Police Fire Brigades

Increasingly forgotten, as time passes, is the fact that, prior to the formation of the National Fire Service in August 1941, a number of Fire Brigades were established under the command of a Chief Constable. As Police Forces evolved, many of the earliest paid Fire Brigades were operated as part of a Police Force. Liverpool was one of the earliest; being formed in 1836 The 1859 Police Act made the provision of an efficient Police Force compulsory. As new Forces were established, the authorities saw in their new disciplined and trained Policemen, an opportunity for them to perform dual role as Firemen, thus providing protection against fire with no additional cost. Also, Government grant was made for the purpose of Police Forces but not for Fire Brigades. In some cases, the whole of the Force trained to fight fire and in others a small number of men were recruited specifically for fire duty with support from partly trained Policemen at larger or sustained incident.

 Some Fire Brigades would consist of men recruited as ‘Police Firemen’ who operated under the direct control of a senior Police Officer, for example, a Superintendent, who held day-to-day responsibility for how the Fire Brigade operated. All were sworn Constables and came under the control and discipline of the Chief Constable. At large fires nearby Policemen on patrol would respond to assist their Police Firemen colleagues to fight the fire. Sometimes, off-duty Policemen would respond from their provided quarters at or near the fire station. In some case, designated Policemen had their ‘beat’ close to the fire station so that they could assist when required. 

There can be some debate as to what actually constituted a ‘Police Fire Brigade’. Some cases are very clear but others are not. Some Chief Constables may have been charged with the overall responsibility for the Fire Brigade but in fact had not a single Constable or Policemen of rank holding any position within the Fire Brigade. 

There were some cases where members of a County Police Force, stationed in a small town or village, by special arrangement, assisted with the crewing of the local fire engine. In others, ‘first aid’ fire appliances provided by the town or village were kept under the control of the local police station. 

Growing criticism of Police Fire Brigades became apparent as the 1930’s progressed. In June 1931, the Chief Constable of Plymouth reported to his Watch Committee that the Fire Brigade, for which he was responsible, could not adequately perform their duties. He reported that there was not a single professional Fireman in the Brigade, which consisted of 32 Policemen, 28 of which had to be drawn from other Police duties when a fire occurred. The remaining 4 were funded via a Home Office grant and would be on duty at the fire station. He further reported that only 17 members of the Brigade were on a bell system to call them in for fires and that once the first fire engine had left the fire station, there was no-one left to drive the second engine, which if needed required someone being sent back from the fireground. Similar accounts began to appear elsewhere around the nation. 

In July 1936, when it was recorded that there were 65 Police Fire Brigades in existence, the Riverdale Committee Report gave general endorsement of the Report of the Royal Commission 1923, then being some 13 years old, and produced a list of conclusions and findings to add to, and update, the findings of the Commission. The Report, in particular, highlighted that at that time, “Police Auxiliaries can be called upon, either on or off duty, to serve as a Fireman to help to put out a fire and, in this way, a Fire Brigade Authority is enabled to maintain a minimum staff.  The employment of Police Auxiliaries, however, has the disadvantage in peacetime that, when fires occur, the police concerned have frequently to be taken off the streets.  In emergencies, particularly in war time, when both the Police and the Fire Brigade would be heavily pressed, this difficulty would be much more serious and, in our view, it is definitely bad policy for the 2 services, Police and Fire Brigade, to depend on the same set of Auxiliaries.”

The Committee further recommended that “in no case should a Police Fire Brigade be dependent on its personnel or Constables who may be engaged on other duties, nor should the Police have to call on the personnel of the Fire Brigade in case of emergency.  In brief, the 2 forces must be kept as independent entities from this point of view and each should be of sufficient strength to carry out all of the duties that may be required of it.” Particular reference was also made with regard to the need to plan for wartime fire protection and mutual-support schemes.

In July 1937 it was reported that the Home Secretary concurred with the overall findings and recommendations of the Riverdale Committee but, at that time he was not desirous of disturbing any arrangements whereby men, sworn in as Constables but supernumerary to the Police establishment, are wholly engaged in Fire Brigade work, but he agreed that the whole question of the employment of Policemen as Auxiliary Firemen must be reconsidered.

He further stated that he considered that Chief Constables who held definite responsibility where actual firefighting is concerned and had to attend fires, were in the same category as the Policemen who are Auxiliary Firemen.  He therefore requested that Chief Constables be relieved as far as possible of any such duties.

The Fire Brigade Act 1938 was the final instrument of Government to decide the future of Police Fire Brigades in that this Act, important to the history of the British Fire Service in so many ways, stated that all such Fire Brigades had to be replaced by July 1943. The formation of the National Fire Service on 18 August 1941 brought this date forward.

It is often quoted that the last Police Fire Brigades disappeared with the formation of the National Fire Service and this is indeed true in respect of Local Authority Fire Brigades, but the Royal Navy can claim to have had the last functional Police Fire Brigade, with Admiralty Police Fire Brigades existing until 1968.

We are pleased to work closely with the Police Roll of Honour Trust, which maintains an excellent listing of Police Officers, who have died as a result of their duties, including members of Police Fire Brigades. 

Members of the Police Fire Brigades of Birkenhead, Blackburn, Burnley, Dewsbury, Dover, Gateshead, Goole, Great Yarmouth, Hanley, Heywood, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Norwich, Portsmouth, Reading, River Wear, Rotherham, Sheffield, Shrewsbury, Sunderland, Swansea, Tynemouth and York, are recorded on the Firefighters Memorial and in our Book of Remembrance.