5:00pm Saturday 5th July 2014
By Pete Hughes
FOR a start, today’s firefighters no longer wear plastic trousers that melt in high temperatures.
They’ve also got rid of the wooden ladders.
It may seem unbelievable today but in 1974, when Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was amalgamated from Oxford City brigade and surrounding towns, firemen really did use wooden ladders.
They also wore woollen coats and had rubber boots which offered protection from water, and that was about it.
Oxfordshire fire protection technical manager Pat Rosum, who joined in 1972, said: “No one really questioned it then – we are far more sophisticated now.”
Another improvement, he said, was that fire engines no longer break down on the way to emergencies.
On one occasion, he said, his engine really did explode on the way to a road traffic accident.
Luckily, there were other firemen already on their way to the collision.
And they were “firemen” in those days, not firefighters – it wasn’t until the 1990s that women joined Oxfordshire’s fire brigade as part of a national transition.
Now Oxfordshire has about 30 female employees, one of the best rates in the country.
A fire at Altovar Print Works in Banbury in 1992.
Mr Rosum, now 64, a father-of-four and grandfather-of-four, said: “We all thought it was going to be a terrible problem, management as well.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed, said Mr Rosum, is the quality of firefighters.
“The people we have now are as good or better than they have ever been.”
The modern Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was created as part of the 1974 local government boundary changes.
Abingdon, Wantage and Faringdon, all Berkshire towns in 1973, joined Oxfordshire and so did their firefighters. Since then the service has employed 769 full-time and 1,942 on-call firefighters.
It currently has 246 full-time firefighters, crew managers and station managers.
Another 381 on-call firefighters are retained around the county.
Mr Rosum, who grew up in and around Wantage, was working as a mechanic at Bellinger’s garage in Grove at 22.
He said: “I thought being a firefighter would be more exciting, and no doubt about it, it’s the best job in the world.
“Where else could you get into a red lorry and charge down the road and arrive at a house on fire and start fighting it?”
One of the stand-out incidents from a 42-year career was a pile-up involving 50 cars on the A34 in the 1980s.
A farmer had been burning the stubble on his field, the wind changed and smoke drifted across the dual carriageway, an impenetrable blanket.
The first fireman on the scene, Mr Rosum had to go around each car, checking whether passengers were alive and what medical attention they might need.
Amazingly, no-one in the crash was seriously injured, although several people had to be cut out of crumpled cars.
Another memorable call-out was when the Schwartz spice factory in Bicester caught fire.
Mr Rosum said he had never smelt anything quite like it.
The single biggest improvement in fighting fires in 40 years?
“The smoke alarm,” he said.
“Domestic smoke alarms are the biggest saver of life.
“They are a fantastic invention, I would advise everybody without a working smoke alarm to get one today.
“Not tomorrow, today. For £5 you can save your own and your family’s lives.”
Finding a smart way forward.
Like all emergency services, firefighters are in the process of updating their communications to adopt advances in smart phone technology.
David Laidlaw has worked at every fire station in Oxfordshire, and is now technical communications manager for the whole county.
David Laidlaw with communications equipment in the cab.
Since joining Oxfordshire Fire Service in 1974, he has seen it grow from an organisation with virtually no technical communications.
Mr Laidlaw, 62, said: “When the chief fire officer appointed me I said ‘I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about this’, and he said ‘don’t worry, no one does’.”
In 1974, crews didn’t even have hand-held radios – now each appliance is equipped with four as standard.
He said: “Back then if you had to climb 14 storeys in a high rise then realised you needed more equipment, you had to run down 14 flights of stairs again.”
In the early 1990s, Oxfordshire became one of the first counties to trial mobile phone technology in its fire engines, thanks to a little company in Adderbury called Vodafone.
He said: “Certainly if we’d had modern technology back then we would have been able to operate more safely.
“But there is no big bang theory, it’s evolution not revolution. The government programme is to put emergency services in a position where they are never left behind. Our raison d’etre is to make Oxfordshire a safe place for everyone to be.”
Now a dad-of-three, granddad-of-six and great-granddad-of-three, Mr Laidlaw, who lives in Iffley, Oxford, said he looks back on his service with pride.
He said: “I always wanted to be an everyday hero, and it has been a wonderful career.”
'Making our county safe'.
Dave Etheridge, the chief of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, says the most important thing the service now does is prevention work.
As a part of Oxfordshire County Council, the service has access to adult social care, social services, schools, children’s homes and youth services.
The main job of the service now is using those links to educate people and prevent accidents from happening in the first place.
Chief Fire Officer David Etheridge.
Mr Etheridge said: “Our job is to make Oxfordshire the safest county in the UK.” And it seems to be working. In the past 10 years, the service has halved the number of deaths from fire and smoke.
The service is also responsible for road safety, and Mr Etheridge admitted this week had been tough following the death of 14-year-old Liberty Baker in a road traffic collision on Monday.
But, he said: “That re-invigorates and redoubles our effort to continue working with young people to stop that ever happening again.”
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service also spend more time than most helping to tackle flooding. Working with the Environment Agency, the police and others, the service tries to predict where flooding will hit, help homeowners prepare, and save millions of pounds in insurance costs.
Mr Etheridge, 48, a father-of-two who lives in Abingdon, said: “I am very privileged to be chief fire officer and I have got great individuals and fantastic teams who work tirelessly to make sure the county stays safe.”
Join crews for a day of celebration.
A free party to mark 40 years of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue will be held in Gloucester Green, Oxford, today from 10am to 4pm.
Firefighters will demonstrate a water rescue, a mock-up road traffic accident rescue and show just how serious a chip pan fire can get.
Modern and vintage fire engines will be on display and firefighters, including Oxfordshire’s chief fire officer David Etheridge, will meet and greet.
The team will also be blowing its own trumpet about fundraising events it has undertaken for the Fire Fighters Charity.
They include a 463-mile cycle ride from Oxford to Bonn, undertaken by 21 staff, which raised £14,000.
Some of the firefighters from Bonn will also travel to Oxford for today’s party with a fire engine from Bonn Fire and Rescue Service.
Mr Etheridge said: “People in Oxfordshire are fortunate to have one of the very best fire and rescue services around and this is a fantastic opportunity to meet residents and show them the work we do.
“I encourage anyone in Oxford on Saturday to come along.
“It is a good chance to highlight the fantastic work that the Fire Fighters Charity does for serving and retired firefighters and their family.
“There is a real focus locally on putting as many people as we can in touch with the charity so they can assist them.”
Chance to nominate your heroes.
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