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”.

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.

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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