The Firefighters’ Story

In Focus Productions for the FBU The Firefighters’ Story: 100 years of the FBU, 2018

Reviewed by Bob Thomson

This is an interesting and, at times poignant, short film, reminding us of the courage and sacrifices shown by firefighters. It traces the history of the FBU since its inception at the end of the First World War, and the contribution the union has made over ten decades to improve public and firefighter safety through its campaigning work. Known as ‘tombstone legislation’ these improvements generally follow big fire incidents such as the Manchester Woolworths fire of 1979 which resulted in a ban on foam filled furniture. It explores several major fires – such as the Glasgow Cheapside fire of 1960 in a whisky and tobacco warehouse in which 19 firefighters died – and their subsequent impact on safety.

The film, produced by In Focus Productions for the FBU to mark its centenary this year, uses archive footage throughout, including the Blitz which shows the incredible bravery of the firefighters Churchill called ‘Heroes with Dirty Faces’. More than 900 firefighters lost their lives during the war. I was indignant hearing the story of how one firefighter’s family had to share his burial with that of a comrade killed in the same action because they did not have the money and the fire service refused to help. The often forgotten contribution of the 88,000 women firefighters who worked on the frontline as well as in control rooms are depicted in the film as part of the huge recruitment of auxiliaries who helped the war effort

The film examines the appalling conditions and ‘continuous duty’ system early firefighters worked under, and the militaristic discipline, with pensions unheard of and holiday and sick pay almost non-existent. These firefighters, who lived in fire stations in cramped conditions with their families, were crying out for a union to represent them. No wonder they sometimes described themselves as municipal slaves!

As Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, says: ‘The FBU has never been solely concerned with the important issue of members’ pay and conditions – we have always had a wider role in society that is concerned with keeping citizens safe. We are extremely proud to have made such an impact on safety through our long history of campaigning and lobbying. And now, 100 years after we began, we have the Grenfell Tower atrocity to address. We will do our utmost to ensure that policies around social housing, building regulations and fire safety will be extensively improved so that people living in tower blocks are safe’.

Find out where the film is screening on the FBU centenary events page at

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