The London Fire Brigade

The London Fire Brigade

HAVING occasion to be in London during the latter part of May, I had an opportunity to present a letter of introduction to the Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, Major C. C. B. Morris. It was my hope that I could obtain in two days’ time a general though brief survey of the methods of operation and types of apparatus used by the London Fire Brigade. Through the courtesy of Major Morris, a most interesting and instructive visit was made possible and I was afforded an opportunity not only to see the stations and apparatus, but also the men in action.

There appears to be an erroneous idea in the United States that because of the type of English buildings and the fact that a multiple alarm fire in the city of London is a rarity, the London hire Brigade has not reached the same state of high development which may be found in large cities of America. May I immediately take occasion to correct American readers. Local conditions, of course, have a great deal to do with the development and nature of the fire-fighting force, and local conditions in London are far different from those which exist in most American cities. Nevertheless, there are a large number of fires and there is a need for an efficient fire force in this, the world’s largest city in area.

A splendid, highly disciplined organization has developed in London which may well command the respect and interest of any American fireman who is not limited by prejudice to his own particular bailiwick. The country which has produced the highly disciplined body of men which has characterized the British Army and Navy will have an efficient lot of men in its chief emergency organization, particularly where its members have been largely drawn from the military services.

Personnel and Officers

Men of the London Fire Brigade can only rise through the ranks to the position of Superintendent. The city of London is divided into six fire districts, each district in charge of a Superintendent. There is also a Superintendent at headquarters in charge of mobilization and one in charge of a special division known as the theatre district. The Superintendent stationed at headquarters is known and ranked as the Senior Superintendent.

There are six principal officers of the Brigade headed by Major Morris as Chief Officer and Commander A. N. Firebrace, Senior Division Officer. These officers are obtained from the outside, usually front the military services, and have spent many years in their respective positions. The Chief Officer and his assistants are in turn responsible to the London County Council and its committee for the London Fire Brigade.

The company form of organization is not found in London. The unit appears to be the station which is in charge of a Station Officer who is on permanent duty and does not work on shifts as do the sub-officers and men under his authority. Each Station Officer has as assistants two or three sub-officers. These officers are not ranked by title but rather by seniority. There are no specialists and each man is trained in every branch of the active department work. The sub-officers and men work on shifts somewhat similar to American practice. When on duty at night, however, sub-officers and men are not allowed to undress and such rest as they may wish to have can be obtained only from lying on a sort of canvas cot. The Station Officer is in charge at the scene of a fire and usually does not resort to higher authority except in the case of large fires. The Station Officer rides to the fire on the pumper. Only the principal officers and Superintendents have cars.

Sixty per cent of alarms are received through a fire call system which roughly corresponds to our fire alarm boxes. These fire call boxes are distributed throughout the city at about 300 feet apart in the thickly congested districts and not more than 1,200 feet in the outlying districts. They consist of an upright post surmounted by a small 12-inch cylinder protected on one end by a glass, inside of which is a pull handle. A citizen sounding the alarm breaks the glass and pulls the handle, transmitting a signal direct to the nearest tire station. There is a signal board in the watch room of each fire station, on which are arranged from 15 to 60 indicators, depending on the station location. The alarm signal causes a metallic flap on one of the indicators to fall, exposing the number and the printed address from which the fire call has been sent. Simultaneously station lights turn on and an alarm bell rings. The men mount on the apparatus, the address is given by the man on watch, and they are away to the tire in ten or fifteen seconds. The man on watch does not go to the fire, but telephones to one of the several super stations advising them of the alarm and location. The super station will then dispatch additional apparatus from a nearby station according to a running card.

Three Views of the London Fire Brigade in Action Each of these photographs shows the extension ladders on a carriage which can be wheeled close to the building, and also the Magirus type of ladders which are mounted on a turn table and which can be raised to a great height.At the right is a Denis-Magirus 100-foot ladder.

