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.

A tragic tale

Red Fire EngineTelevision and films often portray a firefighters job as something of a heroic occupation tinged with a hint of glamour as they dash around towns on large fire appliances, (engines), with flashing lights and sirens. The truth however is often far removed from the perceived image of film producers. The image normally seen by the public is when a passing fire appliance is seen on it’s way to an incident. To the firefighter however the journey to an incident is “dead time” and their task will only begin on arrival and the quicker they can safely arrive, the quicker they can render assistance to however is in need of help. I always remember the sound advice given to me when I started my career by an old timer who had been through the Blitz. He told me never to forget that every time “the bells go down”, someone out there is shouting for help and you are the only one in the world at that moment of time that can help them.

As a firefighters career progresses they will encounter many and completely varied types of incident. Some will be large fires, others small. Road traffic accidents, people trapped in lifts, animals in trouble, disasters and so on, the list is almost endless. It is only by a combination of both experience and constant training that a firefighter knows how to tackle any incident no matter how daunting it may seem when they first arrive on scene. It is both the hard training and watching firefighters at an incident that the public least see apart from chance passers-by.

Although to the individuals that require the assistance of the fire service, the reason for our arrival is often to them a major upheaval in their life, to the firefighter, every incident is also a learning opportunity that never ends throughout the span of their career. Some incidents are amusing, run of the mill, are of special interest, sometimes bizarre or unfortunately occasionally tragic.

I have attended numbers of tragic incidents in my career, not all of them on my own fire stations ground. The Moorgate underground train disaster was one such incident I attended. Some incidents due to there size or nature mean that they are too large in manpower requirements for the local crew to deal with. Also work at a incident frequently requires hard physical exertion. The amount of effort is dependent on the task in hand and is rather like the difference between the short concentrated effort of a sprinter or the longer stamina challenging effort of a marathon runner. Either way there is no way a local fire crew can be humanly expected to maintain such an effort for the entire length of their shift. To overcome this problem, relief crews from all around the fire brigades area are brought in to work about three hour stints at a incident before they are themselves in turn relieved by others.

The one tragic incident I always remember was a fire that occurred in Star Lane, Canning Town probably in 1967 but I cannot be sure of the date after all these years. This was in a four storey tenement block since demolished opposite Clarence Road. A fire in a enclosed apartment produces a lethal cocktail of gases and heat.  That particular evening I was riding a fire appliance known as the Pump Escape. It was so called as apart from being a front line fire appliance with a heavy duty pump, it also carried an escape ladder. Although no longer in use, this was the ladder that some readers may remember had two large carriage wheels attached to it to assist manoeuvrability. If more than one fire appliance went to an incident, it was always the Pump Escape that led the way. The prime purpose of this appliance and the crew aboard it was for rescue purposes if required, with follow up fire appliance dealing with water supplies and the like. As an incident wound down in size, this was always the first appliance to be released from the scene of an incident as it was more important to make it’s rescue capability available again.

As an individual, I really liked and trusted the Escape Ladder. Although it was large and heavy, about one ton in weight, requiring four firefighters to handle and manoeuvre it, it was very dependable and would take almost unlimited punishment at an incident. Lighter all metal ladders have subsequently replaced this ladder.

When we arrived at this particular incident in Star Lane, it was at night time and we could see volumes of dark smoke billowing from a open window on the third floor. Constant training meant the crew did not need lengthy instructions what to do, we all knew as part of a team our individuals roles and what was required. We immediately slipped the escape ladder from the appliance, it makes a crashing noise as the considerable weight born by the carriage wheels hit the ground. We wheeled the ladder across the road at speed as we needed the momentum to get the thing over the kerbstone onto the pavement. There was a small communal area between the front of the building and the pavement. This was protected by a wooden picket fence supported at intervals by upright concrete posts. The entrance way to the flats had a further two concrete posts on either side making it too narrow to get the escape ladder through, leaving the only option being to make our own entrance through the fence. The weight and strength of the escape ladder also made it an idea tool for the job, this time as a battering ram as we charged it at the fence. On our third attempt, the section of fence collapsed completely allowing us to wheel the escape ladder up to the building. The ladder was quickly extended to the third floor window. It was not necessary to enter the apartment by the window as during the time we had been engaged in fence breaking, other colleagues from our second appliance wearing breathing apparatus had managed to gain entrance to the apartment by a front door on a landing. It was still an important requirement to have the unused escape ladder in position as firefighters know from experience it is important to have two means of escape from a premise if possible. One never can be certain how a fire situation will develop when one first arrives on scene.

