North Berwick | Fire service

Necessity being the mother of all invention, the war years saw a radical change in fire fighting, and the structure of the new fire service which would change from the National Fire Service (NFS) to regional brigades throughout the country.

A strict but cohesive regime existed after the war, usually of 48 hours on and 24 hours off duty. There was and still is a ‘family’ bond within modern shift systems; this is essential for a working emergency team to operate efficiently and successfully.

Fire appliances have evolved over the 50 years, for the better of course, so have the methods of tackling fires, the equipment used and uniforms as well, all now oriented towards safety and protection.

First the fire engine, or appliance as it is called in brigade parlance. The ‘Green Goddess’ was the front line water pump, up to 1000 gallons per minute on to a fire, fine during the Blitz, but during post-war years obviously there were still structure/house fires, but pumping hundreds of gallons of water would put out a fire – the water damage could sometimes be greater than the actual fire damage. So over the years a high-pressure water delivery system was developed – modifying the old hose reel, low pressure, to a 600 PSI high pressure water jet. This would penetrate the seat of the fire and with a nozzle that could project a fierce jet, could then be changed to a ‘curtain’ of water to protect fire crews from advancing flame or even chase smoke in front of crews.

Other media were also developed – the use of foam – either ‘Hi-Ex’ (soap suds) to chemical foam for liquid fires, CO2 (carbon dioxide) basically to kill electrical fire, dry agent for metal fires (magnesium). All these mediums were in existence, but were chemically modified and now combat structure (sic) (houses etc…), vehicle, power stations, aircraft etc., with great efficiency and knock down fire quicker – ie with the development AFFF foam (Aqueous Film Forming Foam), this is a light foam that literally combines with the combustion process and forms a crust over the burning liquid, or say aircraft.

The fire engine which once was an open topped truck with a few hoses, has now been transformed into a sophisticated and powerful unit – all enclosed, and fully equipped for every emergency. This purpose-built vehicle comes in four main types:

  1. The water tender has a 10.5 metre ladder, approximately 1000ft of delivery hose, 180 metres of high pressure hose reel and all types of gear for small to large fire situations, and of course – 400 gallons of water for initial fire fighting.
  2. The water tender ladder ET (emergency tender) this carries all that the water tender carried plus vehicle accident rescue gear, hydraulic cutting equipment, stretchers, ropes, lines, first aid, oxygen, gas tight suits, chemical protection suits, larger ladders 13.5 metres, roof equipment, in fact catering now for national disaster scenarios. These units also carry food, water, etc. for the sustenance of fire crews at protracted accidents.
  3. and 4 Specialist units comprise of high towers, turntables, hydraulic platforms, support units and rescue specialist units with the capability for height rescue ie cliff, bridge, rock rescue, pot-hole and entrapment.

Personal protection has also advanced from tin helmet to carbon fibre kevlar skin helmet with internal padding – including full or part face visor with communications unit integral with helmet.

Lightweight carbon fibre air cylinders are now the standard issue as opposed to post-war oxygen proto-sets and heavy steel cylinders. These breathing sets also incorporate communication devices within them in a full-face mask with a positive pressure breathing system – this is the firefighter’s life-support system.

The standard issue after the war was still a woollen type double breasted tunic with rubber leggings – quite an attractive uniform (I have worn this type in anger), this was quite good until it got wet, which made it very heavy and made you cold. Various tunic styles have been tried over the last 20 years – all of them reasonably better than the last (except for the short tunics of the early eighties). The material is now Gortex/Nomex, which is fire-proof (to a certain extent – if flames get you – you’ll still fry). Waterproof and breathable as is the leggings – though now on a hot summer’s day at a field fire say, you can get quite hot! Nevertheless you are well protected. Plus gloves – you never saw old firemen wearing gloves in the sixties, nor did I. Now everyone wears the standard tempo heavy glove when fire fighting.

Boots seem to change with the season. Leathers were ‘in’ during and after the war, then wellies with protection were ‘in’, then leather and now back to wellies with steel soles and toe cap, but now they may revert to leather boots again.

The brigade is changing every year – nae week. Most of the times for the better safety and comfort of the crews.

Health and Safety rules are there to protect fire fighters. New systems have to be tried and tested. A lot of the front line water tender ladder etc. now have on board computers, not only for the control of the engines, gearboxes, etc. but also satellite navigation and street finding programmes, also databases of hazardous areas/stores/buildings. This is great but every firefighter still has to have the same attitude, courage, commitment and pride that they had 50 years ago and that is one thing that will never change, or hope will never change.

All the above changes apply to all East Lothian fire stations/brigades but a brief summary of the North Berwick unit from the war years till now may bring back some memories.

As an incomer to North Berwick some 40 years ago – I was always brought here on holidays – I decided to work/stay and ultimately marry and settle down in this royal burgh. Joining the service in 1973 as a then called fireman, I began to see what an exciting and useful job this was.

The fire station was what is now the Bass Rock Garage outdoor showroom. This was once the site of the old gas works, then a pump house was built, which eventually housed two fire engines until a new station was built on the former railway shunting yard adjacent to the rail station. This was formally opened on 18 March 1982 and is a purpose-built operational fire station with two engine bays, a muster room, a workroom and male & female wash facilities and also a large lecture room.

North Berwick has at present one female firefighter but has seen four pass through the station who have left because of other commitments, and one female left to enter the full-time service. She now serves at the busy Newcraighall fire station. There are now 15 retained fire fighters at North Berwick that form an efficient team trained to deal with everything from a litter bin fire to major structure fires or road accidents or rescue work at height.