The 80’s Firefighter

1980's Firefighters.

Did you see the title…  The 80’s firefighter, because in the 1980’s we were the first to become firefighters opposed to the firemen of the 70’s, 60’s, 50’s and so on. Because for the first time women became operational firefighters in London and across the UK.

This generation also witnessed the biggest advances in equipment and technology since World War Two, the trainee fireman in 1980 was still training on wheeled escapes and hook ladders wearing the traditional double breasted melton tunic and yellow rubber leggings. By the end of the decade the trainee firefighter was getting to grips with new technology on their initial training course such as thermal image camera’s and hydraulic cutting gear. The melton tunic had also just about given way to the nomex fire kit.

We all benefited from the struggles of the previous generations and the FBU in their numerous campaigns in the 1970’s to reduce hours and improve conditions which culminated  the bitterly fought 1977 fireman’s strike, a 9 week all out strike in the winter months to lift fireman out of their appalling pay & conditions  and recognise their skill and sacrifice with a linked pay formula and shorter shifts. Many of the men I worked with fought that battle and 10 years after that when I joined, I enjoyed decent annual wage rises, good conditions and a decent shift system thanks to them.

The young 80’s firefighter did not enjoy an entirely charmed life. Day to day life was a lot different to the fire service of 2015. The decade started with the young firefighters of the time attending inner city riots across the country and as the decade wore on the list of disasters grew; The New Cross fire, Bradford FC fire, Manchester Airport, The Kings Cross fire and ended with the likes of Lockerbie, Hillsborough, The Clapham rail crash and the Marchioness disaster. Each of those with young firefighters in the thick of it trying to do their best.

In between the headlines, the new firefighters in the 1980’s could count on attending dozens of rubbish fires, car fires, persons shut in lifts and derelict building fires every year, as well as the frequent smaller tragedies where people or entire families were needlessly being killed in house fires across the land. You gained your experience very quickly back then, although the smoke eaters of the previous generations would never let you run away with yourself.

The previously closed doors of the fire station began to open up to a new world of recruits. As mention 1982 saw Sue Batten become the first full time woman firefighter in the UK followed by many others in the years since. Large Brigades such as LFB also spearheaded the way forward in recruitment of firefighters from minority ethnic communities.

The treatment of young recruits at that time was pretty harsh. We all suffered it to a degree, it was seen as character building and very much a hangover from a bygone era. I can only imagine this was much more difficult to endure for a young woman or black firefighter, we all have to acknowledge plenty left because of the treatment they received. I considered myself a streetwise confident 19 year old East End kid when I got to my first station and on top of the world at getting my dream job. I confess I thought about giving up a few times in that first year due to some of my experiences.

So the World moved on, three decades later in London due to the large recruiting campaigns in the early to mid 1980’s a good chunk of the 80’s Firefighters have already retired. This year will see the remainder of the big 84/85 intake pass 30 years and I daresay most will go with things as they are currently.  That will leave the 45’s. Those of us in LFB with pay numbers starting with ’45’ which more or less run from 1986 until the end of 89 (give or take a few that joined early in 1990).

We are now the old boys and girls, well into our 40’s and 50’s a few of us are senior officers fast being overtaken by those who were ‘our recruits’ not so long ago (so it seems). Plenty of us are still riding on the back of and driving fire engines and bloody good at it too. As long as we get someone else to roll the hose, the old back isn’t was it was.

So whether you are an ACO, a busy Watch Manager or still riding the back of the pump on the same watch you joined back in the 80’s you have earned the right to tell them “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know” You tell the best stories, hold the biggest court and are the living link between the 79 year old who was the senior hand when you joined and the 19 year old probationer on your watch, who you introduced to each other at that retirement do for your old mate Dave last week.

