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,