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McGraws Story


Seated around the mess table one lunch time at Hammersmith fire station, many moons ago, when mobile phones were as big as house bricks, and all sorts of digital gizmo’s where in there infancy. I heard this faint tinny sound saying “it is one O’clock” and it kept on repeating, “its one O’clock, its one O’clock”. Seated opposite me was fireman McGraw a senior fireman about my own age, and wearing a big grin on his face.

This is the same fireman McGraw who in previous books, always had to be first on the watch to acquire the latest gizmo whatever. He was the first on the watch to purchase a freezer, telling how he was going to mucho monies on purchasing a whole lamb at wholesale prices and freeze it down. Then later going on to complain that the butcher was a crook, cos he had only been given two legs of lamb and not four, not realizing that the two shoulders of lamb joints were in fact it’s front legs.

I said to him “Mac what’s that bloody annoying tinny sound I can hear”. This apparently was just the question McGraw wanted me to ask, for then with great panache, he was able to inform me “it’s my new speaks out the time wristwatch guv” adding “it’s the latest state of the art electronic speaking watch, cost me a fortune”. He then raised his sleeve the better to display his new toy, I asked to hear it speak the time again, but was informed I would have to wait till two o’clock for that to happen. I then queried why would you want a talking watch anyway, you are not blind are you. He had obviously been asked this question before because he had an immediate and ready answer. “Ah but when it’s dark and you can’t see your watch, this one will actually tell you the time”. I was about to ask him, that if it only spoke the time on the hour every hour, what would happen if it was dark and he urgently needed to know the time at two thirty in the morning.
Instead I went off on another totally different tack, telling him “speaking clocks are not new, I had one of those years ago”. He immediately came back at me” you couldn’t have had one years ago, because they have only just been invented”. He demanded “what’s your one like then where was it made? adding mine is the very latest in Japanese technology”. I think he was truly worried, because if I had a speaking clock years ago, then his latest gizmo was very much old hat, and he had been well and truly seen off. I told him, I did not know how my one worked, but I did know that it had been made in Switzerland. McGraw was on the back foot a bit now, because everyone knows, that the Swiss make some of the finest clocks in the world. He challenged me yet again saying “well how does your one speak the time then”. So I told him, every hour on the hour, a little dickie bird pops its head out of a wooden box hanging on my kitchen wall, and shouts out Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckoo.

The fire call bells went down and the teleprinter chattered out smoke issuing Hammersmith Grove Hammersmith’s fire ground. Now to firemen smoke issuing could be a very vague term. Just like Eskimo’s who have dozens of names for different types of snow, firemen can use many terms to describe smoke. Smoke punching out, would perhaps denote a hot severe fire. Smoke billowing might denote an open-air large fire. Another one I especially like was the saying “the bloody smoke was so thick, we had to bail it out of the windows using buckets”. Then as an add on to this expression, someone was trying to explain how smoky the fire was with the following remark; “jeez the smoke was so thick, I was thinking about making buckets twenty”. Yet again another fine little fire ground observational comment, “the smoke was so bloody thick, you could have spread it on toast with a knife”.

Strangely enough, the most threatening smoke to one’s career, would be to calls of smell of smoke, many a good man has fallen into this trap. I will recount now of that which I would describe as the worst possible smell of smoke scenario, which occurred when I was at Soho fire station. The call was to smell of smoke at Shaftsbury Avenue on Soho’s ground; upon arrival it was found to be a terraced building of four floors, and basement. The ground floor was a shop, and the floors above being offices, and the top floor a dwelling, or occupied residential flat. The time was around six thirty in the evening, we were met by the shop proprietor, who as he was locking up to go home smelled smoke, he thought, coming from the basement. The man took us down to the basement where there was a definite smell of smoke; the whole basement was thoroughly searched to no avail. We now have to search all the floors above, but the problem arises, that all the office workers there have finished work, locked up and gone home. Now comes the puzzle do we break into the locked offices above, hopefully with minimum damage or do we do we just go back to station keeping our fingers crossed. Alternatively do we sit around for an hour or two and wait for key holders to return. During which time a smell of smoke could from smell of smoke to small fire, to raging conflagration.

