Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service

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The History of Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service

Since its crucial discovery in the depths of pre-history, fire has been both the friend and foe of mankind. As such firefighting has always been essential to keep fire's destructive side in check and so realise its constructive potential - a potential that has eventually led to the industrial and commercially based wealth that underpins the life we enjoy today.

The industrial and commercial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a rapid rise in the prosperity of the port of Liverpool. Warehouse fires, now crammed with valuables from all over the globe were not only increasingly common but were also becoming increasingly expensive.

This success story also saw an inevitably rapid rise in the numbers of workers moving into the poorly built, crowded slums that began to characterise Liverpool and its Merseyside environs.

Fire began to become a big problem. Following a particularly bad conflagration at Lancelot Hey in 1833, where many warehouses and homes were destroyed, a city fire brigade was finally established the following year, after a successful private parliamentary bill at Westminster.
This Brigade then became part of the Liverpool City Police Force that was founded in 1836. This led to the famous term "Fire Bobby " that attached itself to Liverpool's firefighters until very recent times.
Other towns on Merseyside, such as Birkenhead, formed its own police fire brigade in 1837, but as with Wallasey, Southport and St Helens, it relied upon co-operation with Liverpool if efficient firefighting was to be carried out. Unfortunately, such assistance foundered on the reef of non-standardisation of equipment. Forward thinkers in Liverpool's Fire Brigade introduced equipment adapters in order to circumvent this difficulty.

Liverpool's proud record of being a city that embraced modernity - as reflected in its famous but necessary development of Public Health - is exemplified by the Fire Brigade's utilisation of breathing apparatus and piped water even in the late 1840s. By the 1860s, as the American Civil War drew to a close, horse-drawn but steam-powered pumps were seen efficiently fighting fires in Liverpool's streets.
After much experimentation, mechanically propelled fire engines were in regular use in Liverpool and indeed throughout Merseyside by 1910.

The First World War of 1914 to 1918 influenced Merseyside's fire brigades both technically and organisationally. This war was fought on a total scale involving all citizens - both uniformed and non-uniformed. As in the rest of industrial Britain, Merseyside's factories churned out each day more and more of the technically sophisticated machines of battle the "total war" demanded. As a part of these rapidly developing industrial processes, Merseyside workers found themselves having to be more conscious of fire hazards and fire prevention methods. Zeppelin-borne incendiary bomb raids added to the hazards of fire as the war drew to a close.

In the 1930s, the threat of war against Nazi Germany loomed. Fear of German air raids, especially as revealed by the use in 1937/8 of Nazi airborne terror against the beleaguered citizens of Republican Spain, led Government planners to look at a more efficient means of organising effective fire fighting for Britain's cities. A National Fire Fighting plan emerged with first the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) in late 1938. A National Fire Service (NFS) in 1941 swallowed up all local brigades and Merseyside's Brigade became NFS District 26.

NFS District 26 certainly saw action on Merseyside. Initially many wrongly saw firemen as dodging the forces. In its early months the war - known as the phoney war - was mainly remote from many people's experience. However, as first Birkenhead and then Wallasey was bombed in the late summer of 1940, war became both close and terrifying. Firemen suddenly became very valuable frontline people's fighters. Bootle was the most bombed town in England with the NFS and AFS firemen heroically fighting to save many thousands of the homes and lives of its mainly working class citizens. For nine months Merseyside held out and much depended on the bravery and organisation of its firemen and women.

After the war the fire service was reorganised. Lessons of organisation and standardisation had been learned from the NFS/AFS period. The 1947 Fire Services Act ushered in this new period. This seminal piece of legislation established the main urban fire brigades of Merseyside: Liverpool; Birkenhead; Bootle; Wallasey and Southport. No longer Police brigades, these services were Fire Brigades in their own right with their own Chief Fire Officer.

1972-74 fighting fire 2In the first two decades that followed World War Two, Merseyside's brigades continued to develop both in a pro-active and a reactive way. The urban congestion that stemmed from the increased prosperity of the "Never had it so good" years of the fifties also slowed down fire call responses. Ever the innovator, Liverpool introduced "Green Wave" designated routes for Fire appliances to get through heavy traffic - even the lights against them. The tragic Henderson Stores fire on 22nd June 1960 that claimed - despite the brave efforts of firemen and other workers - the lives of eleven people, directly propelled the introduction of sprinkler systems.

1972-74 fighting fire

In April 1974, as a result of the 1972 Local Government Act, the Fire Brigades of Merseyside were merged into the one Merseyside County Fire Brigade. Liverpool provided the headquarters for this new Brigade at its Hatton Garden offices. This building had been a Fire Headquarters since 1899, but it became obvious in later years that it was a bit too old for what was now a modern community-based fire service. Modernisation saw the "Brigade" become a "Service" that being less militaristic, perhaps seeking to reflect the diverse community it sought to protect. That was a name only, however. Modernisation in a tangible form came in February 2002 when the old Hatton Garden finally closed down and the new Headquarters opened at Bridle Road, Bootle.

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