Feeling the Heat: The Fire and Rescue Service

It’s 3am a faulty games console has set alight quickly spreading to the curtains. The house is filling with thick black toxic smoke. Just a couple of breaths in this will render you unconscious. The temperatures downstairs is several hundred degrees, hotter than your oven on full.

Room on Fire

Racing through the quiet streets a fire crew are receiving information over the radio that people are trapped upstairs in the house. Two in the back are securing their breathing apparatus that will allow them to breath in the otherwise unsurvivable conditions. The boss is in the front running through in his mind what he can expect when he gets there, and what needs doing.

Fire Engine

In the control room an operator is calmly passing advice to the terrified person on the other end of the line while another passes information on to the onrushing crews. On the inside the operator finds the screams of the trapped occupier distressing, but outwardly they remain calm, knowing that the information they are giving May just save a life.

Fire Control

On the street a crowd has gathered, people are filming the fire crews as they arrive, social media gold. The two firefighters leap from the back of the truck in their heavy breathing apparatus and the driver hands them the hose.

Firefighters in Breathing Apparatus

The boss is speaking to witnesses gathering vital information, “In you go lads” he shouts in the calmest tone he can muster. They throw their tallies at the entry control officer and in they go disappearing from view through the black smoke billowing through the door.

Hit by a wall of heat they feel their way in zero visibility towards the stairs. A second team from another station have entered behind them, “you get the casualties and we will hit the fire” they shout.

As they ascend the stairs the heat becomes unbearable, their ears and neck are starting to burn, the stairs are like a chimney, funnelling the heat upwards. They spray water into the air hoping to cool the smoke around them. Reaching the top they begin searching the rooms one by one, feeling in the dark with their hands and feet.

Downstairs the other team are battling the flames that are by now engulfing the living room, it’s hot work, but they are starting to knock back the flames. Above them the team have located the casualties and are helping them into the arms of a colleague at the top of a ladder. They are terrified, and struggling to breath, but they are safe. The relief amongst the crew is palpable.

Downstairs the fire is out, a lucky escape has been had by all, but it could have been so very different, another minute or two and the smoke would have overcome those trapped upstairs. Had the thick black flammable smoke ignited the firefighters would have been exposed to temperatures that their gear could not protect them from.

The margins between life an death in these situations are fine, minutes, even seconds can make a difference. The men and women of the fire and rescue service are dedicated, and highly trained but they are also human. They feel fear, they are affected by the distressing scenes they are exposed to. They enter situations knowing that one wrong move could be their last.


Yes they like a grumble from time to time, and who can blame them? Their service has been decimated over the last couple of decades, a sustained period of cuts that is unheard of in other sectors. Despite this, when the ‘bells go down’ and they climb on that fire engine they are utterly professional and dedicated to the work that they carry out.

Their is plenty of banter, they need a sense of humour, it is how they get through the difficult jobs. But at the scene of an incident you will see a professional group of people giving everything to protect lives and property.

What you don’t see is the work going on in the background, the control room operators coordinating resources, giving vital fire safety advice and having to listen to the harrowing screams of those who are trapped, all the time they are multi-tasking, passing information on to the crews, talking to the other emergency services, and dealing with terrified victims.

Gas Explosion

It’s not just fires either. The service attend road traffic collisions, rescues from water, incidents involving dangerous chemicals, they rescue people from heights, people who are trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings, and those who become trapped by flooding. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year the men and women of the fire and rescue service are there for you in your hour of need.

Three Killed in 1913 Sewer Incident: Brave Rescue Attempt by Two Firemen ends in Tragedy

Firemen Libby and McLaren

On Tuesday the 18th of March 1913, William Parry a 35-year-old sewer man working for Kensington Borough Council was carrying out some work in a sewer beneath Pembridge Place, Notting Hill. While he was working, he was completely unaware that coal gas from a nearby main had saturated the surrounding ground and was now beginning to seep into the very sewer in which he was working. There were four others working in the sewer that day, four men who were extremely lucky to survive.

Theodore Blakeston, one of the men working in the sewer suddenly realised that three of the others had collapsed, and he was feeling unwell himself. He and another man, Charles Washington, managed somehow to drag two of the unconscious men to the surface, despite themselves suffering from the effects of the coal gas. Once on the surface the incident was reported to the fire brigade who responded immediately.

