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”.

Night of the Frogs

Premier Pet Products Squeeze Meeze Dog Toy - Frog, LatexAs a firefighter it is not unusual to attend an incident on a neighbouring fire stations ground or even further afield. Frequently if a neighbouring station is already attending an incident when a further incident occurs, it is normally the neighbouring stations that will attend. This does mean firefighters not only have to learn an intimate knowledge of their own fire stations ground but also the topographical layout of other stations too. Other reasons why a firefighter will go off his own patch, (area), is if the number of fire appliances, (engines), needed to cover the potential risk presented by a particular incident is more than are based at the local station, then neighbouring stations will also attend. When I was a Turntable Ladder operator based at Plaistow Fire Station, it was not unusual to get called several times a day to the Ford motor plant at Dagenham as Plaistow was where the nearest such appliance was based at the time. The final main reason for going to an incident is that the situation faced by the local station is too great for them to handle on their own. In these cases the officer-in-charge will call for assistance via radio with what is known as a make-up call.  Make-up means make pumps four, six, ten or however many the officer-in-charge considers will be necessary to deal with the situation in both the number of pumping or specialist appliances and manpower. If an incident is large enough, the additional appliances will come from all over Greater London.

I went to one such incident in Barking in the 1970’s. This was to the warehouse of a large goods importer which faced onto the main A13 road.  The warehouse was built mainly of sheet metal covering a steel joist construction which allowed for a large interior storage area. In this particular case, a fire had broken out inside the storage area which in turn spread rapidly though the exposed boxes of stored goods. As large as the fire was, there was nothing particularly unusual about this fire and during the course of my career, I went to quite a few incidents like this.

I say there was nothing unusual except for one unique feature which presented a bizarre hazard. Stored inside the warehouse were hundreds of cardboard boxes containing a toy probably imported for Hong Kong. The toy was a hollow plastic frog with a spring fitted to a sucker pad inside which was in turn fixed to the base of the frog. The idea behind the toy was quite simple, children would push down on the frog causing the spring to compress and the sucker pad would adhere to the inside to prevent the spring releasing. The sucker would then slowly lose its adhesion causing the spring to suddenly release which in turn would make the frog leap into the air. The cardboard boxes were quite large with each one probably containing several thousand toy frogs stored loose inside. Due to a mixture of both fire and water damage, the cardboard boxes had become sodden spilling the contents and leaving hundreds of thousands of toy frogs strewn all over the floor.

As the fire came under control, teams of firefighters entered the building to carry out more localised firefighting within the warehouse. Like many buildings involved in a fire, the electricity supply had been cut off and it was dark inside, it was also during the night. As firefighters trampled around the building they could not help but tread on masses of the toy frogs. The weight of the firefighters caused the springs inside the frogs to compress and be held in a compressed state by the sucker pad. It was not long before a firefighter felt something hit him in the face in the dark. Soon there was a chain reaction of pinging noises followed by expletive cries from firefighters as thousands of the toy frogs started jumping everywhere in the dark.

In the end, everyone was glad when they could leave this artificial zoological mayhem behind. I wonder how many accident books contained the entry, “Injured by a flying frog.”

Put another railroad sleeper on the fire

In the early part of my firefighting career, chimney fires were quite a common occurrence. Between 6 -8 such fires a night in winter on my own fire stations ground in East London was the norm, apart from any other emergency incidents that needed dealing with. Today, chimney fires are something of a rarity. The reason being the growth of central heating systems which for most homes did not exist in the earlier part of my career. Most of the housing in the area covered by my fire station was of the cheaply built terraced house variety. Most of the housing was built overnight around the 1880’s onwards to cater for the rapidly growing population drawn to the area by the promise of work in the docks that bordered the River Thames. Heavy and often socially unpleasant industry often nested cheek by jowl with housing in this area.

The area I used to cover was West Ham, Plaistow and Canning Town, the latter being one of the areas worst affected by the Blitz in World War II. Much of the terraced housing was Dickensian by today’s standards and certainly not built for the conservation of heat. None were insulated and most had no foundations with the buildings being erected directly onto the London Clay. Heating was normally provided by a single hearth fire in the living room. Although other rooms would have also have fireplaces, due to expense, the normal practice was for the entire family to huddle around the one fire in the winter. Fuel was normally coal or coke but many families in East London supplemented these with what was known as “Tarry blocks”. Roads in the area were originally constructed with a layer of wooden blocks heavily preserved with tar (bitumen) and creosote. The blocks also became heavily impregnated with oil from motor traffic. With the rebuilding of roads, thousands of tons of these wooden blocks were torn up to be quickly purchased by local fuel merchants. Smoke from these wooden blocks quickly caused the chimney flue to become lined with a layer of oil soaked soot and were the cause of many a fire.

Originally most of this type of housing was rented accommodation. The introduction of the Rent Act fixed rents at a low figure and many landlords found they made insufficient income to make owning the properties worth their while. Landlords were also faced with the dual problem of no one else wanting to buy a property with sitting tenants that could not be moved. Consequently much of this already dilapidated housing stock fell into further disrepair. Income from rentals was usually insufficient to cover repair costs and many landlords simply no longer bothered.