So how did we do? A lot was changing when we joined and it kept changing, at warp speed over the past decade. Our wisdom advice and maturity were well in demand during those times. Feet firmly on the ground at another “Harebrained scheme from up the road”  as well as calm words and a steadying hand at the now much rarer persons reported job at 3am. We didn’t get it all right, some will say we let cherished traditions slip, other will note we were at the forefront on the metamorphosis of the job from crusty old firefighters to the modern technical rescue and firefighting expert. On balance, it has passed in the blink of an eye, we had some great times and I think we did OK.


Me in 1988 at Bethnal Green sire station,

Me in 1988 at Bethnal Green fire station,


45 thoughts on “The 80’s Firefighter

  1. Brilliant. Totally identify with your words, Steve. Looking back to those days, the Job certainly had more dodgy, ‘wrong side of the tracks’ characters, but most seemed dodgy ‘in a good way’.
    That sounds odd, but for those of us that were there, it brings back good memories (mostly!)
    Continuous practical jokes, the Guv’nor treated as God and seemingly constant, insane drills (Health & Safety and Dynamic Risk Assessment was still a very long way off).
    Great times for a young 19 year old, as I was. I’m 50 very soon, and I’ve only got 16 operational tours left. And then it’s over.
    And I’m ready to go – things have changed beyond recognition, and those of us from ‘back then’
    find ourselves questioning a lot of those changes. We’ve earned the right to question.
    But it’ll be with a heavy heart, and wonderful, unique memories that I’ll finally walk out of those doors.

  2. What can I say Steve, beautiful. As a ’46’ brat (1991 in new money) I’m not that far behind you, and have most of the shared experience. The change from then to now is immense, and sometimes hard to bear, but the job is evolving. And it’s pleasing to see the new blood are more than able to pick up the reins and carry on when we step off. Nice words mate.

  3. Steve – I like your blog, a whole lot of which resonates with me as someone who trained and ‘grew up’ in the same era, albeit in a different part of the country. You can only wonder what the same blog written in another 30 years time would talk about?

  4. I join the Kent Fire Brigade as it was called then and yes I was a fireman and later became a firefighter. I saw a lot of what you have described and being in Kent we were involved in Zebrugge and the Channel Tunnel building too. The job did and has changed but now it seems to be even more of a political pawn than it was even back then, or maybe I was too busy learning my craft to realise what going on around us in the government areans. You are right that the strike brought a better employment structure but I also remember 0% pay rises some years and guys with new babies still getting milk subsidies because our wages were considered below the low earnings line. In 1996 with over 15 years in and on a SubO wage I had only just reached the starting wage for a recruit police officer in Kent, parity it seems was never really reached.
    I was injured out following being trapped in a flashover and retired in 1998 but still miss the “job” every day! Would I do it all again……Hell Yeah In a Heartbeat!!!

  5. A nice read. I’ve done 35 years at a station in Ireland and there’s much of this I can identify with.

  6. All so true. I joined in 1980,retired from whole time,Loughborough station, in 2011 but am still in the retained in shepshed. The changes we witnessed and experienced are phenomenal. The equipment is of a far higher standard, used by people with morale at an all time low.

  7. Oh dear , I can’t believe Iv been through all these changes but I have because I joined in 1976 and I retired in 2009 , I was privatised to work with some fabulous teams of people and I really don’t know where the 33 years went but it did .Good luck to everyone and all the best for sorting out the pension dispute

  8. Just a brief technical comment on Hydraulic cutting gear as mentioned in the preamble. In West Yorkshire this was in use in the late 70’s and early 80’s and was carried on emergency tenders,not pumps. Known as “Anaconda” equipment it comprised an electrical generator providing electricity to a separate hydraulic pump unit,and from that led the hydraulic hoses to the tools-,cutters,spreaders and rams. Hand pumped hydraulic equipment was carried on pumps, known as EPCO or BLACKHAWK equipment and was intended as first strike use until the arrival of the ET.

    • Thanks Allan, I was relating those specific comments to LFB where my own experience is. By making the comparisons between the start and end of the decade, I could only relate those to what I knew for certain in LFB. I am also aware that many Brigades had done away with Escapes by 1980 and probably all but a few had also got rid of Hook ladders. But although our ET’s had hydraulic cutting gear, it was around the end of the 80’s that front line Pumps started to get them and TIC’s so the recruits were beginning to train on them.

