Three Score years and Ten

70Two years ago was my 70th birthday, a notable date in anyone’s life in reaching the biblical three scores years and ten. . In some ways it is a day to reflect on ones life and to take stock of where one is now and perhaps how one arrived at this point in time. In many ways it does represent a lot of proverbial water that has flowed under the equally proverbial bridge. I was a professional firefighter most of my working life and I do belong to a closed group on Facebook which the majority of my retired colleagues also subscribe to. It is a good way of keeping in touch with numerous old friends.

I did write an article for that group of my 70th birthday reflecting on a potted history of my life. I had forgotten all about the article until I recently came across it and I though I would republish it here.


 

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Well folks, for me, today is the big 70.

It is that day which throughout my life has always been vaguely somewhere in my distant future and now it has finally arrived. It’s strange how only yesterday while still in my sixties it seemed my fifties and all the memories they evoked were still just around the corner, and today that era has become remote and distant. An era that was cherished but can never be touched again.

Even now as I reflect on my past life, it is difficult to comprehend where all those years have gone or how the changes I have seen came about. Born just after the end of WW2, I was one of the original baby boomers. One of those that grew up in the era that was supposed to be ‘in a land fit for heroes’, and I as a baby, like everyone else born at the same time, was expected to be part of that vanguard that would lead our country into a bright and prosperous new world that was the future.

Although I was born in Dulwich Village, an area that is now considered quite salubrious, I certainly did not come from a moneyed family, quite the opposite. Although I lived in what was a large house, it was still never-the-less a case of coal-fired cooking ranges, gas lighting, tin bath hung on the wall and outside toilets.

It was also an era of extreme elitism where people were supposed to know their place, an unhealthy period which many of the older generation had been conditioned to accept. I first encountered this preconditioning through the education system. It was a system that was supposed to allow the brightest to succeed, and to train the remaining masses for work in the factories as plebiscites. It was not until much later in life I realised that even if everyone was equally bright, the goal posts consisting of grammar and secondary modern schools determined by an iniquitous 11+ exam system would have been moved to achieve the same effect. At that time I did not understand how people went to university. My only experience to that highest of all education systems is what I had seen in films. That always portrayed a life of the rich and privileged and certainly not for the common plebs like myself.

So at the age of 15 I went to work, initially as a telegram boy on a push bike, and a year later on a motorbike. It was a fun time for someone who did not yet really know what they wanted to do in life, other than there was no way I was going to work in a factory. It was also the post school period when one knew that in a way, the future was still irrelevant. At that time, one still had to do three years national service when the age of 18 was achieved. Real working life did not begin for males until they reached the age of 21.

Well things happened during that period particularly the scrapping of conscription. That suddenly opened up all sorts of new vistas and the immediate one I was facing was not particularly enamouring to me. 18 was also the age in the Post Office when I would cease to be a telegram boy with all the juvenile fun that went with it. I would have to become a postman and the prospect of trudging the streets of London with a heavy sack of mail slung over my back was the least appealing thing I could imagine. It was a future I could see that had no real prospects and also one of relatively low pay. It was a possible future I held in dread as inwardly I knew I was capable of so much more.

London TLThe question was what future until one of the lads where I worked suddenly came into the office to announce he was joining West Ham Fire Brigade, which covered part of the area where I was based. His tales of what the fire service would be like flooded my imagination and within weeks Dave Clarke who worked with me and myself had both independently joined West Ham Fire Brigade too.

In my own case, the entire enrolment process from walking through the front door of the fire station in Stratford Broadway, to completing my exams and successfully undertaking a medical process and also being offered a job took a total of 90 minutes. Something that is incomprehensible in today’s lengthy recruitment process. Little did I know as I walked through those fire station doors for the first time, it would be another 42 before I walked out of them for the last time. Those 42 years are as they say now history, but what a history that was.

Apart from the fire service side of my career it was also the beginning of the trade union side of my career too. That was only because I did not run fast enough when at a branch meeting the previous branch secretary suddenly resigned and before I knew it, I was his involuntary replacement. It was however a position that was to eventually see me rise to a high official status within the union in London and the main contact between politicians both in Parliament and County Hall. Now that I have retired, others quite rightly quickly replaced me and have since taken over the reins. All that I am now left with is mellowing thoughts of those times.

Now as I look around my largish home with equally large gardens set in the pleasant rural countryside of Somerset, the rooms bedecked with furniture and the like, I cannot but help wonder where on earth it all did come from and how did I achieve all this? Coming from quite poor and humble conditions when I was born until now, something must have happened in-between, but I cannot quite remember what except for perhaps making some wise choices at the right time. Joining the fire service was perhaps the wisest of the all.

