RETRO: Putting their lives on the line for us

Firemen - November 1980
Firemen - November 1980
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The newspapers called it the ‘trapeze rescue’ but to South Yorkshire firefighters it was known always as ‘the impossible job’.

On February 26, 1983, a teenage girl, trapped in a burning fifth-floor flat in High Egerton, Broomhall, sat on a window ledge screaming for help.

Firemen - 3rd March 1981

Firemen - 3rd March 1981

Rescue ladders could not reach her, and the blaze blocked the way into the apartment.

And so, as the flames started to lick at the window, firefighters Geoff Yates and Keith Summerfield did the unthinkable.

After breaking into the flat next door, Geoff climbed out on to the window sill – the next one along from where Dawn Lipscombe, 19, was now hanging by her fingers. Then, with Keith holding his ankles, he allowed himself to be swung pendulum-like so he could grab the youngster, creating, as The Star reported, “a human chain”.

For a brief moment Geoff and Dawn hung suspended in mid-air. Then Keith hauled them both to safety.

Thus, one of the most remarkable rescues in the history of firefighting in Sheffield was completed.

“It was an astonishing incident,” says Alexander Mills, spokesman for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, today. “But what you have to remember is that firefighters are putting their lives on the line every time they go on a job.

“They are all heroes.”

Indeed.

Now, to mark the 40th anniversary since the creation of SYFR, Midweek Retro doffs its helmet to every one of these extraordinary men and women.

More than 3,000 of them are thought to have served since April 1 1974 when the county-wide force (initially called South Yorkshire County Fire Service) was first formed. The new brigade was the result of a merger between five smaller outfits - Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley and West Riding - which had previously covered the region.

The amalgamation, led by the indefatigable chief fire officer Eddie McCoy (pictured right), followed the establishment of South Yorkshire as one of seven new metropolitan counties under the Local Government Act of 1972. It created a body with some 1,000 firefighters at 27 stations across the region.

“It was great to be a part of,” says Ted Mullins, who served from 1974 to 2004 and who has since written an online history of firefighting in Sheffield. “It’s hard, dangerous work - you see things which would give some people nightmares - but you know you’re doing a job that matters.”

Ted - who was based at Division Street and Mansfield Road stations in Sheffield, as well as Erskine Road in Rotherham and Queen Street in Mosborough over his three decades - knows just how dangerous. He spent time in intensive care in February 1997, suffering a dislocated shoulder and fractured skull after attending a supposedly routine blaze in Northern Avenue, Arbourthorne.

“What we didn’t know at the time,” recalls the 62-year-old of Beighton, “is that there were dozens of cans of spray paints containing butane kept inside. I remember we were hosing down the building when there was an explosion and the whole shop front just came out to meet us. Three of us were buried alive. I was the fortunate one really. The other two had to retire afterwards.”

He thinks for a moment. “You try not to think about the jobs like that afterwards. You cut them from your mind.”

Other major incidents the service has dealt with down its four decades? There’s been a few.

That includes the fires, of course - everything from the blaze which destroyed the Classic Cinema in Fitzalan Square in April 1884 to the fire at Monckton Rubber Technologies, in Attercliffe, which caused smoke plumes that could be seen in Leeds. But the service has also been called upon during other major incidents like the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and the 2007 flood.

There’s also, of course, the odd animal rescue. “Horses seem to get stuck in mud a lot,” muses father-of-two Ted.

In 2014, it’s not just about saving lives, either. It’s about preventing the emergencies in the first place. Crews today regularly work in the community passing on safety tips.

“We are proud to serve the people of South Yorkshire and are committed to continuing to work hard to make our county a safer place to live,” says current chief fire officer James Courtney. “The 40th anniversary is an important milestone, and highlights just how far the modern service has come.

“We have always been about saving lives, but there is now also a focus on preventing incidents too. That philosophy has had a huge impact, not least in the last decade when accidental house fires have reduced by around a third, and fire deaths and injuries by nearly two-thirds. Making people safer is now as much a part of our role as responding to emergencies.”

Fire fire everywhere

Notable blazes South Yorkshire Fire And Rescue have dealt with include:

* Classic Cinema, Fitzalan Square, April 1984: Opened in 1911, the fire at the Classic Cinema destroyed the building and sent smoke across Sheffield. A myth that Blazing Saddles was showing at the time was just that: a myth. The cinema had been derelict for two years. The cause was never fully established.

* Fletcher’s bakery, Clay Wheels Lane, Wadsley Bridge, June 2006: More than 65 firefighters were needed to bring this blaze under control. “One of the lads saw a couple of sparks from a cooler and then it just exploded,” a worker said afterwards. “Somebody said get out quick and people just ran and got out.”

* Gatecrasher nightclub, Matilda Street, Sheffield, June 2007: The music died at the legendary club after a massive fire, the cause of which has never been established. Staff were led to safety with no-one hurt but the building was destroyed. Flowers left on a nearby fence afterwards were dedicated to “the music, the lights, the spirit of the people.”

* Monckton Rubber Technologies, Stevenson Road, Attercliffe, June 2013: Plumes of smoke so massive they could be seen in Leeds were the result of this accidental blaze dealt with by five fire engines.

Service stats

22 - fire stations, 17 full-time and five retained.

27 - fire engines owned.

225 - non front line support staff.

663 - full time firefighters.

242 - road accidents attended during the year 2012-13.

3,239 - false alarm call-outs during the year 2012-13.

5,668 - fires dealt with during the year 2012-13.

33,815 - alarms fitted during the year 2012-13.