  9. Joined in 1980 yellow leggings, cork helmet, melton tunic. Time has moved on but your shaped by your history. Learn from mistakes and develop, it’s your turn now but please don’t dis the past

  10. I joined the Strathclyde Fire Brigade in 1978, as a direct result of the sacrifice made by colleagues in the winter of 1977-78, serving all my service in Glasgow. I totally concur with everything said from station life, training with wheeled escapes to adopting to new technology, better appliances, aluminium replacing brass firefighting equipment/couplings, canvad hose to rubber linef, better rescue equipment, better fire kit and PPE, uniforms, and fire legislation. I saw the fire brigade transform from the Victorian era through to a Fire Service then a Fire and Rescue service. All UK fire service personel and probably the world, can relate to this.

  11. Fantastic story made me look back to my beginnings in Hertfordshire in 1982 retired now but with many great memories.

  12. I don’t believe the general public really don’t understand the full story about firefighters, and won’t, until it is too late. Unfortunately it is the same situation in all forms of public service and I can’t see it getting any better, these politicians don’t live in the real world .

  13. Reading your piece was just like talking to some of the guys at a retirement do,or more too often nowadays, a funeral. I joined in the 70s and watched the influx of the 80s lads. (County Durham)
    Nice piece and nice to know firemen are just the same all over the country

  14. Well done Steve, I joined in 1980 in Northampton and retired in 2010 in Lothian and Borders. Joining was the best thing I ever did. You brought back many memories, thanks

  15. Great post
    How true, how it’s changed! I’m glad I’m retiring in three months. Was on red watch Shoreditch C21 or F24 at the same time as you. In Essex now. Going to miss the blokes not the job. I feel they are always looking for someone to blame or catch out. No more looking out for the Ffs! I don’t suppose they will be happy until they privatised it and you have to pay insurance and have a plaque on your wall!!!
    Cheers Mark.

  16. It was lovely to read this about the 80 s firefighter. My dad joined in the 70s the year i was born, it was for a better life for our family. He was one of the firemen who went on strike and having a young family found it a struggle. He retired at 50 but unfortunatly passed away 5 years later. I am sure he wouldnt recognise it now but that is for the better. Thank you for letting me reminise about my dad and his life with the cheshire fire brigade. Sam

  17. Thanks Steve for a trip down memory lane. I joined the service in 1961 and spent many happy years. Wouldnt change my decision to join the service if I had my time to come again. I trained on the hook ladders and the Salvus B,A that was before the Proto B.A. system, well before compressed air. Only someone who has served in the fire service can understand the camaradery that exists among firemen ( and women) Oooops sorry, firefighters. To all the personell who have served and are serving, I wish you well. To all the people who are serving now, I say ” Take care of yourselves and your mates”

  18. I must admit I loved nearly every minute of my 30 yrs , I joined in 78 and was run ragged and screamed at and had to run everywhere. How times have changed your called Mr on training school !!. So i think things have changed and not for the better in a lot of things. Never thought I’d say it but im glad I’m out. But still hanker for the good old days…and when we had a great union .

  19. Great article Steve, brought back so many great memories and thoughts of good friends and characters of the 80’s 45 intake. What days they were, from lewisham, Man sq, (can’t believe they shut it, I will get over it one day) and paddington. Good but sometimes gritty shifts never forgotten.

  20. When I joined in 1961, two thirds of my watch at Tottenham were over 50. Never got hazed or teased, mostly looked after and helped through the dangerous times! We were not well paid, the Station Officer got £20 a week, but we got annual increments until 15 years service done! Like getting a pay-rise every year. No Health & Safety, we took calculated risks based on great experience learned during the Blitz and passed onto us junior bucks. It was really exciting and satisfying, the best of times!!

