On Wednesday evening, I joined Darlington Fire Service's Green Watch as they prepared for the busiest time of their year - Bonfire Night.
Fellow Fire Service Board members Cllrs. Doris and Brian Jones came along too, as did Jono, Alpha's roving reporter and news presenter. It's fair to say we had an eye-opening experience.
Arriving at 5pm, the first hour or so was unnaturally quiet in Darlington, although we could hear the calls pouring in for crews elsewhere in the County via the comms system.
Then the first call came in - to open space on Meynell Road behind Morrisons on North Road, where it was reported that there was a bonfire started by children. We accompanied the crew in one of the Fire Service's landrovers.
When we got there, we found a big blaze of what looked like rubbish and broken pallets. There were about 50 people around it - many of them seemed to be children and young people, although there were some adults in one corner. The fire engine had beaten us there, and had ascertained that there were adults present - the Fire Service's risk assessment procedure is only to intervene if there are no adults at the scene, or if there is alcohol being drunk, or there is an evident fire threat to the community. In this case, it was felt safe to leave the bonfire alone.
We left to try and find the second bonfire reported in Hartington Way, off of Brinkburn Road. We couldn't locate it, so returned to Meynell Road, where by this tiume youths were setting off fireworks via an impromtu "mortar" device fashioned out of scrap. Fresh wood was being scavenged and transported on a B&Q trolley. I shudder to think what would have happened one of the rockets had fallen over and shot into the crowd.
We were then called to a report of a fire in a skip in Cleveland Terrace. By the time we got there, the attending crew had put the fire out (it was a very minor blaze, apparently). Because of communication problems, a fire engine had also been diverted to the call from Newton Aycliffe, and they arrived 10 minutes later. They then got a call to attend a bonfire in Ferryhill, which was obviously going to take them far longer to get to from Darlington.
During the evening, we heard a report of a house fire in Easington. As the night wore on, it became clear that it was a serious blaze, with possibly people trapped inside the buidling. Four tenders, with more on the way, were there by the time we finished.
So what did I learn? Well;
(1) Informal bonfires are a real menace, diverting crews away from serious blazes to what are often small but annoying fires on open space where crews can't intervene. It would compound an already fraught situation if crews were dealing with nuisance fires such as these when a house fire blaze was reported, as happened in Easington on Wednesday. Serious injury or even death could result.
(2) I shall be asking the Council's Chief Executive to ensure that we liaise with the Fire Service next year to mount a campaign to remove informal bonfires as they are constructed on public open space. Street Scene already do a fine job helping in this way, but I would hope that with better publicity, residents could help identify more potential bonfires next year.
(3) Fire crews are in a real Catch 22 when they attend blazes such as the one we saw at Meynell Road. If it had been necessary to intervene, there was every chance the crowd might have turned nasty - however I understand the Police will only attend if the crews themselves are under attack! Fire fighters already have a difficult and dangerous enough job to do without coming under attack from a barrage of stones.
(4) I have to say that if I had been a resident, or one of the ward councillors, I would have been annoyed when no action was taken regarding the fire and fireworks at Meynell Road. Understanding the crews' dilemma now, I see things a bit differently. Again, some publicity would help residents understand when the Fire Service can and can't intervene.
(5) Communications between crews and HQ seem to be an issue. November 5th, of course, is a particularly hectic night, but with one frequency only available to crews. it was very difficult to pass on information about fires which had been dealt with - understandably, the priority was for HQ to rely news of fresh outbreaks to the nearest crews.
Apparently, this situation will be improved somewhat when the new Regional Command Centre is working, but it is an issue I will be watching nonetheless.
Finally, just to thank everyone for putting up with me, and providing a thoroughly instructive evening. I now have a far better awareness of the work of the brave fire crews than I did at the start of the evening.