Should the Station Officer, after having arrived at a fire, require additional assistance, or, if the fire is serious, he may call for one of several standard alarms. These are somewhat as follows, corresponding to an American second alarm: “home call.” This brings automatically additional apparatus up to four pumps as indicated on the assignment card at the super station. Corresponding to third alarm : “district call,” bringing up to total of ten to twelve pumpers. Corresponding to the fourth alarm: “brigade call,” bringing up to a total of twenty pumpers. Superintendents may call for special apparatus without using one of the standard calls. When the apparaus (English term “appliances”) are ready to make up and the fire extinguished, the Station Officer reports “Stop,” corresponding to the American “All Out.”

It will be noticed under this system that considerable time in alarm transmission is saved over the American plan. There is no waiting for one or more rounds of the tapper to strike nor the duplication of an alarm through a central Fire Alarm Station. When the flap in the watch room falls and the bells ring, the men have mounted the apparatus and are on their wav.

At each of the super stations are assignment cards, generally corresponding to our running cards. These assignment cards are used when making an assignment in response to a telephone alarm or for a “home,” “district, or brigade call. The Superintendent mav request additional pumpers which will le despatched by the super station from stations nearest the scene of the fire. I he watch room of each sti]er station is in reality a miniature central fire alarm station. The super station keeps headquarters acquainted with the location and progress of fires in its district. The Superintendents reside at the super stations.

Rear View of the Enclosed Type of PumperThe Old and the New in British Fire Apparatus Design The two units of the Edinburgh Fire Brigade, typical of the old and new designs, reveal the trend in British fire apparatus construction. The movement is towards a completely enclosed pumper.

Stations, Routine and Apparatus

The stations, although in many cases in old buildings, are models of neatness with shining brasses and new paint. The apparatus floor is not unlike the floor of the American station except that colored lights indicate to the sub-officers the selection of apparatus to be sent on a particular assignment from one of the super stations. Alarm bells ring steadily and there are no box numbers tapped out. The principal officers and superintendents may live with their families at the fire stations. Their quarters are segregated, but usually are part of the station building itself.

The English fire apparatus (appliances) is very striking in appearance. Due to the narrow lanes, courtyards and streets of London, all the apparatus have short wheel bases. The machines are almost entirely produced by three makers, Dennis, Merryweather and Leylands. The pumpers have a maximum capacity of 750 gallons per minute. The pumps are attached at the rear of the machine through a secondary gear box. The men and officers ride either on the front seat or on the sides of tlte vehicle. The hose is carried in enclosed compartments in the center.

Most of the pumpers have attached at an angle from the rear, and extending front half-way over the engine hood, a sliding ladder which is detachable from the pumper and may be moved around on two large wheels. This is considered one of the most important pieces of apparatus and is termed by the English “an escape.” Its primary use is for rescue work. The pumper arriving at a fire, the escape is quickly detached, rolled to the side of the building, and the latter raised by cranks to the required height. This escape carries a ladder of comparable size and height to the American 50-foot aerial ladder. Its advantage appears to he that it may be manoeuvred in small areas and narrow spaces, where the American aerial ladder could not o]x-rate.

New Fire Apparatus of the London Fire Brigade This photograph gives a detailed study of the mechanism and construction of the movable extension ladders, and shows how the pump is mounted on the apparatus.

A special mention must be made of the marvelous piece of machinery known as the Morris Magirus automatic sliding ladder. This is an especially arranged motor truck carrying on a rear turntable a telescopic steel ladder mechanically ojx’rated by the motor and controlled in its entire evolutions by one man. The ladder can be swung to any angle and may reach a height of 100 feet. It carries a 1 1/8-inch tip (on the top extension) with hose line which can be utilized in the nature of a small water tower. It is a striking effect to see this piece of apparatus draw up in front of a building and a fireman run up the ladder as it extends itself mechanically. Due to the telescopic action the wheel base of the motor truck is no longer than that of the pumpers and cansequently can be easily maneuvred.

There are other types of motor trucks, such as a special truck carrying foam generators and trucks designed to carry additional hose. Each pumper carries 800 feet of 2 3/4-inch hose.

