answer a street alarm and the Watch Room notifies Headquarters who immediately telephone Station "B" the next nearest Fire Station who send additional appliances to Station "A" 's fire. If they are. not wanted they return at once and Head­quarters are notified by radio which is now fitted on every pump escape.
If the fire warning is given from any telephone by dialling 999 and not by street alarm this is transmitted instantly to Headquarters and not to the station in which district the fire occurs. From Head­quarters the location is telephoned first to the Watch Room of the station nearest to the fire and then to the station in the next area for additional help. Warning bells ring in each station also. Eventually all fire alarms in the County of London will be sent out in this way as the street alarms are abolished.
The most valuable of the fire-fighting and life-saving appliances, and that which is always first away to a fire, is known as the Pump Escape. This has a new type of body built to the design of the Brigade and carries a crew of five including the driver. It combines in one machine an enclosed standard fire pump, capable of pumping 850 gallons a minute to a very considerable height, a ladder extending to 50 feet, hook ladders, breathing apparatus and oxygen. Some of these Pump Escapes carry 100 gallons of water which can be used instantly through rubber tubing on arrival at the fire without waiting to connect with a hydrant.
The next appliance to go is a motor pump with lengths of hose, on which the Station Officer usually travels, and in areas where the risk of fire is high the spectacular turntable ladder follows at once. This ladder, made of metal, extends rapidly to a height of 100 feet and is not only used for rescue work but sometimes for directing water into the top floors of warehouses or factories. The turntable ladder has saved many lives.
Now that radio is fitted to the Pump Escapes it is possible for the officer to maintain contact with a master wireless station and thence to Headquarters from the moment he leaves his station. He will report immediately on the gravity of the fire when he has inspected it and if he requires no more help will send the "Stop" message. If the situation is serious he can be confident that extra help will come to him very quickly.
These three appliances are all that are needed for the average fire but the Brigade have in reserve two Emergency Tenders, one of which is kept at Clerkenwell and the other at Headquarters. One of these tenders has a smoke extractor which can be used for sucking smoke out of a burning building and also for blowing fresh air in. Both carry power saws and drills, floodlights of great strength, oxy-acetylene apparatus for cutting through metals and extra breathing apparatus in addition to various smaller gadgets, such as a device for widening metal railings.
During a bad fire when the men are on duty for a long time, a canteen van is sent from which hot drinks and snacks are served. There are also available a special lorry for laying hose at speed over long distances, and another with breakdown equipment which is some­times used for raising buses after a serious accident. Many stations have emergency lifting gear-i.e. heavy jacks etc. suitable for raising buses and trams to release trapped persons.
When the warning bells on the Pump Escapes clear the crowded streets of London to­day and are so quickly on the scene of the fire, and when the officer in charge can report on radio in a few seconds to the control room at Head­quarters, it is odd to remem­ber that there are many Londoners alive today who remember with a thrill how galloping horses hauled a strange contraption belching smoke and sparks to the fires in the crowded city. These steam engines, which took the place of pumps worked by hand, were first introduced in 1860 and by 1904 seventy-eight of them were in use. It was only forty-one years ago, in 1909, that the first pump­ing appliance to be driven entirely by petrol was placed in commission, so you will see that development has really been very rapid, although the last horse-drawn escape was withdrawn in September 1920, and the last horse-drawn vehicle-a turntable ladder-in November 1921.
It is natural that we should think that the Brigade exists only to extinguish fires but it is always willing to assist the public whenever possible and on an average it receives 100 special service calls a month, and the stories behind some of these calls are amazing.
On one occasion a milk cart drove up to Headquarters and very gently delivered a milk churn in which a small boy of nine was crouch­ing, with his knees to his chin, at the bottom. The boy had apparently been sitting on the edge of the churn with his legs dangling inside when he had slipped forward and become wedged. From this extra­ordinary and uncomfortable position there seemed little hope of release without cutting the churn in half and this the firemen did with the help of oxy-acetylene and hacksaws, although the greatest care had to be taken to avoid hurting the boy. Eventually the top was lifted off, and although the lad seemed none the worse for his experience it is to be hoped that he has never for­gotten what he owes to the London Fire Brigade.
Not long ago the Brigade was called on to help rescue a man who was sinking in the mud on the Thames foreshore opposite the County Hall. He was up to his waist when a fire­man reached him by crossing the mud on sheets of corruga­ted iron. A belt was slung under the victim's shoulders and he was eventually hauled to safety—doubtless with a loud sucking noise—by a crane.
I do not know whether all firemen have an affection for cats. Perhaps this depends upon the number of times they are called out to rescue an animal which invariably shows every sign of intelligence and inde­pendence but will so often climb a tree from which it is afraid to descend.
Horses are troublesome, too, for they sometimes fall into holes in the road and down the areas below pavement level in many of London's older streets.
After floods or great storms the Brigade expect to pump out many basements, and the men on the job are no longer surprised when called to release a child who has put his head between the iron bars of railings and finds himself a much to be pitied prisoner.
Sometimes, too, the Fire Brigade is called in to help the Police in various ways. Day and night, summer and winter, wet or fine, London's Fire Brigade is waiting, watching and working. Deep underground below the Headquarters on the Albert Embankment is the Control Room. Here is the switchboard and here every movement of every appliance at every station is recorded and marked on a great map. To this room come the agitated 999 telephone calls to announce yet another out­break, and the radio messages later from the officer on the spot. From this room go instructions for the despatch of a turntable ladder or another pump. Except for the matter of voices on the main telephone switchboard the men work in disciplined silence. Different coloured pegs, indicating the various appliances, are moved deftly from their stations on the map to show that they are out. The location of every fire being handled is chalked on a board with the Station Officer's name beside it. Soon the message comes through that the Brigade has left as the fire is out. The coloured pegs are moved back and a uni­formed man, with an impassive face, picks up a duster and with a flick of his wrist erases the chalked lettering. Another job over. Only three fires are burning in London at this minute. The Control Room Officer glances at the board and then at the map before lifting his telephone.
It almost seems as if these men are taking fires for granted. There is no fuss-only efficiency –  while miles away in a back street off the high pavements of Islington, perhaps, smoke is pouring from the top window of a shabby little house while a pale-faced woman in the door­way cries out that her child is upstairs in bed and the stairs are burning. The crowd scatters as the scarlet Pump Escape roars into the street. Almost before ten people can explain the obvious at the same time, the ladder is against the house, the window smashed and a sleepy and unharmed child delivered to its mother by a smiling fireman. He knows how she feels. He has a daughter of his own at home.
While there are men who will choose dangerous jobs for the service of others and obey orders without argument, there is hope for the future.
Salute with me the men of the London Fire Brigade.

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