  21. Yes I joined the Strathclyde fire service in 1985 and well remember those yellow plastic leggings. That was a well written article my friend. I left the fire service in 2000 and went to Victoria in Australia where I am a Police officer. My days with the fire service will always be my most remembered nd loved.



  23. Hmmm yes, I joined in ’86 and am counting down my last few duties. Joined as a fireman and metamorphosed into a firefighter. I’ve worked with a few female firefighters and realise now what they’ve had to go through to be accepted. Good on the early ones for making a stand, paving the way way for gender neutral acceptance. I remember the ‘boil in a bag’ leggings and early days poor H&S. I was in the job that brought about issue of flash hoods in Kent which replaced neckerchiefs. Yes, I got scorched, something I half expected from time to time in this line of work, unlike the other poor chap who suffered severe burns needing skin grafts, and ultimately leaving the job. I take my hat off to him for coming back and giving it ‘another go’. The memories of particular jobs and the faces of people having lost property will never go, but likewise happy memories amongst colleagues, doing the ‘Christmas present run’, off shift charity events, visits to station, etc all go with the huge number of friends I’ve made in this one of a kind service. I just hope that those joining now, have a chance to learn, reflect on experience and make as many friends as I have. It’s a big family!

  24. Well written Steve. I walked in the doors of ACT with Sue Batten, 10th May 1982.
    Brought back many good memories of my time back in the day.
    Not long now.

  25. Great reminder of how it was. The fire service has changed in many ways over time, but the core of the job hasn’t – we are there when people are crying for help. Hopefully that will never change!

  26. My hubby has done 38yrs in Northamptonshire FRS this year…I am on my 14th year in the Service….great to hear your reflections Steve and echo the points made by others that we appreciate your inclusive comments…i have had some good support from colleagues in my time, but also still a few that think women aren’t supposed to do the job….bizarre …I think LFB have 333 operational women now (just over 7%). I have learnt a lot over the years from listening to long serving and experienced firefighters and i think the progress with PPE and Equipment over the last 30yrs has been a real transformation…as Dave Walton says …i wonder what the next 30 will bring. Hope it’s okay, i have re-blogged your blog. Dawn

  27. I joined in ’89 and remember painting my cork helmet with yellow paint when necessary. Things have changed massively, equipment has improved beyond belief, our Scania appliances are the safest, most robust and reliable vehicles that we have ever had. We gained our experience VERY quickly because of the volume of incidents that we attended……….there’s been a lot of change over the years. The calls are down, the Fire Services are ‘leaner’………we have to ‘do more with less’……….but it’s still the best job I’ve ever had. Keep smiling 😊

  28. I remember when I was a kid my parents knew a firefighter based at Euston (if memory serves) named ‘Nobby’ Hall- I’m sure his first name was Eric… Anyway.. I wanted to join the London Fire Brigade when I got bigger lol… I stayed little and life passed me by… But I do wonder what became of Nobby…
    Does anyone know?

    • I’m afraid I don’t know him, but the name might be familiar. If you join the Euston Fore Station Facebook page, I’m sure someone there will remember him.

      • Hi there Steve,
        Yep! Nobby Hall was at Euston in the 80’s. He was a great guy. He was one of those who, out of the blue, decided he’d had enough of being a FF and decided to go for promotion and then seemed to rise really quickly. He was Leading Hand and SubO at Manchester Square for a while, disappeared, then I saw him as ADO at Paddington.
        The last time I saw him was when he went back to Euston to carry out a turnout drill (remember them?!?). Even then he was a nice guy and a ‘fireman’s fireman’



        Sent from my iPad

  29. Hi steve
    I was a bit before you joining in in 1961 so I suppose I would be deemed an old smoke eater. I enjoy reading these articles and as a published fire service author appreciate the style of writing. I am looking forward to reading your books when it is published.

    • Dave, I just noticed that (in my old age) I accidentally replied to myself when I meant to reply to you after your comments on 13th May on my article The 80’s Firefighter. I sent the following to you…. Thank you Dave, your own writing is among those that inspired me and continue to inspire me. All the best. Steve

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s