With 42 years of service I cannot help but think of the generations of fire service people I have known. There was the generation in already in-situ when I joined, many who had seen war service. The generation that came and went when I first started, and the generation that had completed about two thirds of their career when I left. That is an awful lot of people most of whom I have fond memories of.

It does seem when I take a euphemistic view of life that when we are born, it is as if a small sandcastle representing myself had been built on a beach far away from the sea. Not a sandcastle in isolation though but one that is surrounded by the other sandcastles of people born about the same time and destined to become my future friends and colleagues. Far in the distance is a thin shimmering silver band which is the sea, but too far away to ever worry about. Many other sandcastles lay between mine and the sea representing my parents, aunts, uncles and forefathers. As the years have passed the incoming tide of time has sadly claimed all these other sandcastles, as well as those of a few friends and colleagues who passed on well before their time. Now the incoming tide of time is nearly lapping around the base of my castle. I suppose I can achieve a degree of immortality by surrounding my little castle with a layer of concrete, but then I know the time will quickly come when my little castle is on its own in total isolation, and in a alien environment too, as everything around me changes against my wishes and beyond my control. All my friends and colleagues would have disappeared. Given the choice, I think I prefer allowing nature to take its natural course.

I suppose I like the rest of us have dwelt with thoughts from time to time, if we had out time all over again, would we choose to take different career paths and so on? For most it is probably circumstance that initially determines the paths we tread. Although I now like to think I have the confidence to succeed in anything I might have chosen to do, the truth is I neither had that confidence that comes with experience, or the money needed to follow many careers. If we could go back it time, would that also mean the hindsight we now have would also come with us to be our foresight for the future? Probably not. I would hate to have lived a life where my future was mapped out in advance, knowing what was to happen each day.
That is what I loved so much about the fire service. Like most of us, it trained us to give us the confidence we needed in ourselves to handle whatever scenario we were likely to face. It even gave us the confidence to deal with situations that no one could plan in advance for. We learnt to work and live with each other and with few exceptions, have respect for each other too. It was also the thought that each day we came to work, we could be dragged away from the more mundane routines at an instance notice to deal with the unexpected in a professional manner, and all in the public eye. So would I have chosen a different path if circumstances allowed? Well that really is a impossible question to answer. What I do know is after all these years; I am more than well content and satisfied to have chosen the path I did. I am also more than pleased to have met all of you.

I hit a blind man


Illustration of a terraced house

I recently watched a television programme, a documentary on exploring the mind. This particular episode was investigating  if people are born with emotions or if they are something we learn through life’s experiences. At one point in the programme, the presenter underwent a test at a medical university which involved completing a questionnaire about himself prior to undergoing a MRI scan while exposed to various stimuli. The presenter paused on one particular question which he read aloud. The question asked if he would feel empathy with someone else who had injured themselves. It is a question I suspect most of us would answer yes to, in my mind that is what I answered. An instant later, I suddenly realised that to me the question was completely ambiguous and dependent on circumstances at the time, circumstances to which I could equally and truthfully both answer either yes or no to the question.

Although this may seem a strange contradiction, to me it is completely logical. As a firefighter I experienced many occasions when a stranger to me was injured and needed medical attention. Until such time as medical help arrives, part of the firefighters role is to treat individuals administering first aid where necessary. There is an actual priority list laid down in which order our duties should be carried out. The prime duty is to save life, followed by saving property and finally rendering such humanitarian services as possible.

When I found myself in either a life saving situation or one that required urgent medical attention I know I experienced no immediate empathy with the individual in trouble. Instead I always found my mind was crystal clear and focused on the task in hand with no room for any form of emotion. Be that right or wrong, it’s the way I have found I naturally work. If however a work colleague suffered an injury not at an incident but at the station, something like a sprained ankle or a cut finger then I would feel complete empathy with them.

It was while briefly dwelling on this point in my mind that I suddenly recalled an unusual incident I went to that I had completely forgotten about. Although I cannot remember exactly when this incident occurred, I suspect it was in the 1970’s. We received a call to a fire in a house on the Plaistow/Canning Town borders. The house was a terraced property with the kitchen located at the back of the house  and which was well  alight. Voluminous smoke generated by the fire billowed out the open front door.  As we arrived some occupants of the property standing in the street shrieked out there was a disabled elderly man in bed in the front upstairs bedroom. The occupants also cried out that he was both blind and deaf. I cannot recall if he was dumb too.  As an automatic response to our training, a colleague and I quickly donned breathing apparatus sets and made our way into the building. In this particular building, the front door led to a small hallway blocked at the end by the underside of a flight of stairs. To access the stairs it was necessary to enter the front room via a door off the hallway and then find the bottom of the stairs at the rear of the front room. The stairs were a peculiar design to save space in this small property. It was necessary to open a door that sealed off the entrance to the stairs. After about two steps, the stairs turned both a sharp and steep 90 degree bend to continue upwards. The width of the stairs was narrow giving a feeling of a steep upwards tunnel to the floor above.