Special mention may be made of the two emergency tenders which correspond to our rescue wagons. These are closed vehicles of large size with complete emergency, accident and other special equipment including floodlights and self-contained masks.

English Fire Departments have commenced the use of enclosed bodies for fire apparatus, there being a number in use, including pumpers, outside of London. The London Brigade have had designed a truly remarkable new type of enclosed pum]ier which they expect to have in service shortly. In this practice they are copying the departments in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam which have concentrated almost entirely on closed body apparatus.

Traffic signals on apparatus consist only of bells. The department have felt that sirens would unnecessarily prejudice the public against the department.


The uniforms of the London Fire Brigade are striking and military in appearance. High leather boots are worn, which I have been assured are thoroughly waterproof. There is a rubberized cloth attachment fitted to the boots which can be pulled up belt high somewhat similar to our American hitches. Each officer and fireman. when at the scene of a fire, is in full uniform. The blouses are made of Melton cloth, a practically waterproof material. It was explained to me that these uniforms gave the men more freedom of motion and elasticity than could possibly be obtained with rubber garments. A brass helmet, insulated inside by sponge rubber and light in weight, is always worn, protecting the head. I was told that although these brass helmets have been a custom for many years, serious consideration is now Iteing given to changing their design and to use some composite material for replacing the brass, as the metal has proved to be an easy conductor for electrical current.

Each fireman wears at all times, when on duty, a wide fabricated or leather belt on which is secured a small hand-axe, ladder clip, and bobbin and holder. The bobbin contains a spool of light rope which may be dropped and used to pull up hose or other tools which may be necessary to use. A hose spanner is also attached to this belt. At headquarters and at strategic points miscellaneous equipment is kept. It was obvious to me that much study and thought had been spent on various kinds of tools and equipment.

I had the pleasure of attending their Wednesday afternoon drill at headquarters. This is a weekly affair conducted by men in training (probationers) and acts in the dual role of training for the men and an exhibition for the public. The latter point seems to be one well taken, as officers described to the onlookers the events and the method of sending an alarm of fire. It is all very educational and is excellent publicity for the fire force, and must go a long way to improve the relations of the Brigade with the general public.

It seems to me that it would be of great advantage to both the American and English fire fighting forces to conduct an exchange of ideas on department routine, and particularly on the development of equipment and apparatus. I believe the American departments can show the Englishmen developments which they might like to consider and apply in their Brigade, and I am sure that we may gain benefit from an understanding of the developments which have been made in English fire apparatus and equipment.

London Fire Brigade

Authorized Fire Staff …………………. …… 1,949

Administrative, Technical, Clerical and Workshops’ Staff ………………………… …… 189

Fire Stations ………………………… …… 62

River Stations ……………………….. …… 3

Pumps …………………………….. …… 87

Escape Vans ………………………… …… 74

Turntable Ladders ……………………. …… 12

Emergency Tenders ………………….. …… 2

Foam Generators …………………….. …… 3

Foam Tender ……………………….. …… 1

Lorries ……………………………. …… 8

Tenders ……………………………. …… 3

Cars ………………………………. …… 18

Canteen Van ………………………… …… 1

River Floats …………………………. …… 4

Street Fire Alarms……………………. …… 1,691

Fire Hydrants ……………………….. ……30,952

Hose (Miles) ……………………….. ……. 57

Fires during year 1932 ………………… …… 5,055

Calls during year 1932…………………. …… 7,682

  1. Special mention might be made of the following which deserve consideration of American departments:
  2. Closed bodies on apparatus, protects both firemen and equipment.
  3. Mufflers on exhaust.
  4. The mechanical telescopic ladder with short wheel base.
  5. The English escape, saving high cost of aerial ladder trucks and providing ease of movement.