Under fire service acts if we reasonably believe premises to be on fire we are empowered to break in. so once again it’s the devil and the deep blue sea situation. The venerable station officer in charge of this incident (not me) based on previous experience took the break in option. All the offices above and the top floor flat were thoroughly searched with no sign of fire but the smell of smoke persisted. So now the only other option is that it must be in neighbouring premises. Fortunately the shops on either side of this building were open for business, and as the shopkeeper next door opened the locked door to his basement, the same smell of smoke wafted out. It subsequently turned out that a smell of smoke in one building, led to the discovery of a small fire that had burnt itself out, in the building next door. Now if the officer in discovering no fire in building “A” had then abandoned the search, sending the stop message “alarm caused by smell of smoke” then building “B” was later involved in a serious fire, yet another fire service career would have been blighted.

Now back to the beginning of this little tale. The fire call bells went down and the teleprinter chattered out smoke issuing Hammersmith Grove on Hammersmith’s fire ground. Hammersmith’s pump escape and pump negotiated the busy traffic all around Hammersmith Broadway, then turned right into Hammersmith Grove itself. Hammersmith Grove is a long straight broad road about a quarter of a mile in length, it is wide enough to allow parked cars each side, and yet spacious enough for two lanes of through traffic at the same time. Every fifteen yards or so spaced along the pavement, are large mature London Plane trees. The terraced houses here are all symmetrical, three stories in height with a semi basement, and having front gardens of around 4 metres in length, bounded by low dwarf garden walls. The lead machine the pump escape, was slowing to a halt around mid-way down the road, and from behind I could see there was indeed smoke issuing from the ground floor of a property. Then to make things just a little more interesting, I could see two ladies frantically waving from a second floor window. Now without preaching too much about the value of experience in these matters, I pretty much summed up the situation straight away. If these two ladies were going to needed to rescued by ladder, it was going to have to be the fifty foot wheeled escape ladder mounted on the back of the first machine. Then if we were going to use the wheeled escape ladder, we would need to find a gap between the parked cars and the big Plane trees There to be able to bump the ladder up on to the pavement, to gain access to the front of the house on fire. At this point I told my driver to stop, and then gave him instructions to reverse the machine backwards, to just beyond a gap in the cars and tree’s which would allow the escape ladder to pass through, and onto the pavement. The first machines crew summing up the situation themselves, need very little instructions other than the gap in the parked cars to be pointed out to them, to get the escaped ladder through. I could now see that a rescue by ladder would be effected with further supervision by me, so my next concern was the fire itself. Fires could seldom and accurately be judged, just by the amount or volume of smoke being emitted. I needed to go into the building, and actually see the extent of the fire.

I entered the building via the open front door from which the smoke was issuing, passed along a ground floor passageway, were I found on my right hand side, a room which was on fire, the smoke gasses and heat were also going up the staircase enclosure, preventing escape by those trapped above. I judged the fire to be, what in fire service terms would be a decent hose reel job, and if we got water on to it quickly would go not further. As I went out of the building, firemen were already at the entrance door with a high pressure hose reel, I gave them quick snappy instructions “ground floor, along the passage, room on the right, hose reel should do it”. Out in the open, the escape ladder was now outside the building and being extended up to the second floor window. To the general public this would in effect be the third floor window, the floors being counted in fire service terms as ground floor first floor second floor. Now because there are people still trapped above this fire, I tell the driver/pump operator, “as soon as we get the manpower get a second high pressure reel in, as back up”. The ladder rescue outside seems to be going OK, but I won’t be happy till this fire is finally out, there could be yet further people trapped above the fire. Back in the house again I was crouching down out of the heat zone, behind the two firemen on the hose reel the fire had been subdued considerably now, and the two men made an entry into the room itself. I made a quick check on the ground floor for any further fires, or spread of fire and was now happy we had got this fire fully under control. Back outside once again; I could see that the escape ladder was on the pavement and bridging or crossing the front garden, at low angle of elevation and in a fairly unstable condition. McGraw was at the top of the ladder, attempting to assist one of the ladies onto the top of the escape ladder with some difficulty, due to the sash type window only opening halfway. There were already two firemen at the top of the escape ladder, and soon to be two ladies as well. Now with four people on this ladder at this low angle of elevation, there was a very great danger of the ladder collapsing, or running backwards away from the building. I called up to Mac, saying urgently “Mac we have got the fire, hold the two ladies there we will bring them down via the buildings staircase” and this is what eventually happened.

Much later back at the fire station McGraw came up to me saying “here Guvnor those two ladies from Hammersmith Grove are most upset at you” “Upset at me, why we have just saved their lives haven’t we”. Grinning he replied “yes but apparently with both of those ladies, one of their greatest fantasies, was to be rescued down a ladder by a handsome fireman, and you buggered it up”. I smiled and joked “Yes maybe Mac but they cannot blame me for the not having a handsome fireman part, can they”.

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