Don's diary

March 14, 1997

Sunday. I travel to Birmingham to meet my minder for the week. I am researching decision-making by fire incident commanders and am based at the Fire Service College training establishment to experience life at the hot end with the West Midlands Fire Brigade. I have been issued with full fire-resistant kit and am childishly proud of the helmet which I now wear while watching London's Burning.

I get lost in the maze of motorways that is central Birmingham and am late. When I eventually find the fire station, my host shows no sign of the irritation he must have felt at being kept waiting on his night off, and shows me to my quarters in the hospitality flat. Almost the first thing I am told is: "You should have been here yesterday." They had one of their biggest fires for years with half the brigade involved.

After dealing with my disappointment and settling in, I meet the duty watch. The alarm goes and we all rush towards the teleprinter to find out which fire engines, or "appliances" as all firefighters call them, are required. The report is of a house fire. When we arrive, the action is more or less over. The officer in charge tells me the story. A man returns from the pub, puts a chip pan on and falls asleep. Someone dials 999 but when the fire brigade arrives, the man is still asleep. The firefighters try to get into the room, but the man's two rottweilers are annoyed at the intrusion. The first task is to wake the man up using wet towels brought to smother the fire so the dogs can be called off. Waking him up, extinguishing the fire and giving a short fire safety lesson takes about five minutes. I decide to return to my flat. It is 11pm.

Monday

A cheerful knock on the door at 8am and enquiries as to what I want for breakfast. This is "White Watch". After a "full English", on to a useful meeting with the divisional commander, a friendly Mancunian. There is a small display in the yard during mid-morning break as two old fire engines that have recently been replaced are given to the people of Pakistan. The high commissioner officially receives the gift. This gesture is part of the brigade's policy of overseas aid.

I go to meet the new watch and prepare my protective clothing for a quick exit at the next alarm call. I travel in the fire engine to several alarms. Among them an alarm to New Street, the main British Rail station. The alarm has been traced to a platform waiting room. The room is thick with smoke but no action is required as it is cigarette smoke: the alarm went off because it is a no-smoking area.

Tuesday

A morning spent waiting fruitlessly for fires. A call to an RTA (Road Traffic Accident) punctuates the morning. I am worried as we drive through Birmingham at break-neck speed that there will be bodies and bloody messes everywhere. Fortunately this is a minor accident: an executive has skidded his brand new Jaguar into the central barrier on a dual carriageway. He is unhurt but the car looks a write-off. Before lunch I am taken to the scene of the big fire I missed and am shown around the aftermath.The fire was contained to a small part of the building and since it was mainly offices that were destroyed, the factory is working. Few calls for the rest of the day.

Wednesday

Another fruitless morning waiting for an inferno. Before lunch we head for the brigade training centre where I am given a demonstration of a new training facility that has the ability to simulate a severe fire effect known as flash over - it suddenly produces a ball of fire rather like you see from flame-throwers in films. Standing in jacket and tie in a freezing building, I am relieved when the fire is demonstrated.

Thursday

To avoid the traffic, I am back in the station at 7.30am in time for a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich. After more waiting for fires, I meet the officer who was first on the scene at the big fire on Saturday. He gives me a vivid picture of what it was like, flames going through the roof of the building and no one knowing exactly what hazards were inside. Later I watch an exercise in the command unit. Have lunch with the divisional commander and see the mobile computer systems they are trialing.

Friday

Again no conflagration in the morning. I have lunch with the top brass in the private dining room of the chief officer. A nice meal and lots of fire talk. As I drive back down the M5 I reflect that it has been a great week. I have some vital experience, a better idea about my line of experimentation, and have met some committed professionals. The only unhappy part of the week was the discussion about pay. The fire brigade has just been awarded a 4.5 per cent pay rise. I thought pay could only be frozen or cut.

Psychology PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, sponsored by the Fire Service College.

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