On arrival Fireman William McLaren of the Manchester Square Fire Station, and Fireman Robert Frederick Libby of Euston found two men lying unconscious by an open manhole. It quickly became apparent that there was still another man below the surface in desperate need of rescue. When volunteers were asked for the two Firemen immediately volunteered to go below ground. Charles Washington, one of the two men who had already helped to drag one of his colleagues out of the sewer, volunteered to go with the two Firemen in order to direct them in the maze of sub-surface tunnels.

Manchester Square Fire Station

The two Firemen donned smoke helmets and made their way into the sewer, one either side of the Charles Washington. Their only means of communicating with the surface was a lifeline, but this turned out to be useless due to the number of corners between their entry point and the location of the stricken workman. They continued through the maze of pipes until they came across the body of William Parry, unconscious but still breathing. By now, McLaren and Libby had sent Washington back to the surface to see if he could sort out the problems with the lifeline, but there was nothing that could be done as it kept snagging in the brickwork at the corners of the tunnel.

Another Fireman, Newbury, who entered the tunnel found McLaren unconscious, he tied a rope around him and tried to drag him to the surface but could not, so he took off his smoke helmet and tried to shout for help. Unfortunately, the gas had now built up to such a level that Newbury was rendered unconscious himself and had to be rescued. Despite the valiant rescue attempts William Parry, William McLaren, and Robert Libby were pronounced dead at the scene. The others who went down into the tunnels that day survived, but all had to be treated in hospital.

Victorian Sewers in London

At the inquest, the coroner recorded that death was due to asphyxiation caused by toxic levels of coal gas that had seeped into the sewer as the result of a leaking gas main. In response to the incident tighter regulations were introduced on the reporting of coal gas leaks in the vicinity of sewers and other underground installations.  

Rewind: The Headlines on October 19th in… (Part II)

Monday October 19th, 1914

Brilliant Naval Feat off the Dutch Coast: Victory for the Hero of the Amphion

Glorious news came from the sea on Saturday, the Admiralty announcing that the British had sunk four German destroyers off the Dutch coast. The vessels taking part in this brilliant victory were the light cruiser Undaunted, and the destroyers Lance, Lennox, Legion, and Loyal. The Undaunted is a sister ship of the Arethusa, of Heligoland fame, and it is a coincidence that on the occasion of their maiden trips these vessels should be successful in accounting for so decided a margin of the enemies ships. The British casualties were only five men wounded, one officer and four men, and the damage to the destroyers was slight.

HMS Undaunted

Thursday October 19th, 1939

Scapa’s Guns Drive off Raid

The Navy’s anti-aircraft guns roared into action again yesterday when Nazi planes soared high above the fleet anchored in Scapa Flow. In Kirkwall, chief town of the Orkneys, a large Nazi plane, flying high, was seen gleaming in the sunshine.

At once the anti-aircraft guns opened fire, but the raider passed to the southward towards Scapa Flow. There it met heavy fire from our ships and shore defences. Even at the great height at which it flew – it was 25,000ft up – the enemy plane was seen to lurch badly. It was later reported to have crashed into the sea off the Scottish mainland.

Scapa Flow

Thursday October 19th, 1950

Bevin Admits Spy in British Embassy Sold Secrets

Mr Bevin, Foreign Minister, admitted in Parliament yesterday that top secrets of the Allies, including details of Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of Europe, were stolen from the British Embassy in Turkey and sold to Germany by the Ambassadors valet, an Albanian known to the Germans as “Cicero”.

The story caused a sensation when originally revealed in a book by L.C. Moyzisch, head of the German spy system in Ankara during the war. He said that Cicero was paid £300,000 in Sterling for the documents, although he later admitted that these notes were counterfeit, and made in Germany.

Wednesday October 19th, 1960

Blaze Was Worst Since the Blitz

Manchester Warehouse Destroyed by Fire

Brigade Officers Hurt as Wall Collapses

Fourteen hours after the alarm, firemen were still pouring water into the burning Manchester warehouse, which was gutted early today, causing damage to property and stored goods estimated at over £1,500,000.

It is the worst blaze in the city since the wartime blitz and in a little over two hours premises of at least half a dozen firms were reduced to blazing embers. Two hundred firemen manning 20 appliances surrounded the 350 yard long warehouse block, but nothing could be done to save it.

Two fire officers escaped death by a hairs breadth when a 70ft wall of the seven storey building collapsed. The two men were Station Officers Bernard Jackson and William Atkinson. Both were hit by falling debris as they dashed to safety, but colleagues managed to drag them clear. They were rushed to hospital on stretchers with leg injuries.