Bloxwich Community Fire Station – Then & Now

The men of Red Watch at Bloxwich Community Fire Station with their engine (Pictures: Stuart Williams)

We often take for granted our local fire station until we need it – but it is an incredibly important facility run by dedicated and often unsung people who deserve to be better known by the community they serve so admirably. And there can be no more distinctive building on High Street!

This feature tells of the history of Walsall Fire Brigade, its position in the modern West Midlands Fire Service, and all about Bloxwich Community Fire Station in the past and today.

Walsall Fire Brigade in 1890, at Teddesley House, since replaced by Walsall Council House (WLHC)

After decades of hand and horse-drawn appliances, Walsall Fire Brigade was motorised in 1922 when the old manual type engine and one of the steamers were replaced by a turbine and a motor tender.

The brigade took delivery of its first pump escape in 1931, having previously moved from upper Bridge Street to the new Central Fire Station in Darwall Street (now the site of the Civic Centre). Foam equipment was provided in 1934 to keep pace with the increased use of petrol and the rise of the family car.

Two years later, anticipating the possibility of war, plans were made for air raid precautions and the Fire Brigade Chief was engaged in the preparation of a fire defence scheme for Walsall. By 1937 this had been approved and a year later extra pumps and equipment had been supplied by Home Office and over half the men needed for the Auxiliary Fire Service were enrolled and training.

Walsall Fire Station, Darwall Street, 1929

Up until then, Walsall police and fire brigade had been combined but in the new, more specialised fire-fighting era this caused complications and the Fire Brigades Act of 1938, called for the establishment of a separate brigade and precluding the employment of police constables as part-time members, was implemented. November 1939 saw the appointment of a Chief Officer and plans to build up a professional brigade began. With the outbreak of World War II however, this plan was merged with that of consolidating the Auxiliary Fire Service which even then consisted of 775 men and 62 women. Full-time personnel were fixed at 15 officers and 116 men.

Throughout the war years, the people of Walsall helped maintain the high tradition of the fire brigade. Local fires were speedily dealt with, but the greatest glory lay in the numerous times when Walsall pumps and crews went to the aid of neighbouring towns and cities less fortunate than ours in the ravages of war. It is important to pay tribute to these men and women, and to remember those firemen who gave their lives as much on the battlefield as their brothers in the fighting services.

Walsall’s brigade was swallowed up, eventually integrating with the National Fire Service. When the war ended, members of the NFS returned to their normal jobs and when the Home Secretary returned the brigades to the control of local authorities, there were barely enough men to meet the new establishment figures for Walsall of 62 full-time and 12 retained firemen.  On 1 April, 1948, the Walsall Fire Brigade, for the second time in its history, was handed over to the local Council. From then on it picked up the threads and continued its fine tradition of protecting life and property.

Bloxwich Fire Station modelled in March 1954 (Courtesy Express & Star)

In March 1954, the building of the first dedicated Bloxwich Fire Station was announced.  Previously, just a few items of equipment had been kept in the yard at the rear of the Police Station in Elmore Green Road, but fire engines had to come all the way from Walsall, so this sophisticated new facility was quite an improvement in fire safety and rescue for Bloxwich and district.

The new station was to include a main building with three bays for fire appliances at ground level, and rooms above for facilities for the firemen, offices, mess room, rest rooms, kitchen etc.  The rear building was primarily workshops for maintaining vehicles and equipment, training etc, with small flats above as temporary accommodation for firemen and sometimes their families.  Between the two was placed a training tower.

These buildings are all in place today, but there is a bit of a mystery about this site.  A newscutting from the Express & Star newspaper dated March 11, 1954 shows Walsall’s Chief Fire Officer, Mr. J.E Whiteaker, with a model of the fire station complex, and there is a further small building which looks like some kind of reception or security hut, with a little wall around it, placed just in from of the main building where the old Victorian house which was later a TSB Bank would have been, and still is.  One can only assume that there were plans to demolish the old building and that these fell through.  The then ultra-modern Bloxwich Fire Station was completed in 1955, at a cost of £30,000.

