HL Deb 23 February 1937 vol 104 cc279-86

VISCOUNT MERSEY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are proposing to adopt any methods for expanding or supplementing the existing material and personnel of the fire brigade services in large towns to deal with outbreaks of fire that might be caused by enemy action; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships for more than a very few minutes at this hour. I put this Question down some weeks ago because I thought it was a matter of definite public importance and one in which the civic populations ought to be instructed. I have deferred it until to-day merely in order to meet the convenience of the Department concerned. I do not think it is at all necessary to emphasise the danger of fire. I think it is recognised that fire is the greatest danger in an enemy attack. As I heard someone say, extremely appositely, the other day, gas does not generate gas, but fire generates fire and does not, like gas, have to bring its own fuel from overseas.

In view of the very great damage which might be started by fire, a Departmental Committee, as your Lordships are possibly aware, sat under the chairmanship of Lord Riverdale nearly two years ago. They made a number of useful suggestions, which appear to me, at any rate, to cover nearly the whole ground. The object of my question to the noble Marquess to-night is principally to know to what extent the Government are prepared to adopt those recommendations and whether the necessary items, particularly the Exchequer grant, the provisions for expanding the personnel and the system of Government control of the fire brigades—which, as your Lordships know, are at present under the local authorities—are to be adopted. Anyone reading the account in "Pepys" of the Great Fire, a most lively and interesting account, is struck by the tremendous need for housebreaking. The King and the Duke of York rode through the streets telling the people to pull down their houses, and apparently in all the churches hooks were hung up with which they pulled down the houses in danger. It is really a case of proximus ardet Ucalegon: the thing to do is to stop the next man from having his house on firs. Is housebreaking being considered?

There is also salvage, which is a great opportunity—for one can compare even those days with these—for thieving. Are any provisions contemplated for salvage services? Then one has to look at the difference of our streets from those in the large Continental capitals. There are no boulevards here as there are in Paris and Berlin, and we have our streets full of electric mains, telephone cables, sewage pipes, water mains and gas mains, all of which could be damaged, so that further fires would be set up and water wasted. Is that being taken into consideration? Then there is the necessity for short-circuiting some of the big water mains. These may seem minor things, but they would not be minor things at all if fire arose. One sees from the Press, which I follow in this connection, that a good deal is being done. Almost every day there are little paragraphs saying that fire brigades here and there are making new experiments. Can the noble Marquess say that the Government are really getting on with the unification of the fire services? I mean by unification their standardisation throughout the country.

There is also the question of inhabitants in the streets. One knows what a tremendous nuisance people who have nothing to do are in an emergency. There was the case of the Crystal Palace the other day: a great many of the essential services were, I believe, blocked by the lookers-on. Even when there is a wedding in a large street, when everybody is in a good temper, you cannot get through. Fire-fighting is of course a very technical business and it is essential, as I see is recommended in the Committee's Report, that you should not have, on the lists of people who are going to be made use of to supplement the personnel, people who are already on a list for supplementing some other service, such as the ambulance or police services or the Territorials. The responsibility is, of course, on the local authorities, and I understand—at least, I hope—that the Exchequer is going to give them some form of grant in aid. I think those are the only points which are not mentioned in the Departmental Committee's Report. One speaks, of course, largely of London, but what covers London covers also the provincial services. If the noble Marquess can tell us that he is able to lay some form of Paper, whether here or in another place, and within some reasonable time, I shall be quite satisfied. I beg to move.


My Lords, I feel sure that you will all agree with me that the noble Viscount has done a public service in bringing this matter to the attention of your Lordships' House, because it is quite obvious that the problem is of the very gravest importance in any time of war. The Government recognised its importance some time ago when it set up the Riverdale Committee, to which reference has already been made. I will only say that I propose to give the noble Viscount a fairly full answer, but that I do not think that he can ask me to give an answer about the possibility of producing an increased Salvage Corps, which, as he knows, is now only a private organisation, run, I think, by the insurance companies, or indeed that I could give him any answer about any proposals there may be for regulating crowds in time of fire. That is clearly the province of the police, and not of the fire brigade.


I am afraid I did not make myself clear. What I meant to ask was whether instructions might be given to the civil population as to what they should do in case of large fires.


No doubt those instructions would naturally be given, but not by the fire brigade themselves, with which this Motion is primarily concerned. Of course, the problem of the incendiary bomb and its results is probably the major problem of air attack. How you are going to deal with that is the first thing that you will have to decide, because the solution of the problems of gas and high explosives mainly depends on the maintenance of the morale of the population. But, as my noble friend has said, fire has to do with physical things and has physical causes. The only point I would like finally to make in prefacing my remarks is this. The fire caused by an incendiary bomb is not at all different from any other form of fire. There seems to be some feeling among some people in this country that the fire of the incendiary bomb is different in kind from any other kind of fire. That is not so. Apart from the bomb itself, clearly the measures one has to take to destroy the fire it causes are precisely the same as those one would have to take to destroy any other kind of fire.

