On the Run

Horse drawn FB-SteamerApart from the first three years after I left school, my entire working and very enjoyable career was spent in the fire service. It is only natural with such length of service that one will glean a lot of fire service knowledge, both modern and historical. Much historical knowledge came from the older hands at the job when I first joined. Quite a number of them had joined after the end of WW2 when they were still relatively young and who in turn had knowledge passed onto them by the wizened firefighters of their day. Fire stations still exist today that were originally built in the 19th century at a time when fire appliances, (fire engines), as we know them today did not exist, but consisted of horse drawn steamer pumps with firefighters clinging to the sides.

In the fire service when any piece of equipment  becomes defective, be it as large as a fire appliance or as small as a hand-held radio, it is described as being “Off the Run”. Conversely any equipment that is fit for use is deemed to be “On the Run”. Often defective equipment has a label tied onto it with the abbreviation OTR.

Other industries also use these terms too.

The origins of this short phrase however are from the fire service of yesteryear when appliances were those horse drawn steamers. Like today, even in the 1800’s, everything the fire service is designed for a speedy turnout from the station as the longer the delay, the greater the chance of loss of life. Horses were always kept in the stables located immediately to the rear of the large appliance rooms where the steamer pumps were located in immediate readiness to go to a fire with a constantly lit boiler. The stables doors were normally spring loaded and could be opened either automatically or by pulling on a rope. As soon as the station call-out alarm sounded, the stable doors would open and well trained horses that knew what to do, simply trotted unaided from their stable into the appliance room, to stand alongside the shafts of the steamer pump. Suspended above their heads and fixed in a opened-out position in a cradle was the harness which could be easily and quickly lowered onto the horses. The rear end of the harness was already attached to the steamer and a rope and pulley system allowed the harnesses to be quickly lowered onto the horses which could then be rapidly fitted by the means of quick attachment buckles. Counterweights and springs would then lift the cradle high into the air and out of the way of proceedings.

To further assist the steamer and its crew to rapidly get out of the station, the floor where the steamer was parked was sloped to help overcoming the initial inertia in getting the steamer moving. As soon as the brake was released the steamer would start to roll forward and this assisted the horses to leave the station at the gallop. The sloped floor was known as “The Run” and if the steamer was fired up and ready to use it was said to be “On the Run”. It was said that from the time of receiving a fire call, the horses could be out of the stables, harnessed and out of the station in two minutes or less. Some claimed this could even be as quick as 30 seconds.

The attached film clip shows the turn-out of a horse-drawn steamer from a US fire house but the methods depicted are virtually identical to the old UK fire stations.

The pumps on these steamers were piston powered and operated in a similar way to the pistons on a steam train. The disadvantages was this also caused the water to squirt out of the jets in a pulsating movement and the pistons could not pump against the branches (jets) if they were closed. A large sealed metal dome was fitted to these pumps to absorb extra water from the pistons and help smooth out pulsations in the jet. Todays pumps are what is known as centrifugal pumps that have no pistons but are fitted with a internal spinning disc known as an impeller. This allows water to flow at a even pressure at all times even if the branch is open or closed.

I own part of a Fire Engine

TL 240 FLM

Turntable Ladder 240 FLM – © Paul Wood

Apart from working three years in the Post Office when I first left school, I spent the rest of my working life in the fire service. I joined the West Ham Fire Brigade a few day before my 18th birthda and later, became part of the London Fire Brigade in 1965 with the creation of the Greater London Council, (GLC), and enjoyed a thoroughly worthwhile career for 42 years. Despite popular misconception,   a firefighters job is far more than squirting water at flames. It is very technical job requiring vast amounts of knowledge of innumerable subjects as a Firefighter is expected to instantly deal with any hazard or to resolve any problem, irrespective of what it may be.

It is also a career filled with training courses on many subjects.One such intensive course I did was operating a Turntable Ladder often know as Aerial Ladders in the USA. These ladders extend to 100 feet in length and are used for both rescue and water tower purposes. One cannot just park these appliances anywhere and extend the ladders as they certainly are not elastic. Gaining the knowledge where to quickly site these vehicles in a emergency is all important. Knowledge of the effects of gravity is important too for the lower the angle of the ladder, the greater the strain on the entire vehicle. It’s rather like holding a broom erect above your head with your arm fully extended. That in itself is not too much of an effort but if you were then to lower the broom in a arc horizontally still with your arm fully extended, it will take a great deal of strength to achieve this.

