In the dim and distant past I worked as a fireman in Manchester and was stationed at Agecroft, a station which contained the Fire Service Control Room where all the 999 calls were received and dealt with by a bevy of beautiful firewomen. To a young healthy fireman being posted to a station full of women was bliss, and Agecroft soon gained the reputation of being both the best and the most unruly station to work at. This was probably the reason that Greater Manchester Fire Service decided to build its new Headquarters just up the road from Agecroft station… Tragic! We went from a 24 hour party to 24 hour spit and polish almost in an instant.
Being so close to headquarters did have its advantages though. Any VIP visitors to Headquarters usually ended up down at our station so we were always equipped with the latest machines and newest technology, and the station got redecorated and refurnished as a ‘showpiece’ station. One idea the ‘powers that be’ had was to turn the station in a kind of “Thunderbirds” location where some of us would be trained to drive articulated vehicles and have several trailers based at the station housing all sorts of specialist units; a Mobile Control/Major Incident room, a Decontamination Unit, a Heavy Rescue Equipment Unit, an advanced Breathing Apparatus Unit, and a Canteen Unit. This worked great until we needed three units at one incident and realized that we only had one tractor unit to pull them… Eventually Agecroft was left with just the Mobile Control Room and the rest of the Units were sent to other stations.
Computers were just starting being introduced into business at this time (the early 1970s) but anyone walking into our Control Room could have been forgiven for thinking they had slipped back into the 1940s. The equipment was ancient and the control girls were looking after a city of over 4 million people with a few antiquated phones, and a handful of battered A to Z map books! Eventually someone at Headquarters decided to build a new control room and try and incorporate computers into its operation. This had never been tried before so a local electronics giant (Ferranti) was approached to work with us on the project. They agreed but on the proviso that someone from the fire service who was computer-savvy was sent to work with them in the early stages… Damn! As the only graduate fireman in the county (possibly the country) I was torn away from the bosom of my station (literally in the case of a certain firewoman) and sent to work in a seedy “Top Secret” factory full of angry looking soldiers carrying rifles – Ferranti were engaged on several military contracts and were classed as an IRA target 😮
Anyway – to cut a long story of pain and suffering short, the team developed an integrated mapping database and fire control system to go into the new Control Room – from looking like “Dixon of Dock Green” to “Star Trek” in one fell swoop! I was returned to the bosom of my station (literally) to help train the firewomen in the operation of the new Control and be on hand for any software “hiccups”. Eventually the great day came and all the controls girls said farewell to Agecoft and moved into the new Control Room (leaving the old Control intact so that they could all run down the road to it in case of a major systems crash).
We needed a VIP to officially open the new Control Room and who better than Prince Charles? The ‘Royal’ Loo was installed, Equerries arrived to give us briefings and training, rehearsal after rehearsal of ‘mock’ incidents were made to demonstrate the operation of the Control Room, and I was detailed to drive our flashy, newly computerised Mobile Control Room into position in the HQ car park. During rehearsals this had gone without problem, even though squeezing a huge articulated lorry into a space designed for a few cars was a little difficult; but on the day, with a gleaming and polished lorry, wearing brand new uniform I arrived at HQ to find gardeners had planted shrubs and laid turf in the area I needed to use to manoeuvre. The sight of a fireman in the dawn sunshine stripped to his underpants, rolling up turf and pulling up shrubs had to be seen to be believed…
With turf and shrubbery replaced, me showered and suitably uniformed, and the Mobile Control Room in pride of place it was just a case of indulging in the national pastime of ‘waiting’. Firemen aren’t that good at waiting, we’re more ‘doing’ sort of people so it wasn’t long before a crowd of firemen and control girls had gathered in my Control Unit to have a crafty cup of tea (I’d included tea-making facilities in the design of the Control Unit) and a game of cards. Whilst we were chatting someone asked me what I was going to say if Prince Charles talked to me? I jokingly replied that I’d say (in a Yorkshire accent) “How do Charlie, how’s yer Mam?”. Unfortunately one of the Royal Equerries that were prowling around must have overheard me…
When Prince Charles arrived and walked towards me and my flashing, bleeping, aerial strewn computerised Control Unit he was grabbed by the elbow and firmly led away in the opposite direction by one of his ‘minders’. So ended my only brush with royalty!
Incidentally they must have very long memories these Equerries as several years later when I was awarded a medal that is normally presented by royalty it was given to me by the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester instead! Looks like I’m off the Queen’s Honours List for good then 😉