CHAPTER 7 FIRE GUARD

The Beginning

In the middle of 1940 occurred one of those spontaneous developments which are among the curiosities of English life. Without any guidance or inspiration from above, Wardens and householders initiated the creation of voluntary Fire Parties who assumed the responsibility of training themselves in the use of stirrup pumps in order that they might assist in the defence of their homes against incendiary bombs. No general issue of fire fighting equipment had yet begun, but about this time the A.F.S. (the fore-runner of the N.F.S.) began the issue of approximately 1,000 stirrup pumps to householders throughout Walthamstow. The distribution was carried out on the basis of one pump to each organised group of three persons, formed in this way to make one Stirrup Pump Team, but householders, before receiving their pumps, were required to attend at one or other of the Fire Stations to receive some initial training and instruction in the care and use of these pumps. Approximately 3,000 volunteers received this elementary training from the A.F.S. but, in the en¬suing weeks and months, many hundreds more were given this training by the Wardens.

The Fire Bomb Fighters

Towards the end of December 1940, the big fire-bomb raid on London brought home to the Government the necessity for some wide-spread and organised fire-fighting machine, and the Minister of Home Security, early in January 1941, issued an appeal (" Fall in the Fire Bomb Fighters ") to members of the public to form themselves into Street Fire Parties. Following the Minister's appeal, approximately 10,000 more persons (including women) were enrolled during the next few weeks in Walthamstow.

Equipment

Walthamstow early recognised the immediate need of Street Fire Parties for more and more equipment, particularly in regard to Stirrup Pumps and, accordingly, substantial quantities of these were applied for on numerous occasions. The supplies actually reaching us were totally inadequate, however, so that S.F.P.s, which by this time were becoming well organised, had no alternative but to purchase their own in addition to the many other items of ancillary equipment necessary to fire-fighters in the task they had set themselves. The provision of equipment was from the very beginning a thorny problem but, until the Minister's statement, Fire Parties were content to raise money for their own comforts and with this to purchase stirrup pumps, ladders, buckets and such other items of equipment as they thought necessary. In many cases they also provided themselves with Watchrooms, paying for them from their own funds.

Following the Minister's speech, and his request that everyone available should enrol for the job of Fire Watching, there was not, unnaturally, a demand that the Government should accept the liability for expenditure in respect of the services which they desired, but the Government, both at that stage and subsequently, steadily resisted all requests for financial assistance and for the provision of equipment, with the exception that sand and sandbags, and some additional stirrup pumps, were made available. Fire Guard armlets with the initials " SFP " thereon and Grade II Steel Helmets were also provided.

Accommodation

The provision of accommodation also was refused by the Government and Street Fire Parties who were giving voluntarily of their services raised objection to the payment of rates on premises which otherwise would have been unused. The Local Authority took the line that there should be some recognition of the great public service which was thus being rendered and reduced the normal assessment to a nominal one of £1 only, at a cost to the Rates which ultimately proved to be over £3,900.

Business Premises

On the 18th January, 1941, the Government issued the first Fire Prevention (Business Premises) Order, 1941, under which it became a Statutory requirement for all occupiers of business premises to make adequate arrangements for fire prevention at their premises. The Order also required all male employees to perform fire prevention and fire watching duties at their place of employment subject only to the exception that men physically unfit or over the age of 60 should be exempt, and that those who had already (prior to the 18th January, 1941) undertaken (inter alia) Civil Defence duties, should be excused from performing Fire Prevention duties at business premises.

Recognising that we would have three separate problems in Walthamstow, a meeting was called at the Granada Cinema, in February 1941, at which, on behalf of the Emergency Committee, the Town Clerk and I outlined the Fire Watching position as we saw it and suggested that there would be three needs in the Borough which would have to be met:

We indicated that we proposed to form one com¬prehensive Fire Prevention Organisation, in which the Council and other occupiers of Business Premises (including shops) would each be responsible for their own premises, and would place at those premises such of their employees as were liable for fire watching, and in which also, members of Street Fire Parties, in addition to covering the purely residential properties in Walthamstow, would be asked to give such assistance as they could. We suggested it would not be unreasonable that where members of a Street Fire Party undertook to give assistance in this way, the Party concerned should be given a nightly allowance.