As we groped through the smoke to find the door to the stairs we could see the flickering glow of the fire raging in the kitchen to our side. We could not see the fire due to the density of the smoke and as we were undertaking a rescue, the fire was not  the immediate concern of my colleague or I. Other members of the initial two crews that arrived would be dealing with that problem. We arrived on the upper hallway to find it smoke logged but  lighter than on the ground floor. Fortunately the door at the bottom of the stairs had kept much of the smoke from the upstairs of the house. As we entered the front bedroom I could see the elderly gentleman in pyjamas lying on his bed but writhing, obviously he could sense something was wrong. He certainly would have smelled the smoke. Although a lot of things were going on at the time, my mind always remains clear in such circumstances which I have always found useful for immediately evaluating and responding to rapidly changing circumstances. One thing I knew is that we were going to have great difficulty communicating to this elderly person who was both deaf and blind and undoubtedly confused by the unusual circumstances.

I grabbed his hand and placed it on my fire helmet hoping that would communicate some understanding that firefighters were in his bedroom. Unfortunately he became immediately agitated and clearly but not surprisingly his mind did not make the connection as to who we were. I called to my colleague to just grab him and stand him upright. In the urgency of the situation there was no time to continue  attempting further meaningful communication, one just has to do what one has to do and our priority was to get this elderly gentleman out of the building as quickly as possible. As we stood this gentleman upright he turned out to be surprisingly strong despite his frail looking condition. He instantly started to struggle and I suspect he would have thought we were burglars assaulting him. He could neither see or hear but he would have been fully aware that he was being manhandled by strangers. It was immediately clear we would not get him out the building with his ferocious struggling and without either of us saying a word to one another my colleague clamped his arms around the gentleman’s upper body pinning his arms to his side as I knocked him unconscious by a blow to his chin. In reflection the thought of what I did makes me shiver slightly but as I said, at the time one has to do what one has to do. It was clear that it would take a long time to get this struggling gentleman out of the building during which time he would be inhaling smoke and fumes. The same smoke and fumes did not allow an option of staying where we were. In his unconscious state it was quite easy to carry the gentlemen out of the house and straight to a waiting ambulance which had arrived while we were inside the building. I explained the reason for the gentleman’s unconscious state to the ambulance attendant which he fully understood. Fortunately the gentleman started to regain consciousness while we were still by the ambulance and a relative of his was also holding his hand. He clearly found the female relatives touch reassuring as he did not struggle again despite being in a strange environment. There must have been some way in which she touched him that must have communicated to him who she was.

The last I saw of this gentleman was the ambulance rapidly disappearing down the road on the way to hospital. I have little doubt that our actions while somewhat drastic due to circumstances,  probably saved the gentleman’s life. Smoke and fumes are rapid silent killers. The house however was not so fortunate. The kitchen was completely destroyed and once the fire was out and the rest of the house ventilated to clear the smoke all rooms in the house were deeply blackened due to smoke damage and as such uninhabitable. Google Street maps show that the entire area where this house once stood has been replaced by a swathe of social housing.

It’s strange how watching an unconnected television documentary can lead to triggering memories long since forgotten.

Stuck in a lift


The East End of London is well-known for its community spirit but I did go to one incident where I sadly  witnessed an immediate change in attitude by a few individuals to a fellow human being. Most people tend to think of firefighters dealing with fires as their title implies. There are however a whole range of incidents which are not fire related, many of these come under the heading of Special Services. Releasing people shut in lifts is one type of assistance rendered that comes under this heading and which firefighters are trained to deal with. There are many different lift makers all of with their own variations in the design of their lifts, yet all have to comply with a set of rigid safety standards.

The cinema loves to show disaster movies with lifts, (elevators), plunging at high-speed down a lift shaft. In reality one of the many safety features built into a lift are special quadrant shaped lift brakes that spring out and wedge the lift in the shaft if the speed of travel were ever to increase above a predetermined limit. This would happen in the very unlikely event of the lift cable breaking but the chances of that happening in the UK are remote.

Although I have been to many lift incidents in my career, too many to recall them all, with several calls a day not being uncommon, like many things in life, individual occasions remain embedded in my mind.

