During all of the 1980s I was a firefighter with the UK Fire and Rescue Service. One Saturday in the summer of 1983 we were on the fire station having our lunch in the mess room when the alarm bell rang. Instantly the sound of chair legs scraping back on the tiled floor filled the room and everyone ran down to the appliance bay. The Station Officer grabbed the printout from the teleprinter. It was a house fire about a mile away and the control room had received several calls so we knew it wasn’t a false alarm. I jumped into my seat in the rear of the lead appliance. As I pulled on my boots and leggings, buttoned my tunic and put on my helmet, the Station Officer in the front seat looked back over his shoulder and shouted the words I always loved to hear: “Get donned up chaps! It’s a goer.” He was ordering us to put on our breathing apparatus and prepare to earn our money.
We pulled up at the front of the house. Thick smoke was pouring out of every downstairs window and flames from the kitchen window were licking up the front of the house. My partner Barry and I jumped off the machine, grabbed the high pressure hosereel from the drum on the side and ran down the path towards the house. Barry kicked the front door. It swung open with a crash. We entered the house protected from the heat by the curtain of water from the hosereel and made our way through the thick smoke towards the kitchen. The rest of the crew found the junction box and killed the power to protect us from electric shock, then applied a second hosereel through the window. We knocked down the fire within a couple of minutes. When the last embers had died, we opened all the windows in the rear and upstairs of the house to let out the smoke and radioed the Station Officer outside to tell him that it was all clear.
The rest of the crew came in and we began cleaning up. As the air cleared, we could see the full extent of the damage and the cause of the fire: something had been left on the stove unattended. Then I noticed the only casualty: a small light grey cat lay dead just inside the back door, right before the cat flap. It must have been trying to escape but at the last second had been overcome by the deadly fumes. Barry picked it up by the tail, took it out to the back garden and covered it with some newspaper. He crossed himself with mock solemnity as he stood over the recently departed.
Suddenly there was a commotion. A woman pushed through the gathering crowd outside the house and came running down the front garden path, screaming hysterically. She rushed into the house and held her hand over her mouth as she looked around at the damage the fire had caused. She came into the kitchen, her wild eyes registering what she had done. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Only went out for ten minutes. I left something on the stove. Oh my God.” Barry in his usual sympathetic fashion said calmly, “Yes Madam, apparently you did.”
The Station Officer sat the accidental arsonist down in her severely smoke-damaged living room and began taking down her details to fill in his report. She answered his questions dutifully while gently sobbing into her handkerchief, no doubt wondering how she was going to explain what had happened to the rest of her family. Then she stopped in mid-sentence, stood abruptly and looked frantically around the room. Ignoring us, she ran upstairs. We could hear her stomping from room to room repeating “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God”. We all looked at each other, thinking about the same thing: the dead cat under the newspaper. How were we going to break the sad news? Barry looked at me and mouthed silently “YOU tell her.” I shook my head and mouthed back “No YOU tell her.” This, accompanied by some heavy nudging , went on for a while. We were about to resort to the usual “rock paper scissors” decider when she reappeared in the kitchen with a look of despair on her face. Her next words made us forget about the dilemma at hand. “Where the hell is Smokey?” I wish I could tell you that we remained completely professional. But we all cracked up, the Station Officer included. If only we’d also found a dead dog named Lucky.