We arranged for the Fire Parties in each of our ten Districts to appoint a representative to a Central Advisory Committee, and the Town Clerk and I, after interviewing the local Chamber of Commerce, and, subsequently, the Central Advisory Committee, succeeded in initiating an agreement whereby a payment of 2/6d. per night per man loaned by Street Fire Parties to Business Premises would be regarded as a reasonable reimbursement.

Registration of Men

In September 1941, under the provisions of the Civil Defence Duties (Compulsory Enrolment) Order, all male persons between the prescribed ages of 18-60 years, were required to register for compulsory fire watching duties and in Walthamstow 21,346 persons were duly registered. Persons so registered, unless they had grounds for exemption, became liable for enrolment and direction by the Local Authority for fire-watching duties al premises anywhere in the area. Proper legal machinery for dealing with the many individual claims for exemption then being received by Local Authorities was not, however, provided by the Government until many months later, by which time the number and complexity of the applications waiting to be dealt with had reached gigantic pro¬portions.

Training

With their other obligations members of Street Fire Parties generally found it difficult to put in steady training so that, in many cases, we had to content ourselves with giving them elementary stirrup pump drill and, whenever possible, a trial through the Smoke Hut. In spite of the difficulties, we were, however, successful in giving this elementary training to approximately 9,000 members of Street Fire Parties. At a later stage the Government indicated that it was desirable that all members of Street Fire Parties should undertake training on a wider basis than that which we had attempted in the earlier days. Even then, except for those persons compulsorily enrolled for fire-watching duties in Walthamstow, we had no powers to insist on training being undertaken and our endeavours to train all members of Street Fire Parties in the wider syllabus of Anti-Gas, H.E., and I.B. precautions and in elementary First Aid were, therefore, successful only to a degree.

Subsistence Allowances

Subsistence allowances were authorised by the Government during 1942 and the new arrangements immediately shattered our old arrangements, for sub¬sistence allowances were to be payable only if a man did duty away from his home. The arrangements we had made, whereby Street Fire Parties assisted in providing the necessary watchers and fire-fighters for Council premises, were thereupon disapproved by London Region and we found ourselves in the position of having to ask members of S.F.P.s to do Fire Watching for us without any recompense for the equipment they had purchased. For eighteen months this matter was argued with London Region who, in their endeavours to force us into the position which they required, reduced on three occasions their own requirements in respect of Council premises. Even then we were unable to find the necessary man-power and declined to submit for approval the Scheme (which had been suggested by Region), on the grounds that in our own view the number of Fire-watchers proposed was utterly inadequate for the type of buildings which were to be protected.

Registration of Women

In August 1942, it was announced that women would be compulsorily enrollable for fire-fighting and that they would be liable, on the one hand, to Business premises if they were in employment, or on the other hand, if not so liable or required, would be at the disposal of the Local Authority for residential fire-fighting near their own place of residence. Women were accordingly first required to register for fire guard duties in October 1942, and in Walthamstow approximately 20,000 women were so registered.

Pumps

In addition to stirrup pumps, trailer pumps were first made available to Local Authorities for use by Street Fire Parties in 1943, and we were advised that four trailer pumps would be allotted to Walthamstow. Personnel enrolled for this purpose were not granted release, however, from their other fire-watching obligatins so that any duties undertaken by them with the Trailer Pump were additional to those already performed by them, either at Business premises or as Local Authority Fire Guards. We were also instructed that no towing-vehicles would be permitted and were refused permission to use C.D. vehicles even if they were not required for other purposes at the time!

No accommodation was provided for the housing of these vehicles but we were bidden to obtain free use of garages, etc. This, as was to be anticipated, broke down and ultimately authority was received to provide primitive sheds for the accommodation of the pumps. The specialised training of the crews was under-taken solely by personnel of the N.F.S. who deserve a special word of praise for the interest and thoroughness they displayed in performing this task. The very high standard of proficiency reached by many of the crews was amply demonstrated at the local Trailer Pump Competitions organised by Civil Defence Headquarters, and these were always keenly contested. The experience gained by our crews in these local competitions was no doubt responsible for our success later when, in a competition open to Fire Guards in the whole of the London Civil Defence Region, a Walthamstow team, as winners of the Group 7 competition, won a well-deserved place in the final heats run off at Fire Force Headquarters, Lambeth, on Saturday, 16th October, 1943.