As all this activity was taking place, the officer in charge of the incident would have sent an assistance message by radio as we arrived prefixed by the word priority. Priority messages take precedence over all other radio traffic and a control officer will stop any other radio traffic to answer this type of message in isolation. Assistance message are short and abbreviated and require no explanation to the control officer receiving the message. In this particular incident the message would have been “Make pumps four, persons reported”. What this message means is a further two fire appliance would need to be sent from other fire stations for manpower requirements and that there was reason to believe people were involved or trapped in the fire. The Control Room would immediately send the nearest  available additional fire appliances and also contact the Ambulance and Police control rooms by direct line to order an ambulance and the police to the incident. Again Control Room to Control Room communications do not require lengthy explanations as each will respond without question to the requests of the other. Senior fire brigade officers would also be mobilised. This background activity is also helpful to the officer-in-charge of an incident as it relieves them of additional concerns and allows them to concentrate on the situation in hand.

I made my way up to the apartment via the internal staircase to be met by two colleagues each rushing down carrying a small unconscious child. As I reached the doorway of the apartment another colleague who was part of the breathing apparatus crew emerged with a third unconscious child which he promptly thrust in my arms. Both my colleague and I knew without talking that he would have been exhausted searching the darkness of the apartment by touch for people in incredibly hot oven like temperatures inside the apartment. I hurried back down the stairs with the small child in one arm and administered both mouth to mouth and cardiac resuscitation using my other hand and mouth. It is possible to do this with a small child.

As I reached the roadway, I could see and hurried to an awaiting ambulance which had arrived during all the other activity going on. As I took the child I was carrying into the back of the ambulance the scene was like something out of Bedlam. The other two children were already on board as were the parents. The parents were shouting and screaming in shock and the three children were still unconscious. It was one of those situations I instantly knew what actions to take. The ambulance attendant was attempting to resuscitate one of the children leaving the child I was carrying and another still needing urgent attention. Clearly it was only possible for the ambulance attendant to do one thing at a time and the priority being the children. Neither I nor the ambulance attendant knew if the parents were injured but again one knew if they were screaming, they were alive and as such, a lessor priority. This still led a third child unattended when a Roman Catholic priest popped his head through the rear door and asked if he could help. I immediately told him to get aboard and with that the back doors of the ambulance closed and we sped off into the night towards Queen Mary’s Hospital.

I told the priest to immediately give cardiac and mouth to mouth resuscitation to the third child but unfortunately he was not trained in first aid. I quickly felt the third child’s pulse on the carotid artery in the neck but could feel none. The carotid artery is a easier and more positive location to feel a pulse rather than the wrist. This left me with no choice other to give the child a thump on the chest in an attempt to induce a cardiac shock which sometimes makes the heart start beating again. I also quickly showed the priest how to cover the child’s nose and mouth with his own mouth and breathe air into the lungs while at the same time using two fingers on the chest to rapidly and continuously pump the heart. A child’s heart beats much faster than an adult making a need for much faster although gentler pressure. It more like constant prodding with two finders. The priest learned his task rapidly but the journey to the hospital was a traumatic one. The route had a considerable number of sharp bends which threw us all from side to side as it sped along. The anxious cries of the parents added to the trauma of the journey.

We eventually arrived at Queen Mary’s Hospital and hurried into the accident and emergency area past other patients awaiting treatment and directly into the treatment room. The ambulance service had already advised the hospital while we were on route of the situation and they had immediately cleared all emergency treatment rooms to await our arrival. As I handed my child over to the waiting doctors and nurses my part of the operation had come to an end. It’s at times like this when suddenly one becomes very conscious that you are like a fish out of water. Standing in the patient waiting area wearing full firefighting uniform including my helmet and axe but with no fire. My fire tunic would have smelt a bit too as smoke from incidents does cling to clothing for a while. In some ways I felt at that moment as ridiculous as a balloon seller when they reach their last balloon to sell. An adult standing with only one balloon crying who wants to buy this.

After about 10 minutes a doctor came back out of the treatment room and told me the sad news that all three children had died. I assume their small lungs could not cope with the lethal cocktail of fumes. Their age ranges must have been about from one to four or five and somehow this seemed to make things more tragic. For me there was nothing else left to do but find a well earned cop of tea in the hospital and telephone my control room to make arrangements to transport me back to my station.

The reason I raise this incident is not only because it is one that vividly remains in my mind, but because it is the type of thing that firefighters experience away from the public eye. There are no gongs or medals, just incidents that one has the inner satisfaction of knowing one has done the best that one has trained for. As for myself being the person in the ambulance? Well the fire service work, train and act as a team which pays real dividends in times of crisis. I was only part of a team and due to circumstances made that trip in the ambulance. If the circumstances had been slightly different then it would have been another colleague of mine in that ambulance instead of myself.

As to the Roman Catholic priest who rendered great assistance that night I never heard of again. I never knew his name, or where he came from or what happened to him afterwards or later in his career. I only know we shared a short moment in time together like ships that pass in the night.

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.

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