Cork helmets and plastic trousers were part of the uniform when Uckfield firefighter Ian Ritchie joined the service 36 years ago.
They were a far cry from the carbon fibre helmets, with inbuilt torches and visors, and Gortex-lined flame-retardant suits worn today.
Equipment used by firefighters has moved on too. Ian remembers a K- registration 1972 Dennis fire engine, with a 12 litre Jaguar petrol engine, when he started, and an old TK Bedford. “You were lucky if that went over 40mph,” he said.
Ian also remembers having to hang out of the fire engine window at night looking for addresses by torchlight.
Pagers would go off to mobilise firefighters and when they got to the fire station somebody would pick up the phone which had a direct line to control in Lewes.
“They would be huffing and puffing down the line while trying to write down the address of the incident and which fire engines were going,” said Ian.
Nowadays everything is based around computers. Lights tell firefighters which fire engines to use and a printer message is waiting in the station watch room containing details of the incident.
Top of the range Volvo appliances carry specialist rescue equipment – previously there was a separate unit to attend road accidents – and computer equipment too pinpointing the location of the incident, meaning the days of hanging out of the engine window with a torch at night are long gone.
“The kit we have now is some of the best in the world,” said Ian.
He became a part-time retained firefighter in 1980, while carrying on his day job as a domestic appliance engineer, and eventually, after four years of applying, became a whole-timer in 1986 after completing his 16 week course at the Maresfield training Centre.
It was almost inevitable that Ian would join the service because his father Peter was a firefighter before him. He was born in accommodation above Hove fire station and his family moved to Uckfield in 1971 when his father became station commander.
Ian has enjoyed his time as a firefighter: “I love it. When I joined you had to be prepared to give up your social life, with family life taking a back seat, because serving the community had to come first.
“I remember being told at my interview that I wouldn’t be able to carry on playing cricket – I played in the county league in those days – or golf, and sure enough a year later I had to give up.
“There were sacrifices and looking back I can see that I was lucky to have a family who helped look after my wife and children and who would take them out at weekends when I couldn’t.”
There was a thriving family-orientated social life at the fire station though, with a social club and bar generating enough funds to enable children’s parties, Easter and Christmas parties, games evenings and outings to be held.
Probably the most serious incident attended by Ian in Uckfield was the High Street fire four years ago which spread through shops and offices. See an Uckfield News story from that time: Fire in Uckfield High Street.
The saddest time was when a fire at a fireworks factory at Shortgate claimed the lives of two firefighters, Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge.
Ian used to play golf with Geoff and he had known Brian for years.
He said the effects of that fire were still felt within the service today and a minute’s silence is held each year to remember Geoff and Brian. The Wicker Wembridge memorial trophy is also presented annually after a golf competition.
One of the worst feelings Ian ever experienced while attending a fire was when he was searching an Uckfield flat for a missing baby but couldn’t find it. He got on to the radio but was told the baby was still reported missing and so carried on looking.
“That was a horrible feeling. We more or less turned that flat upside down trying to find the baby but then heard that the Dad had jumped from a balcony to the first floor and the Mum had dropped the baby down to him and then got down from the balcony herself and they all went to hospital.”
One of the best memories Ian has is of a time when a road accident victim, who medics at the scene had not expected to survive due to the severity of her injuries, surprised staff by walking into the fire station to thank her rescuers.
Ian said: “We have procedures to follow during road accidents but there are times when the doctor will say ‘Get them out of here now’ and you do whatever you can to get them out quickly. This was one of those times.”
The lives of hundreds of road accident victims have been saved by the fire service during Ian’s time with them and many of the victims have visited the fire station afterward to say thank you. “Those are special moments,” he said.
Firefighters have long memories and one incident Ian has never been allowed to forget is a “mishap” in February 1985 when he crashed a fire engine into cottages at Budletts, Maresfield.
Fire engine and cottages were badly damaged and, while Ian blames snow and ice, ribbing about the crash continues to this day with Ian being told “Let’s go round the roundabout, ‘Budletts’, not go through it.”
Ian, who is married to Helen and has two grown-up children Michael, aged 28, and Katie, 26, is looking forward to playing lots of golf during his retirement. He has already joined a new club.
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