At a later date, the four Trailer Pumps held by us were augmented by the allocation to Walthamstow of five Wheelbarrow Pumps which were assigned on free loan to those Street Fire Parties whose areas contained such special fire risks as were to be found in many of our shop areas.

New Fire Guard Plan

In the early part of 1943 the Government announced the new Fire Guard Plan, the chief effect of which was to attempt to detach the Fire Guard from the Wardens Service. This proposal was strenuously resisted almost unanimously by Local Authorities in the London Region and the Minister was prevailed upon to allow London to " contract out " of the proposal. It was insisted, however, that other aspects of the proposal should be proceeded with, viz. the closer liaison with the N.F.S. together with tactical training and exercises designed to effect the maximum of effi¬ciency with the minimum of use of N.F.S. appliances, and also to ensure by means of a Messenger system an alternative to the use of telephones.

While it was necessary to fall into line with the Minister's organisation in respect of the Fire Guard - involving the appointment of Party Leaders and Sector Captains - we were able to keep the Fire Guard and the Wardens Service in the closest possible contact and I am satisfied that we were right in so doing for there is no room within a congested Borough such as Walthamstow for two organisations functioning side by side without the closest possible relationship at every level.

To ensure that the Fire Guard Plan would work efficiently in Walthamstow, a considerable amount of specialised training on all aspects of the Plan was necessary. A number of special courses for instructors were organised from which 42 fully qualified instructors were produced. The training was undertaken in two parts: -

The training in both these aspects of the Party Leaders, the Sector Captains and also the Wardens, was given at the C.D. Training Centre, Old Monoux School, and on the special C.D. Training site, Prospect Hill, respectively. The general training of the rank and file of the Fire Guard in both these branches was subsequently undertaken within the Districts. As a result of many months of continuous effort, some 7,000 Fire Guards, (including those at Business premises), were trained and exercised by us in conjunction with the N.F.S. Having decided to re-organise on the basis of the Fire Guard Plan we came up against two operational problems with (a) re-inforcement of parties, and (b) transmission of messages.

After discussion and experiment, the re-inforcement difficulties were overcome and we introduced that section of the Fire Guard Plan on 17th June, 1944. The transmission of messages, however, was a much more serious problem.

The official Plan required that messages should be sent by hand from Party Leaders to Sector Captains and thence direct to the N.F.S. Our H.Q. would thus have no knowledge of the fire position unless the Wardens reported thereon. But the Warden was no longer responsible for reporting fires during " alert " periods in blackout hours! This was very unsatisfactory from a Headquarters point of view. Moreover, we were not satisfied with the proposal to abandon the use of telephones almost entirely, for our own experience had been that the percentage of telephone breakdowns was negligible even during the 1940/1941 raid period.

After discussion had been proceeding with Region for some months, a change of policy was announced and we found our views upheld by a general decision that telephones should be used other than in exceptional cases - chiefly where the Fire Party was situated in close proximity to the Fire Station. Even yet we were not satisfied and in order to ensure co-ordination and control we insisted to Region that calls for N.F.S. should go via the Warden's Post telephone, thus ensuring knowledge for C.D. H.Q. and more importantly that the Warden could still be held ultimately responsible for the reporting fires in the Post Area), and after a prolonged struggle we also won this point.

Partial relaxation of Fire Guard duties was announced in September 1944, and complete relaxa¬tion from 24th March, 1945.

Tribute

The value of the service rendered to Walthamstow by the Fire Guards is incalculable but there can be no doubt that their devotion to duty was one of the major factors which saved us again and again from the serious conflagrations which the enemy had hoped to cause by his showers of incendiaries. That the services rendered were not in the nature of child's play is evidenced by the sad fact that seven Fire Guards lost their lives on duty in addition to six others being injured. The seven were:-

Part I - General

Part IIa - The Services

Part IIb - The Services

Part III - The Story of the Raids

Part IV - Flying Bombs & Rockets

Part V - To the Unknown Citizen