‘Fireguard’ float at Bloxwich Carnival, 1966

Following the extension of Walsall County Borough on 1 April, 1966, the brigade took over further stations and appliances at Willenhall and Darlaston. By 1969, there were three fire stations in the borough: Central (Walsall), Bloxwich, and Willenhall, all continuously manned day and night. In addition the manpower at Bloxwich and Willenhall Fire Stations could be reinforced by part-time retained firemen who were called upon in time of need by a siren during the day and house bells at night.

Latest water tender escape at Walsall, 1969

In that year, Walsall’s fleet of fire appliances comprised one turntable ladder, one emergency/rescue tender, two water tender escapes, three water tenders and three pump units carrying extension ladders. Most appliances were equipped with radio communication, and breathing apparatus, form equipment, and oxyacetylene cutting gear was quickly available. The uniformed establishment stood at 103 full-time and 36 part-time, including 10 firewomen employed on control room duties.

Today, Bloxwich Community Fire Station, as it is now known, is still a modern and important facility, but on a smaller scale, being more closely linked with facilities across Walsall borough, in the West Midlands and, surprisingly, in our old county of Staffordshire if need be.

Red Watch at Bloxwich in their new uniforms (L to R): Firefighter Will Lane, Firefighter Simon Kidd, Watch Commander Richard Jones, Firefighter Robin Hendon, Crew Commander Richard Elliott

Last month, I was privileged to be allowed to tour the Station for this Bloxidge Tallygraph Feature, and Firefighter Keith Stevens very kindly introduced me to Red Watch Commander Richard Jones, Crew Commander Richard Elliott and Firefighters Will Lane, Simon Kidd and Robin Hendon, plus Community Advocate for the Borough Dawne Kirkham from Walsall Fire Station.  I should like to take this opportunity to thank them all for welcoming me, answering my many questions – and for putting up with my meanderings about the building!

It’s very useful to have the historical context above when looking at Bloxwich Community Fire Station, a place and people then as now dedicated to serving the community that surrounds them.

Bloxwich Community Fire Station today, workshop/accommodation block at rear

In the last few decades, with reducing incident calls in the area, the number of fire engine bays at Bloxwich has been reduced gradually from three to two and now to one.  Many years of technological and logistical changes, “modernisation” and government cuts have seen reductions in the number of fire appliances at Bloxwich.  The original three engines (with one full-time and one retained crew) have been cut back to one engine and full-time crew, and that may also be changing in the near future.

Firefighter Keith Stevens looks into one of the flats above the former maintenance bays

Two of the former engine bays have been turned into office accommodation.  The once ultra-modern on-site maintenance workshops are now used mainly for storage, and part of that secondary building has been turned over to an extensive and sophisticated gymnasium so that the firefighters (not ‘firemen’ anymore – this is an equal opportunities service in the 21st century!) can keep as fit as possible. The flats above are in the process of being renovated.

Part of the fire station gym

The training tower is no longer in use – but boys of all ages (and no doubt some girls today) will be delighted to hear that the traditional fireman’s pole in the main building is still ready for action at a moment’s notice, enabling rapid transit from the mess room above to the engine bay at ground level!

The last remaining fire engine bay in the main building – note the pole in the far right corner!

I had a long chat with Keith Stevens about the station and life and work there.  It was very enlightening.  Keith has wide experience in the job and has worked at Bloxwich and other local stations including Aldridge for many years.  I asked hime about how things had changed over the years, and how firefighting in Bloxwich is tied into the rest of the borough.

Keith told me that Bloxwich comes under Walsall Borough Command, which for administrative purposes includes Aldridge, Walsall and Willenhall Fire Stations as well as Bloxwich.  The whole borough, under Walsall Borough Commander Mick Birch, forms part of West Midlands Fire Service and crews from anywhere in the borough could potentially attend incidents anywhere in the West Midlands or often in Staffordshire. In fact there are parts of Staffordshire where Bloxwich can and do attend before Staffordshire crews can get there due to distance, such as Cannock Chase.