Now I am retired and my career is rapidly disappearing into the past with each passing day. Fortunately social media has provided an outlet for retired firefighters like myself to remain in contact with colleagues and there is a large group on Facebook for retired London Firefighters.

In the past few months, members of this group became aware of an ex-London Fire Brigade Turntable Ladder becoming available for sale. When it was originally disposed of in 1981, it was bought by a tree surgery company to enable them to complete their work. After that it fell into disuse and many members of my group made individual donations which enable the successful purchase of this machine.

Given its age, it was surprising still in relatively good working condition and my group has now formed a preservation society for this machine. The objective is to fully restore this Turntable Ladder to its former glory and then exhibit it is various displays throughout the country. It is also hope that eventually it will also be available for hire at wedding and possibly even funerals. Given this type of vehicles flat rear, they have sadly, (including our machine), been used at hearses in the past for Firefighters who have tragically died in the line of duty.

A website has also been set up for the preservation society and this can be viewed at Tl-240 FJM Preservation Group

A Distant Memory

Mick FB Plaistow - 02

Blue Watch – Plaistow Fire Station 1978

I recently received a pleasant surprise on a Facebook group when a fire service colleague posted a photograph taken of my watch at Plaistow Fire Station taken about 1978/9. I found it refreshing to see once again the faces of those I knew well albeit touched with a twinge of sadness for three colleagues no longer with us.

Everyone in this picture has now retired but looking at the photograph with the trained eye of experience, I could not help but notice how things in the fire service have changed, including myself, in the never ending march of modernity. I am fourth from the right in the rear row and apart from my hair now being white, I can also see substantial changes to the equipment used as well.

Our fire tunics are of the more traditional design which have been around since before the turn of the 20th century. The have now been replaced by the more Hi-Viz wrap around type. Our helmets are black as well as indeed our fire leggings used to be. This picture was taken in a transition period before our helmets were also swapped for yellow ones in aid of visibility safety  when on the fireground or public highway in reduced visibility. These helmets too have again been replaced by the completely enclosed motor-bike type with protective visors and some with built in communications equipment.. The fire boots were of strong leather with non-ferrous  and spark-proof nails in the heels. Comfortable as they were they offered little protection against penetrative chemicals and these were replaced by strong rubber boots with reinforced toecaps and a metal plate to protect against stepping on nails and other sharp debris.

Of the two fire appliances, (fire engines), in the background, the one on the left carries an Escape Ladder. This was the type that was mounted on two large wooden carriage wheels and weighed about one ton. This was a very robust ladder that would take a lot of fireground punishment and I have even had occasion to use one as a battering-ram without ill-effect to the ladder. Alas due to traffic congestion and parked cars it has become necessary to replace this ladder with one that can gain access through narrow obstacles. This photograph apart from now being a visual historical document sometimes makes me wonder if I am now a museum piece too.

Plaistow Fire Station.

Plaistow Fire Station

The area of covered by this station at Plaistow was quite extensive too in both the area it covered and the types of risk likely to be encountered. Geographically it covers the area from along the railway station in Green Street Plaistow to the River Lea and everything south of the railway line to the River Thames. Since the closure of Silverton Fire Station, the area it covers has been extended to protect this heavily industrialised area too. In this area at the time of this photograph there was a mixture of profuse old terraced housing, heavy industry and shipping in the Royal group of docks. Even the famous West Ham United football stadium is directly protect by this fire station. The now infamous Ronan Point which collapsed during my time in 1968 was within this stations fireground with the first appliances to reach the disaster coming from this station.

Even the old station originally built in 1932 under the former West Ham Fire Brigade and which I knew so well has now gone, fortunately it is being replaced by a new one currently being built on the same site.

I suppose everyone who has retired occasionally allows their thoughts to wander back over the years with memories of “Those were the days”.

Ronan Point 02

Ronan Point

Death of a Landmark

Gardiners Corner Fire 2To most firefighters, calls to incidents have a tendency to become routine. An incident may be life-changing to the individuals involved in them, particularly if it something like a fire in their own home, but after a few years service, firefighters tend to view such things as “Just another job”.

