Call the Fire Brigade: Fighting London’s Fires by Allan Grice is a magnificent book about the London Fire Brigade in the 1970s. A couple of months ago Jim – GM8LFB, a retired London firefighter suggested this book via Twitter. I read the excerpt that he linked to and instantly it became a book I wanted to read. At the time I couldn’t download it because my Kindle was broken but I received a new one for Christmas and Call the Fire Brigade was my first purchase. I’m thankful for Jim’s suggestion because this was a terrific read, probably the best book I’ve read since The Admirals by Walter Bourneman. Allan Grice was a London firefighter in the 1970’s, transferring from a more rural service to the London Fire Brigade and served in London’s East End. Service in the East End meant seeing many fires in warehouses and tenements, in some of the poorest and most down and out areas of London. These areas saw some of the worst fires in some of the most dangerous conditions. If this sounds familiar to US readers, it may be because Call the Fire Brigade is a quite similar in nature to Dennis Smith’s Report from Engine Co. 82. If you’ve read Smith’s excellent book on his FDNY service at the busiest fire station in the United States, Grice’s book and experiences are similar in the type of fires and neighborhoods encountered. If you enjoyed reading Report from Engine Co. 82, you’ll enjoy Call the Fire Brigade as well!
Grice’s writing is wonderful. He puts you right there in the fire station and in the midst of the calls with the fire crews. He really brings out the personalities of the firefighters he worked with, bringing the interactions between them alive and showing how the chemistry between them helped them get the job done and stay sane in the process. His writing conveyed the conditions of smoke and fire experienced by firefighters. The emotions and thoughts of handling high stress and tragic incidents are described. Perhaps things are a bit graphic at times but it shows the reality of what he and his fellow firefighters encountered. I enjoyed how he compared and contrasted the London Fire Brigade of the World War II years to the London Fire Brigade of the 1970s and how the experiences of the firefighters in the World War II years helped mold how the service developed and influenced the leadership of the Brigade in the 1970s. Also of interest are his descriptions of how the job impacted family life, such as relationships with wives and having to take second jobs to make ends meet (things that haven’t changed over the decades). Finally, I was particularly interested on his analysis of the “us vs. them” relationship between the firefighters on the front lines and the command staff above (something familiar to anyone who works in public safety).
If I have any complaint about the book, it really is a minor one. He frequently alludes to health and safety regulations that would soon begin to change the UK Fire Service but he never really gets into any detail on them, just making generalizations on the the changes that would come. More detail on the regulations and the changes they caused would have been useful to this reader but I understand that the book was written for a UK audience who is probably familiar with the regulations in question. This leads me to another compliment to Grice’s writing; the terminology used in the UK fire service is quite different from that used here in the United States but it never becomes confusing because he describes the ranks, apparatus, and tools being used.
If you have any interest in firefighting or public safety, particularly if you work in public safety, this is a book you’ll want to read.