Bloxwich Community Fire Station covers the council wards of Birchills-Leamore, Bloxwich East and West plus Pelsall for fire prevention activities.  A lot of ground for a small station to cover.  Incidents covered range from dumped rubbish fires, burnt-out cars, to building fires such as closed pubs and home fires, some involving loss of life, and major incidents such as factory fires where Bloxwich will work, where needed, with crews from elsewhere.   And of course incidents attended are not just fires, they also include road traffic collisions where specialised equipment to free drivers and passengers is required, and specialised incidents which may involve chemical spillages and contaminants.  Some fire stations can also act as easily-identifiable clear landing points for the Air Ambulance.

The hot seat! Fire engine driver’s seat, and crew commander’s seat with computer, radio and sat nav on the far side

West Midlands and Staffordshire use different radio frequencies, but can change over to each other’s as required when crossing borders.  Fire services can still not communicate direct with police radio, however, meaning specialist liaison is required to ensure effective co-operation on joint operations such as big incidents where fire, police and ambulance services all attend.  Road traffic collision incident operations usually take their lead from the ambulance service if attending.  Police often have to be asked to attend, as their numbers are also under pressure due to cuts.

Keith Stevens beneath the training tower and showing me just some of the 300 items of equipment on the fire engine

In the thirty-five years Keith has served, much has progressed in the service, with new equipment and now additional information technology skills that are required to be used by 21st century firefighters.

There are now over three hundred items of equipment on a modern fire engine, all of which every firefighter has to be trained to operate, whatever the conditions.  And the complex modern fire appliance is checked every six weeks and is well-maintained.  Break downs are rare now.

The fire engine’s gear-crammed rear crew compartment

I asked if staff, equipment or services were to be cut back in Bloxwich, would they be covered from Walsall?  The answer was that yes, Walsall would stay full time, but the number of firefighters at Bloxwich could be reduced by approximately half the firefighters on the station, with longer shifts.  This would mean firefighters would be under pressure for longer, and therefore presumably more tired.

There is dual staffing at Willenhall Fire Station and at Walsall, so as soon as a crew is cut to three they can only go to secondary (smaller) fires.  It would as always be necessary to work with other stations on larger fires but staff cuts would still have the consequence that if Bloxwich had the nearest appliance they could not attend large fires first, another station with larger crews would have to attend.  When there is a big fire, engines and crews from other areas may attend, moving around to ensure that there are no gaps in fire service provision.

It is still aimed to get one appliance to an incident in five minutes and two in eight, but with impending serious staff cuts across the country, it has been mooted that five hundred jobs will go across the West Midlands.  I commented that this was an enormous number of firefighters to lose.

The Mess Room – note access door to the descent pole in the far corner

The kitchen

West Midlands Fire Service’s budget has apparently gone down a lot, though Staffordshire’s budget has gone up, presumably because they had less equipment/coverage than metropolitan forces.  Having said that, in recent years it seems that there has been a trend towards full-time fire crews at Walsall stations and there are now no retained (part-time) crews in the borough.  And there has actually been a reduction in the need for emergency fire coverage due to significantly increased success in fire prevention, including alarms, education.  This means that there are less incidents to attend, but this has led to a reduction in the number of appliances available.

Obviously, firefighting is the most important and visible part of the job, but in modern times there is much more to it than that, and the job is tremendously varied, especially with modern fire prevention awareness and training.  Prevention based activities are covered according to ward boundaries and this determines which station provides the service within an area.  Firefighters are also very active in the community and they do a lot of education with school visits, care home visits etc.  There are also home fire safety checks, which anyone can apply for by telephone.  A fire engine or a van will call with two people who can give fire safety advice, fit smoke alarms, and it’s all free.

Fire Prevention van 

The station offers a “Sparks Pack” which tells where to put a fire alarm, hoax call awareness, “Stop, Drop and Roll” and an arson presentation with pictures.  There’s a Schools Quiz for year 5, which every school in the West Midlands can attend, competing in their own borough heats and in a Brigade Final at West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters.  There’s also Community events such as the Safer Saddler Week at Walsall FC’s Bescot Stadium with Sue Lane, which takes approximately six hundred children over a two week period, in partnership with the police, swimming clubs, trading standards, and about seven or eight groups go there.

