Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service celebrates 40th anniversary

Historical picture of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service
Historical picture of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service

Cork helmets teamed with yellow plastic leggings, four separate fire authorities and a budget of not even £2 million – how things have changed in 40 years.

This month marks 40 years since the formation of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service.

Historical picture of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service

Historical picture of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service

Some things have changed dramatically but for certain areas, it seems the core value of Cambridgeshire continues to echo through the decades.

Four decades ago CFRS led the way by being the first fire service to coin the term Rescue in its official title. Nowadays, all bar two (Cleveland and London) have adopted the fire and rescue service title.

And the attitude of being forward-thinking continues to stick true today.

In recent years, Cambridgeshire has been the first to initiate and form the UK’s first combined fire control with Suffolk, the first to achieve the British Standard for Health and Safety, and one of the first fire services to purchase hydraulic cutting equipment for frontline firefighters.

Fire authority chairman Sir Peter Brown said: “We are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the fire and rescue service, probably the most highly thought of emergency service by the general public.

“It is amazing to see how the Service has developed in that time and I pay tribute to everyone who has played a part.

“At the end of the day, Government’s come and go, but the fire and rescue service remains a testimony to true public service.”

Equipment, fire appliances and firefighting kit has been one of the biggest changes seen in the fire service over the decades, with many of Cambridgeshire’s longest serving firefighters reminiscing of the time when they would turn up to shouts in ‘donkey jackets’, rubber gloves and yellow shrink-wrap trousers.

Watch commander David Kilner, who is in charge of the on-call crew at Sawtry, is the service’s longest serving firefighter and having joined in 1976 has experienced kit developments and progressions first-hand.

The 56-year-old, who by day is a site manager at Circo in Alconbury, said: “Personal protective equipment (PPE) has improved no end.

“That’s definitely the biggest change.

“It’s unrecognisable from what it was – as are the fire engines.

“We’ve moved on massively from the days of a petrol engine on a tiny chassis.”

Not only have frontline firefighters seen improvements like sets of breathing apparatus weighing less than half of what they used to do, but they now have access to improved training facilities and techniques.

“It’s quite bizarre when you look back, especially as we’re an organisation going through rapid change.

“However, the one thing that always stays the same is the camaraderie and the team work, not to mention the humour.”

Technology has also progressed for both the support functions in the organisation, and frontline firefighters.

“Back in the day, commanders would have bells in their houses – not mobile phone or alerters.

“And when the bells went down at the station, everyone in the village knew – it sounded like an air raid warning.

““Everyone knew something was happening, so on the up side, when they saw you running toward the station, they would always get out of your way.

“There would also be places in the county that were black spots for radio signal.

“I remember in Gidding we would never get any radio signal so if we had a job there, one of the crew would have to run to the phone box when we arrived to book us in attendance.”

Watch commander Eddie Theaker, currently stationed on blue watch in Huntingdon, is one of the longest serving wholetime firefighters in CFRS, joining in 1983 after being an on-call firefighter in St Ives for three years.

WC Theaker, 58, from Bluntisham, was first posted to a watch at Cambridge.

He told of the changes he’s seen: “Back then the fitness test to become a wholetime firefighter involved running 100 metres in a minute while carrying one of the crew.

“The testing has changed greatly since then, becoming far more structured, as has much of the rest of the Service.

“When I first joined Cambridge, there was 24 staff on the watch along with three support staff.

“We also had the control centre at the station, which had five staff.

“When we received a call the operators pushed a button to sound an alarm and would tanoy us to get on the pump.

“The way we are sent to incidents now uses far more technology to get the most accurate information to help us respond.”

Twenty years ago in an article written in the Blue Sheet (CFRS’ internal newsletter) the big headlines included how the Service could lay claim to being one of the lowest spending Fire Authorities in the UK – and today the same is true.

It also said it was a Service that was investing in its frontline – today the same is still true with 44 appliances in total – an entire Scania fleet, with no vehicle older than 11 years.

Prior to 1964, four fire authorities operated in the area we now know as Cambridgeshire; Soke of Peterborough, Huntingdon County, Isle of Ely and Cambridge City.

In 1965 these were amalgamated into two fire authorities known as Huntingdon and Peterborough, and Cambs and the Isle of Ely.

These brigades operated until 1974, when local government reorganised to create the county of Cambridgeshire, and thus Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service was born.

In four decades, the service has seen the centralisation of its fire control, built three new fire stations (Burwell in 1974, Stanground in 1977, and Cambourne in 2011) and relocations/redevelopments of existing stations including Wisbech, Manea, Peterborough Volunteers, and of course most recently Parkside Place in Cambridge.

It also bridged out to establish its own standalone Fire Authority – separate to the county council – in 1997.

With more than 660 employees, of which 243 are wholetime firefighters and 305 on-call firefighters, CFRS is these days much more than just a fire and rescue service that turns up when there is an emergency.

Fire prevention, protection and support staff account for more than 100 employees – a drastic change from in 1974 when the presence of non-uniformed staff was in its infancy.

Women also now serve on the frontline – a sight that was never seen 40 years ago – and CFRS has 24 female firefighters among its ranks.

The service’s longest serving senior office, area commander Maurice Moore, said: “Education in the community about safety has led to a huge change in the fire and rescue service.

“These days we have fewer calls because people are more educated, many more homes have smoke alarms and businesses are more compliant with fire regulations.”

WC Kilner added: “Education has transformed what incidents we go to.

“These days we don’t go to anywhere near as many smoking-related fires, chip pan fires or chimney fires.

“Road traffic collisions are a whole different ball game these days as well.

“Combining the fact that cars are built with better safety features and that firefighters have advanced pieces of kit means casualties have a much better chance of survival.

“It’s very different as it’s moved and changed with society.”

WC Theaker recalled one of his first big fires was in the early 1980s at Ridgeon’s in Mill Road, Cambridge.

He said: “It was a large fire in a wood yard and we were there around four days tackling it.

“We had volunteers from the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service bring us food to keep us going.

“The equipment we had when I first joined is unrecognisable to what we have now.

“The technology has moved on so much and the service has ensured that crews are well equipped to serve the county.

“But my overriding thoughts are of how far CFRS has developed and evolved into the service of today.

“Something everybody in the service has played a part in and should be proud of.

“My last thought is of the friends that you have made along the way, not just work colleagues but lifelong friends that you can depend on when called to do so.

“It is important to me that we try to do our work with a smile on our face and enjoy it, as it helps to get you over the darker moments.”

Looking to the future, chief fire officer Graham Stagg added: “The challenges we face moving forward are not only financing our fire and rescue service but aligning our assets and resources with the reduced demand and risk in the county.

“We must also acknowledge the way people’s lives have changed and the culture of today, which has put pressure on our recruitment and retention of on-call staff.

“But most importantly, looking toward the future, we must continue to do what we have been doing for 40 years, which is to offer the best fire and rescue service to the residents of Cambridgeshire that we can do with the resources we are given.”

For all the latest news see Thursday’s (April 17) Echo.