Occasionally an incident will occur that will forever stick in ones mind, and  I was involved  in once such incident in 1972. Early one evening my fire station at Plaistow received a call, not to go to a fire, but to go to Poplar Fire Station instead. This was because that particular fire stations appliances, (fire engines), including those of other surrounding fire stations, had already been called and detained at an incident. This left the area temporarily denuded of fire cover and that was the purpose of the appliance I was driving going to another station to cater for the deficiency.

Our route took us over Canning Town Bridge to East India Dock Road. It was clear from the amount of radio traffic that the incident, a fire at a large and well-known department store named Gardiner’s was becoming bigger by the minute.

Long before our arrival at Poplar Fire Station we heard a priority message being sent by the Officer-in-charge of the incident requesting many more fire appliances to deal with the fast growing incident. Within a few seconds of that message being sent, my own fire appliance received a radio message to go direct to the incident instead.

Our destination was Gardiners Department Store located on the junction of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road. Even when we were still some way from the incident it was possible to see the flames engulfing this large building consisting of a ground and five upper floors. We parked some distance from the building to allow for our fire appliance not getting damaged in the event the building collapsed which seemed a real possibility.

Gardiners Corner FireAt  large incidents a Control Unit is always set up at where oncoming appliances book-in and crews are detailed to specific tasks. There was a lot of background noise as well from the noise of the inferno from the burning store, and the sounds on numerous two-tone horns from many other fire appliances also arriving at the incident from far afield. My own crew was initially detailed to run out and man two jets of water from a position in Whitechapel High Street onto the store. Clear instructions were also issued not to get any closer to the store due to the danger of the building collapsing. Our jets of water however were only a temporary holding measure, akin to to using a pea-shooter on a leviathan. Other specialist equipment know as Radial Branches had also been ordered.and we were waiting their arrival.

A Radial Branch is like a huge water cannon with an outlet several inches wide. The recoil from these jets are too high for an individual to hold so they are held between two steel guides mounted on a heavy base plate. A small winch and cable is also fitted to allow the angle of the jet of water to changed by lowering or raising it. The volume of water output by these branches is so great it requires two separate pumping appliances to feed them. There are also vanes built around a central hole on the inside of the outlet of these branches. The vanes create three swirling columns of water around a central water core which stops the water jet breaking up and allows it to reach much greater distances. The best way to describe the power of these jets is to imagine hitting a wall with a heavy sledge-hammer. With the hammer the force of the impact only lasts for a moment as the sledge-hammer makes contact. With a radial branch that force is constant.

The store was surrounded with about six of these radial branches after which time there was little more that could be done other than playing a vast volume of water onto the fire. The front of the store which was triangular in shape was surmounted. by a towering three sided stone and concrete clock tower. A discernable and growing lean could be seen on the clock tower until it reached the point of no return, and hundreds of tons of masonry toppled backwards into the store crashing through all five floors with a tremendous noise. Once that had happened the fire started to gradually subside leaving just the outer shell of this once grand building.

In the meantime the surrounding area had become like a mini-lake with the water run-off from the store. The London Transport underground station Aldgate East has several entrances near to this incident and the flood doors to the station had to be closed and underground trains were not allowed to stop at the station.

It is incidents like this that firefighters always remember.

The store was originally built in the 1870’s and specialised in military uniforms, Scottish and children’s clothing, For many years the store was simply known as “The Scotch House” which was proudly proclaimed by a huge sign at the front of the building. Over the years the sign disappeared and the store became known as Gardiners Corner due to it’s prominent position. Gardiners Corner also became a landmark name appearing on bus route signs. For a building that lasted a century and which was demolished without trace over forty years ago, the name still lives on as a landmark. I doubt if the original Mr Gardiner could have foreseen his name becoming immortalised in such a way.

Gardiners Corner 1906

Gardiners Corner in 1906

A fireman never dies but slowly ……………..