Firefighters also attend fetes, open days and of course Bloxwich Carnival and other similar events.  Coming up before this year’s carnival is the borough’s own Fire Service Fun Day at Walsall Fire Station in Blue Lane West.  This is taking place on  Saturday 30  July, 11am-­4pm.  There will be Soft Play, Face Painting, Safety Demos, Fire Demos, Goody Bags, a Fun Competition and much more.  Walsall Council’s Reach Up mobile climbing frame will also be there  (telephone 0121 380 7551 for details).

The Bloxwich fire engine in the carnival procession, 2008

So how is Bloxwich Community Fire Station run today?  As it stands now, the Station has one full-time fire engine on permanent duty, with four watch crews – Red Watch, Blue Watch, Green Watch and White Watch.  Each shift has a Watch Commander, Crew Commander and six firefighters.  There is also a full-time Station Commander in each station, liaising with the Walsall Borough Command and West Midlands Fire Service.  In the case of Bloxwich the Station Commander is Neil Johnson.  Crews currently operate on two days, two nights, four off shifts, 8am-6pm days and 6pm-8pm nights.  In effect firefighters get three clear days off then are back on duty.  There is also a late-night service – Orange and Purple Watches – operating from Tettenhall in Wolverhampton.

What about the future?  Some low-activity fire-stations have been identified for potential further cuts, and Bloxwich may be one of them, though it seems unlikely to close.  Changes could however mean less firefighters, on shifts of ninety-six hours on and off, with more on-site accommodation needed.

History and heroism come together in the Bloxwich Community Fire Station awards cabinet

Having spoken to Keith about the local service in general, I also had the opportunity to talk to Dawne Kirkham, who is the West Midlands Fire Service’s new Community Advocate based at Walsall Fire Station and covering the borough.

Dawne told me that she can deliver Fire Safety presentations, is available for community events and is also a Vulnerable Persons Officer. She can also be utilised for both commercial, residential hot strikes and Home Approach.

Vulnerable Persons Officers (VPOs) have been introduced as an addition to the FREE Home Safety Check already delivered by West Midlands Fire Service to provide an extra level of support.  Vulnerable people have been identified as being at greater risk of having a fire, so West Midlands Fire Service has trained both uniformed and non-uniformed staff to identify and be sensitive to the needs of such people.

At their disposal they have preventative tools such as Hearing Impaired Alarms, fire proof bed linen and smoke suppression units. VPOs have also been trained to deal with various issues including adult and child safeguarding issues, substance misuse and physical impairments.

Dawne’s work involves a lot of community outreach, and she spends a great deal of time contacting and talking to groups in vulnerable areas.  She goes into communities to raise awareness of the needs of vulnerable people, give presentations and discuss smoke alarms and problems with houses.  Her work is especially relevant to the elderly and the disabled, who may have greater problems in fire safety and need more help than others.

Dawne is particularly keen to contact groups, organisations and individuals who feel they can benefit from the help and advice she and the fire service can provide, and would welcome contacts by telephone on 0121 380 6517 or email to dawne.kirkham@wmfs.net

Community notice board for Red Watch and Green Watch

I concluded my visit by thanking Keith Evans for the tour and both he and Dawne Kirkham for answering my questions, and wished everyone at Bloxwich Community Fire Station the best for the future – I am sure they have all our support; they certainly deserve it!

My thanks go also to Adam Jones, Local Area Liaison Officer for West Midlands Fire Service in the Walsall Borough, who put me in touch with Keith Evans, to Bloxwich Station Commander Neil Johnson who was away the day I called, and of course to West Midlands Fire Service.

To contact Bloxwich Community Fire Station for non-emergency purposes, telephone 0121 380 7552.

For genuine emergencies only, dial 999.

To find out more about Walsall’s modern fire service, check out the West Midlands Fire Service website’s Walsall section via this link.

A full album of photographs of the station by Stuart Williams can be viewed on Flickr via this link.

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News, heritage and information for Bloxwich and district

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