One particular chimney fire I went to in one of these houses has become permanently lodged in my mind. When we arrived the fire had spread from the hearth to the living room. Although the Fire Service normally manages to arrive at an incident with a few minutes of a call being received, at the time of this incident in the 1960’s, few houses had telephones. The public often relied on running to a public telephone box to make an emergency call or running to a neighbour who might have a telephone. In this case, the resident was an elderly widow in her eighties who ran to the public call box when her chimney caught fire, only to find her living room alight on her return.

This elderly lady was really the cause of her own problem. Like many elderly widows at the time she would have lived on a meagre pension. Like many who supplemented their fuel with cheap Tarry blocks, this lady had managed to obtain an old railway sleeper from a railroad track. Like the Tarry blocks, this too was heavily impregnated with preservatives and years of accumulated oil. This railroad sleeper was about six-foot in length and very heavy. The lady had somehow managed to lift the sleeper and place one end in the fire. Due to the height of the fire grate above the living room floor, the lady had propped the other end of the sleeper on the end of a flimsy wooden orange box (crate). Apparently as the end of the sleeper in the fire blazed away, she would occasionally lift the other end up and shove the sleeper further into the fire.

Eventually the flames from the end of the sleeper in the fire set her chimney alight and she ran out of the house leaving the fire unattended to find a public telephone box to call the fire brigade. While she was out of the house, oil in the rest of the wooden railroad sleeper now heated by the fire readily caught alight and the fire spread along the length of the sleeper which in turn set the wooden orange box alight. The burning orange box  rapidly weakened and collapsed allowing fire not only from the orange box but also the sleeper to spread through her living room. It was a form of chain-reaction of events that set her living room alight. Although the fire brigade arrived within a few minutes of the call being received, the elderly lady had arrived back home a few moments before our own arrival and was now hysterical at what she found.

Although we found a much larger fire than we had anticipated, it was in fire fighting terms a small fire which we quickly extinguished before dealing with the chimney fire. Smoke damage to the house was however considerable. To the lady however it was the end of the world. It was unlikely that she would have had any fire insurance and equally unlikely that the landlord had any either. Many simply did not bother with insurance due to the low rental income.

I never did find out what happened to this lady although I suspect local social services would have assisted her. This area of the east end of London also had a great community spirit with neighbours often helping those in need.

Even now after more than forty years have elapsed since this incident I sometimes reflect with amusement at the vision of this destitute elderly lady shoving another length of the railroad sleeper onto the fire. The vision however also conjures the vast difference in social conditions that now exist to what I originally remember. It is more likely that today the elderly lady would not be living in such impoverished conditions but either in a residential home for the elderly, or subsidised sheltered housing. The community spirit in the area although it still exists is now much faded. Most of the terraced housing is now either privately owned and modernised with the worst of it demolished by slum clearance programs to be replaced by social housing.

I sometimes look at Street View on either Google Earth or Google Maps at the areas I used to protect. Much of it is unrecognisable to what I knew. I sometimes find the swathes of social housing that replaced the old housing stock is often not to my taste but on the other hand, it is a vast improvement to what existed before.

Donkey kept in a bathroom


DonkeyDue to the political composition of the County Borough of West Ham, there was much social housing spread throughout the borough. One particular housing estate was located in a backwater of the borough where the council appeared to house some of it’s more difficult tenants. The entire estate comprised of blocks of tenement style buildings. Each block being four floors high and each floor accessed by a double flight of stairs with a sharp 180° bend midway leading to a small landing on the next floor above.

As a young fireman I was advised by more experienced and wizened  colleagues that if I ever attended an incident at this housing estate, I was never to ask questions no matter what I might find.

I once attended a chimney fire at this estate in the 1960’s. At this time central heating was still something of a rarity. It was always possible to tell one reached the location of a chimney fire as the smell of burnt soot permeated everywhere. Sometimes in the dark, the offending chimney appeared like an erupting volcano with a multitude of sparks gushing from the top. Extinguishing a chimney fire is normally a simple if somewhat messy task, providing one has the correct equipment. The equipment itself is pretty basic but very effective and consists of a series of flexible bamboo canes which can be screwed end on end. A rose nozzle is attached to the top cane which has numerous small holes around it allowing fine jets of water to emerged from all around the globe shaped nozzle. This has the advantage of requiring very little water to extinguish the chimney fire while at the same time minimising water damage. The nozzle is connected to a thin flexible hose which is in turn attached to a stirrup pump that can be stood in a bucket of water.

As one firefighter manipulates the canes up the chimney, his colleague will slowly pump water. Normally it requires less than half a bucket of water to extinguish a chimney fire provided no unforeseen difficulties are encountered.

At this particular incident, the flat, (apartment), was located on the top floor. In a way we were thankful as this meant the chimney flue would be short in height and much easier to deal with. It was my task to go to the bathroom and fill the bucket with water from the bath tap. As I pushed the bathroom door open, the door opened no more than about 6 inches before it suddenly slammed shut in my face. I apologised profusely assuming I had interrupted someone using the bathroom but was greeted only with silence. I knocked on the door asking if I could come in only to be followed by more silence. More cautiously I once again slowly pushed the door open and like before, after a few inches it again suddenly slammed shut.

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