Me (left) speaking with a colleague in Tottenham High Road during the disorder.
2011 London Riots.
One of my roles within LFB is that of an Inter-Agency Liaison Officer. A small cadre of Officers who have specialist training alongside colleagues from other agencies to respond to critical events. On the night of Saturday 6th August 2011, I was off duty at home in Hornchurch, East London when I heard my pager going off. I took a look at the message and saw that ILO’s were being asked to return to duty to assist with a civil disturbance in progress in Tottenham, North London. I rang in and made myself available and was asked to report to a Fire Station in North London where LFB were marshalling crews and appliances in readiness to attend any fires in the Tottenham area.
I arrived at the Fire Station and met some colleagues who were surprised to see me as I was off duty. I explained my presence to them and made links with other ILO’s at strategic locations and we started to plan appliances that were needed to attend the numerous fires that were now being reported along Tottenham High Road. We used a Command unit to log the calls and gradually briefed the White Watch crews from across NE London who were arriving at the fire station. They were given a safe route into Tottenham and given instructions to report to an officer on scene for deployment. Over the course of the evening we moved appliances and crews into the area to start tacking the fires.
After midnight, more officers arrived at the Station to support the despatch of fire crews, the disorder in Tottenham had now spread over approximately one mile of Tottenham High Road. It was felt that the ILO scene could not possibly manage that whole area alone so it was decided I should got to the scene. I got onto the back of a Fire appliance that was leaving to go down there and we made our way into Tottenham by an agreed route. We arrived in Tottenham and I jumped off of the appliance just past the Police Station. The crew were given their instructions and went off while I stood to take in the scene. Tottenham high road is a relatively straight road and ahead of me, like a scene from the WW2 Blitz on London, I saw buildings burning left and right for as far as the eye could see. I distinctly recall the phrase that came to mind was ‘a mile of fire’
Every inch of the road was covered in debris.
I had a conversation with a Police Chief Inspector where we updated each other on information and then I made my way along the high road. Almost every square inch of road and pavement was covered in debris and it was amazing how difficult it was to walk along treading over broken bricks, glass and other debris. I walked past burnt cars and the still smouldering shell of a burnt out bus. I came across crews on Fire Engines who were fighting fires in shops and buildings either side of the road. Again, I conjured images of Firefighting in the Blitz and laid 21st Century Firefighters, appliances and uniforms over them, it was exactly the same.
I got an update from appliance commanders at each stop and noted this as well as making welfare checks on the crews. Every one of them had been working flat out for hours without a break, but their mettle and courage shone through as bright as the big grins that came from their grimy faces. This generation of Firefighters, from the late 80’s, the 90’s and 2000’s had never been tested like this before in terms of civil disorder. But as a Senior Officer I was immensely proud of them and of being part of LFB that night. They showed that when the chips were down LFB could still deliver like they had through the previous 145 years.
I eventually made my way up towards the junction with Lansdowne road, where a large carpet shop with flats above was blazing from the ground up and through the roof. Crews were just getting water onto the fire and ladders were still pitched to the building opposite where crews had rescued people from the upper floors because they couldn’t get out of the front door due to radiated heat. I had a briefing with the Command team at this point and was assured that we had everything covered up to this point with crews tacking fires in a council building on one side of the road and a burning shop on the other. Just beyond this maybe 50 meters ahead was the front line of public order police dealing with the rioters.
Very quickly dawn broke and amazingly as I recall it, almost as if a whistle had been blown at the end of a football match, the disorder seemed to fizzle out. Within a short time, members of the public began to come out onto the high road to take in the damage and small groups of exhausted Police Officers began to walk back past us. Each of them giving each of us the knowing but unspoken look of mutual respect and admiration for what each had been through. Gradually as the road cleared we began to get relief fire crews in to take over from the initial crews who had been right in the thick of this for over seven hours. These fresh crews were amazed at the scale of the destruction over such a wide area and tales were exchanged among Firefighters as officers handed over their particular area of responsibility. I managed to jump on a fire engine which was returning to the marshalling Fire Station, it wasn’t over yet as we had to collate brief details of the crews names, whereabouts and actions before we could release them for a well-deserved rest and hard earned breakfast. I eventually got back in my car around 9am and drive home for a much needed sleep.
On the Sunday evening, LFB tried to revolve roles and with more officers who had returned to duty we had greater resilience. I was sent to a major Police control room during the evening where it soon became clear more disorder was likely to occur. Tottenham was thankfully calm but soon trouble began in Enfield with rumours of unrest elsewhere and before long it was apparent significant disorder had started in Brixton. We had identified a number of fire stations where again, appliances were marshalled in readiness and soon we had a severe fire in progress in a shop in Brixton. My job now was to be on the other end of the radio from what I was doing the previous night and soon, working with Police colleagues we were able to get appliances and crews safely into Brixton to deal with the fire. For LFB the Sunday night was thankfully much quieter bit this was the calm before the storm for what was about to become LFB’s busiest night since WW2.
Having been at the Police control room all of Sunday night, I slept during the day and got up in the afternoon ready for a third night. It wasn’t long before disorder was being reported in Hackney and then in Peckham where a shop had been set on fire. I watched along with millions of others, live TV pictures of the blazing shop in Peckham and felt a sense of frustration at the commentary that the fire was seeming burning unchecked, knowing of course we had crews very close by but we have to take the adequate steps to ensure their safety, liaising with the Police and getting a safe route for them which in a dynamic situation can take many painful minutes. Soon the local crews were in and the fire was being tackled. After sunset, London seemed to explode into violence. Sitting watching it on TV, I almost felt a sense of fear as to where it would all end. I saw the Reeves furniture store erupt into flames in Croydon and soon began to paint a picture in my mind from messages received from colleagues as well as news reports to disorder breaking out in all corners of London. From a blazing warehouse in Enfield down to street after street of fire in Croydon. From crowds rioting in Barking to reports of an elderly man killed in Ealing.
I was eventually called to a fire in Barking. A large derelict pub was burning on a corner and I arrived to make an assessment before calling LFB crews in. There were masses of public order police in attendance and we had a decent sized cordon to work within. We had six pumps and an aerial appliance to deal with the fire, but the Incident Commander soon released two of those due to the amount of serious fires burning across London. I think they were ordered directly to the blazing warehouse in Enfield.
After a period of time, the Inspector on charge of the Police resources told me they had to leave as they had been ordered to Ealing, the complete opposite side of London from where we stood in Barking. I negotiated with him that we would be vulnerable if left alone, so we agreed he would leave one crew of TSG Officers with us as we finished with the fire. I spoke to the incident commander and for the first time in my career we had to make a decision to walk away from a fire that wasn’t fully extinguished. We had used the powerful monitor of the Aerial Ladder Platform to deliver a quarter of a ton per minute of water into the heart of the blaze. But of course, small pockets of fire always need damping down.
With all of the hose cleared up, and equipment stowed we did a final assessment of the still steaming pub and assured that there was no chance of it spreading elsewhere and the structure of the building was safe. We left with an agreement that the local station would drive past every hour until the morning when we could go back and have a proper look.
I left that scene at around 2am and with everything else covered, I went home. I did not know it at that point, but with London thankfully quiet on Tuesday as the riots had sadly spread elsewhere in the UK, my riots were over. London is a vast and resilient city, in the days and weeks that followed many questions were asked lots of commentary was made, but soon life in this beautiful Capital City returned to is usual, reassuring, busy, vibrant self.
Copyright Steve Dudeney 2011.