In the early 1970’s  We received a call to a lift incident about 8 am in the morning and on arrival at an apartment tower block we could hear the voice of a young boy calling out for help. For whatever reason the lift had stopped between the ground and first floor, no matter what buttons the boy pushed the lift refused to start again. It became clear from the boys calls the he was delivering the morning newspapers to  the various apartments when the lift stopped on the way down. He was clearly worried at being reprimanded by his school teacher as he was going to be late for school. A small crowd of residents had gathered in the lobby as they entered the building to use the lift. We did explain to them that once we managed to get the boy out of the lift we would have to turn the power off to stop anyone else getting stuck and it would remain like that until the lift engineer had the opportunity to inspect the lift. One of the disadvantages of living in a high-rise block that only has one lift is the long climb up the stairs to the top, particularly if people are no longer nimble as they were.

The first thing we attempted was to see if we could bring the lift back to the ground floor by using the Fireman’s Switch. Lifts have a special circuit built into them for fire brigade use. The switch is inside a locked box which firefighters carry a key to access. Once the switch is thrown, in normal operations the lift will do one of several things. All the floor buttons within the lift car and all the call buttons on the landings immediately become inoperable leaving the car occupants or those awaiting the arrival of the lift unable to do anything to its control its movement.

If the lift is going upwards it will continue to the next floor and stop. Without the doors opening, if will the go back down to the ground floor without stopping at any floor. If the lift is travelling downwards it will continue to do so until it reaches the ground. Once the lift reaches the ground floor, the doors open allowing the occupants to emerge and the lift buttons become operable again. The landing call buttons however remain dead. This allows the fire brigade to have complete control of the lift in the event of a fire. Unfortunately in this case, the lift still refused to move.

The second but much longer option which will always work entails some of the crew going to the floor above where the lift is stuck while the remainder of the crew go to the lift motor room. The motor room is normally located immediately above the lift shaft but can sometimes be located in a basement. These rooms are locked but the same key that allows access to the Fireman’s Switch also unlocks these rooms. All fire appliances carry special lift keys that are supplied by the various lift makers. These are normally long metal bars with special shapes to allow them to pass through similarly shape slots in the outer lift doors. These keys override the safety mechanism that keeps the outer landing doors closed when the lift is not there. With the outer door open it is also possible to call up the lift shaft to the members of the crew in the motor room. The motor room crew turn off the electrical supply to the motor and then use a lever which releases the brake stopping the cable drum to the lift from turning when the lift is not moving. As one firefighter releases the brake, others turn a wheel to either raise or lower the lift up and down by an inch or so at a time. It’s hard physical work.

Although many may think it would be easier to lower a lift downwards, the reverse is true. This is due to a series of heavy counterweights attached to the other end of the lift cables which are heavier than a fully occupied lift. This is the reason we originally went to the first floor. Once again we unfortunately struck another problem as the lift door on the first floor above the lift would not open. This meant we returned to the ground floor lobby and opened the outer door there. It would be much harder and slower for the crew in the motor room to wind the lift down but in this case we had no option. Once the lift door in the lobby was open we could hear the young lad more clearly. He was getting more anxious about being late for school but did not seem too worried about his current confinement. We kept reassuring him that there was no problem and the small crowd in the lobby also gave him calls of reassurance. The small crowd also talked amongst themselves how brave the young boy was.

Gradually inch by inch the lift car was lowered down the shaft until it was level with the ground floor and we operated a mechanical switch that allowed the inner door of the lift to open. As the door slid to one side revealing the boy, the sympathetic murmuring from the small crowd suddenly stopped. The boy despite his east end accent was not white and this instantly turned a few of the crowds sympathy into instant disdain. Hostile comments like “You broke our lift” and “Who said that you could use our lift?” were fired at the youngster. My officer-in-charge simply put a reassuring arm around the youngsters shoulder and with a Thank You to the group in a tone that really meant stand aside or else, he led the youngster out the building to where he had left his bicycle. He gave the youngster a pep talk and advised him he had done nothing wrong. He also gave him the fire stations private telephone number. This was in case his school queried his lateness, the fire station would confirm his story.

Some forty years have elapsed since this snapshot of a small cameo of life at that time occurred. On the positive side it was only a few individuals of the small crowd who instantly reversed their sympathetic values. Equally positive, I also think it unlikely if the same incident occurred today that similar unpleasant comments would be made. I do however remember feeling a little sad at the time at the blinkered view of those few individuals. I could not help but think how much of life they were missing due to their narrow view from self-imposed blinkers.

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.”

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.

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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