An Electrifying Experience


One of the funniest stories I ever heard in the fire service was related to me during a tea break in 1965. It is custom for all firefighters on a station to have a tea break at 11 am, sitting around a communal dining table provided they are not answering an emergency call. On the creation of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965, the London Fire Brigade was greatly enlarged to encompass the entire Greater London area. On my particular watch at Plaistow, there were two firefighters who had been transferred to us from a previous Essex fire station to cover operational manning requirements under the new brigade.

During our break, one of the firefighters told us of a particular large mental institution that was on his previous fire stations ground. There were several of the institutions on the fringes of north-east London which have now closed along with many similar hospitals throughout the country due to changes in policy for treating mental health patients.

Our new colleague told us that his station regularly attended emergency calls at this particular hospital, fortunately most of them being false alarms in the sense that the assistance of the fire service was not required. Apparently on one particular evening there were high winds blowing when his station received a call to an automatic fire alarm actuating at this particular hospital. The fire alarm indicator board pointed to a particular ward on the first floor of one wing of the hospital. This ward was a known locked ward where some long-stay patients with more severe mental conditions were treated. After a thorough search of the ward was made, no problem could be found and it was assumed that the effect of the high winds on this old Victorian building probably caused the fire alarm to actuate accidentally.

On establishing there was no problem, the officer in charge of the incident asked the ward staff how often evacuating the ward was rehearsed in the event of a real emergency. The reply was very little if at all due to the mental condition of the patients. The officer in charge then said it would be a good opportunity to practice an evacuation while the fire service was there which the staff agreed to.

A set of outward-opening double doors led from the ward to a fire escape consisting of a metal landing with metal stairs leading down to the ground. Staff aroused the already awaked patients from their beds and wearing only pyjamas, they were ushered toward the now open doors and the fire escape. On reaching the landing of the fire escape, apparently the patients all started dancing, jumping around and pushing their way back into the ward. Both hospital staff and firefighters thought that due to their mental condition, the patients did not understand what to do. Consequently they all joined arms to form a human barrier and once more herded the patients back towards the fire escape. On reaching the landing once more, all the patients started jumping around again and pushed back against the human barrier with great vigour. One firefighter went onto the landing to assist patients to the stairs but found them difficult to contain. It was not until he leant against the metal railings of the landing wondering what to do next that the cause of the problem became clear As soon as the firefighter touched the railings, an electric shock run up his arm.

It transpired that in the high winds, an overhead domestic power line had become detached and was lying on the ground near the bottom of the fire escape, causing the entire metal fire escape to become electrified. In the dark it was not possible to see this loose power line and possibly it was this that set off the automatic fire alarm in the first place. The patients in pyjamas and bare feet could clearly feel the electric shocks while firefighters were well insulated through their fire boots until they eventually touched the railings with their bare hands. Everyone had including experienced staff had misinterpreted the patients antics as being due to their mental condition when in fact they were simply reacting the same as anyone else in their position would have. Fortunately no one was hurt and I expect the strength of the electric current was greatly dissipated by the loose electric cables contact with the ground.

I would never belittle someone unfortunate enough to have a mental problem but the thought of this incident still causes me to chuckle today when I seen the funny side of these circumstances.

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