Fireman Sam4I sadly learned recently an old colleague of mine named Jim O’Halloron  had passed away. I first met Jim when I joined the County Borough of West Ham Fire Brigade in 1964. Jim like myself was a firefighter throughout his life and probably one of the funniest people I ever met. In 1965 when the Greater London Council (GLC) was created, West Ham Fire Brigade was absorbed into the new Greater London Fire Brigade (LFB) where we remained for the remainder of our long careers.

Jim was a very likeable person and always quick witted with something of a sardonic outlook on life, but his observations would always bring everyone in a room close to tears with laughter.

One of Jim’s ambitions was to write a book at some time in the future of his fire brigade experiences, and this he finally achieved after retirement with his hilarious book “Arson Around” which took a somewhat irreverent look at life in the fire service.

Jim was a life long supporter of West Ham Football Club, so much so, that as can be seen from the picture below, he even had his coffin painted in their colours. As also can been seen, Jim was so highly regarded, he was given a fitting  and very appropriate send-off.

I shall miss Jim and this article is a small personal tribute to a wonderful man.

Jim Funeral

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.

Cat on the Roof

Cartoonists often depicted firefighters rescuing damsels in flimsy nighties and other such deeds of daring do. The truth however is often far from such whimsical even if desirable fancies. Some incidents I however experienced beggar belief in terms of outright hilarity and which would do any sitcom writer proud.

One such incident was a call to a cat on the roof of a terraced house in Plaistow. Despite popular belief once again engendered by the cartoonists, firefighter do not normally respond of cats on roofs or stuck in trees, that is the job of the RSPCA. Members of the public making such calls are normally referred to the RSPCA by a Control Officer with the fire service only responding if in the opinion of an RSPCA on site that the fire service would be of assistance. Normally animals like cats will get themselves down when they get hungry enough but other creatures like horses or cows stuck in mud often require a helping hand. In  this particular case we were advised by the RSPCA that a cat had been sitting on the apex of the roof of a terraced house for days and despite the enticements from both himself and an elderly widow who owned the cat, this particular intransigent moggie refused to move.  Normally, continual extensive training enables firefighters to immediately spring into action at the arrival of an incident without hesitation, however there is no real training that can be given for dealing with obstinate animals.

Clearly it required a plan of action to thought out. If the RSPCA officer had not been present, it is likely a quick burst from a jet of water would rapidly resolve the situation, however a much longer but more thoughtful scheme was thought out. Two ladders were pitched to either end of the terraced house on which a colleague and I climbed to either end of the roof. In London, the dividing party-wall between the houses of a terrace continue above roof level and prove a useful handhold for getting to the apex of the roof. After negotiating around chimney stacks at either end of the roof, my colleague and I sat astride the roof apex at opposite ends. This was not a comfortable position due to the angle and pitch of the roof. Although we could have used a roof ladder, it is likely this would have scared the cat who might well run onto the roof of a different house thereby complicating matters. Not scaring the cat was also the reason we were sitting astride the roof with fire helmets removed.

Slowly the two of us, such brave persons that we were, inched our way towards the cat issuing such words of reassurance as “Good Pussy” and the like. The errant feline just looked at us enigmatically and probably wondered what these two strange clowns were doing on her roof. Eventually the both of us were close enough to reach the cat however, any sudden move to grab the feline was likely to prove disastrous so we decide to coax the animal into our arms with kind soothing words instead. It was at this point we were distracted by a noise only to see a skylight set into the rear roof being pushed upwards on its hinges by the end of a broomstick wielded by the elderly widow in the room below. That was immediately followed by the high-pitched voice of the widow calling “Here Puss, puss, puss”. With that the cat made a sudden dash for the skylight leaving us with the sight of the cat’s tail rapidly disappearing into the room below.

It took a few moments before it dawned on us that to the passing public below, all they could see was two firefighters sitting astride the apex of a roof in a strange posture, each facing and within close proximity to each other with no cat present to act as a self explanation for either our presence or peculiar position. I expect passers-by must have though we were about to undertake some dark satanic ritual like a roof dancing ceremony. My colleague and I could not help but start to laugh at the absurdity or our position, so much so, it took several minutes before we even dared to start making our way back down for fear of having an accident due to our raucous laughter.

Even now whenever I hear someone calling their cat, my mind always recalls the voice of the frail elderly widow calling “Here, Puss, puss, puss”.

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