The recent disastrous fire in London, at which the lives of ten young girls were lost owing, first, to the ridiculously inadequate apparatus of the fire brigade, whose ladders could not reach up to the fourth floor of an ordinary warehouse, and. secondly, to the lack of a proper system of turning in a fire alarm, has moved the metropolitan press with an unanimity that is seldom witnessed, to condemn the organisation of the brigade and to demand that reforms be immediately instituted. Among these reforms the one which is apparently most insisted upon is the supersession of Captain Wells, chief officer of the brigade, a naval officer and not a trained fireman, by a superintendent who has been brought up and trained in some large and well organised fire department, such, for instance, as that of Manchester, Belfast, or Dublin, and is, therefore, an expert firefighter. The firemen themselves are all that could be desired, and, as a rule, the fires to which they are called are thoroughly well handled. It is the equipment, or, rather, the lack of equipment of the brigade that is at fault. To mention a few important deficiencies: Automatic fire alarms are conspicuously absent. In the particular case in question it was more than ten minutes after the fire was noticed from outside that the nearby piece of fire apparatus reached the spot. In the case of the recent very destructive fire in the Barbican, also, a policeman on the beat discovered the blaze only when the glass was blown out of the windows. He then blew his whistle, and the policeman who answered, on seeing the cause, ran to the nearest fire station. It took him some time to do this and it took the first engine some minutes to reach the scene, and then only to find that a “stronger force of water” was called for, as the flames were two floors higher than the streams could be thrown. In all probability the engines employed, even if they were the largest that London can boast, were not powerful enough, or, when they arrived at the fire, had not raised sufficient steam to operate, and had, therefore, to wait—while the flames were making rapid headway. These two faults, lack of power and capacity and delay in getting up steam—seem peculiar to the fire brigade of London, and would not be tolerated in firstciass brigades outside the metropolis, where no fire is kept going under the boilers of the steamers while they stand in their houses: and, as a consequence, these frequently arrive at the scene of the fire fully ten minutes before they are able to go into action. Captain Wells, it may be said, “fully realises the importance of every steamer having sufficient steam immediately on arrival at a fire,” yet he contends that, “with regard to the proposal that engine fires should be hanked at the fire station, he had tried it without success.” Here, in the United States fire departments, without banking the fires, hut by means of keeping the water in the boilers at nearly boiling point and the fire beneath the boiler laid lightlv and ready to blaze up at a moment’s notice, thus affording the possibility of raising steam enough very otiickly, no such delay is experienced in getting the engines to work. London is likewise deficient in its street alarm system, reliance being placed chiefly— in some narts altogether—on the watchfulness and activity of individual policemen or chance passersby. The result is delay and a slow turnout, just when seconds count most. Again, at large fires, the firemen do not seem to be under proper control, nor. at the same time, do they apnear to realise (they are not taught to realise) the necessitv for individual action, when, perhaps, such a line might he the salvation of the burning building. Then, too. the system of sending only a small detachment at the first call, and not summoning additional assistance until a report of the magnitude of the fire is received, is freouently attended with loss of life and great destruction of property—the latter something intimately concerning the insurance men. Lastly, the life-saving apparatus is woefully inadequate. Life-saving nets or sheets have generally to be extemporised when required, while the so-called fire escapes are not only cumbersome, few in number. and slow of being brought into action, but, like the ladders already referred to. are often too short to reach to the upper floors of a building of only moderate height.—something surely calling for the attention of the coroner. All these defects could certainly ho remedied at small cost, if the London county council would only rise to the idea that the fire brigade is not the one public depart ment that does not call for a judicious and amole expenditure noon it of the taxpayers’ money: that its head should not he a mere military or naval officer, appointed by Court or other high influence, but a practical fireman, who has climbed up every rung in the ladder of promotion: and that the existing methods of having to wait, first, till the turncocks can be found: then, till the water can be turned on: and. lastly, till there is sufficient steam and water pressure to do effective work, are hv no means up-to-date. The fire itself does no waitinghut gets its fine work in with neatness and dispatch. We have fatal fires in the United States—too many of them: but in firstciass cities the fault lies, not with the fire department, but with the non-observance of the law respecting fire escapes or the construction of the buildings.