The problem, as we see it, is simply this, that in all large towns the highly-organised fire brigades are concentrated in a limited number of stations, and based, quite rightly, on the principle that there will not be more than two or at the very most three, major fires at the same time. Now in war time, with incendiary bombs being dropped, that hypothesis is no longer valid. Any organisation that is set up will have to be prepared to deal with a great number of fires, any one of which conflagrations might potentially be of the very greatest danger unless it is tackled almost immediately. Therefore the problem, as the Government see it, is that the dispersal of personnel and apparatus is the major necessity in fighting fires in war time—the necessity of having plenty of men and much apparatus to be able to get to the fire quickly before it reaches serious proportions. If that is the problem, it must be solved clearly in three ways. It has to be solved by an increase of apparatus, by an increase of personnel to use the apparatus, and, as my noble friend pointed out, by an augmentation, wherever possible, of existing water supplies.

I am going to say a little about the increase of apparatus in a few moments, but I should like to make it absolutely clear now that any increase in apparatus must be dependent upon an increase of personnel who are able to use it. There is no conceivable point in spending vast sums, or any sums, on apparatus if there is no one who is capable of understanding its use. The only people at present who can take advantage of any increase in apparatus are the ordinary firemen, or retired firemen, who are not very many in number, but who no doubt would respond to any call on their services, should emergency come. It is therefore clearly necessary that an auxiliary firemen's service should be part of every large city's fire brigade organisation; that is to say, that it is necessary to have a large number of people who are what might be called part-time firemen, but who would receive a full course of training in fire fighting during peace time, and who would also, again in peace time, be available to assist the regular brigade in order to gain experience. That is the first essential to meet the problem that the noble Viscount has put. The idea of part-time firemen is not very familiar in cities like London, but it is familiar in many parts of the country, and undoubtedly that system will have to play a very large part in any measures that we take to avert the danger of fire. May I express my confidence, and the Government's confidence, that there will be people available in great numbers who will be prepared to undergo this training, and in time of emergency to undertake this dangerous—for it will be dangerous—but vital work.

Well, if the establishment of the auxiliary personnel is the first essential, the second essential is quite clearly a very large increase in the number of fire-fighting appliances available. Those appliances may be in several categories. There is first of all the heavy fire-fighting apparatus, which is absolutely necessary for very large fires, and absolutely necessary for relaying water over long distances. The Government, I confess, take the matter of increasing the supply of these very heavy fire-fighting appliances very seriously indeed. They quite agree with the noble Viscount that it is essential that the number of these appliances should be multiplied very considerably. It is obviously not possible for me to give any definite figure of what the Government have in mind over so diverse an area as England and Scotland, but I assure the noble Viscount that the Government think that these appliances should be multiplied very considerably; I have not got any idea merely of doubling them in my mind. That is the first essential—heavy appliances.

The second essential, it seems to us, is that a system of patrols should be set up, so that every street would be patrolled at more or less regular intervals all through the emergency by lighter appliances more capable of getting over debris, more capable of getting about when bombs are falling, and which would be capable of striking at the root of a fire before it really got away. I ask the noble Viscount to believe that when I say every street in the large cities should be patrolled at regular intervals, that is no figure of speech, but is a genuine sign of the magnitude of the task which the Government feel should be undertaken. Finally, we feel it is necessary to have a number of fire posts in addition to the patrol who would watch for fires in empty houses, where there would be no people to give warning, and watch for fires at the back of houses and so on, and who would be armed with hand appliances which would be of the greatest assistance to householders themselves in getting at the fire before it has reached dangerous proportions. Therefore your Lordships will realise that the Government have taken this matter very seriously in hand. In order to help local authorities, on whom everything in the last resort will depend, to get ahead with this scheme as soon as possible, the Government are undertaking to provide approved types of appliances with hose and equipment up to a proportion of the local authorities' requirements under their approved local emergency scheme. Furthermore, provision will, I understand, be made for the necessary financial adjustment.

In conclusion, I come to the question raised by my noble friend of the augmentation of water supply. We have to face a situation where it may be that owing to the action of high explosives the water mains are out of action, and furthermore, we have to face the possibility that even if the mains are not put out of use by enemy action, in any case there will not be enough water to go round. The Government feel that that problem can only be solved by making available as many sources of extra water supply as possible by the use of long distance pumping from rivers, reservoirs and so on. A great deal can be done in that way. I would also say to the noble Viscount that a very great deal can be done by skilled people with very little water. The man who knows how to use water can do a great deal with a very few gallons. I think your Lordships will agree that the problem we are trying to face is essentially one of men and of materials and that the Government have got a very practical scheme for dealing with it. It might be said—the noble Viscount did not say it—that this scheme should have been produced earlier.


Hear, hear.


The answer to that is, very simply, that it would have been perfectly easy to produce a paper scheme to satisfy my noble friend who said "Hear, hear," but it is much better to have waited a little longer and to have produced a scheme drawn up in consultation with experienced firemen which the Government are convinced will work, and work well. Steps are now in train to enable local authorities to take advantage of this scheme straight away, and, as your Lordships probably know, a circular is being sent out this evening to all local authorities and all other bodies who may be interested describing the scheme and making, in very much greater detail, the statement I have made to your Lordships. I propose to put that circular in the Printed Paper Office, where it will be available to all your Lordships. In view of that, I hope very much, as I have given the noble Viscount a very full reply, he will not find it necessary to press his Motion.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Marquess for what he has said. I think he has covered nearly all the points I raised. There was one that perhaps did not seem as rosy as it might, and that was the reserve fire brigade men. From what little experience I have of watching fires, fire-fighting is a pretty difficult job. You want men at the top of their physical powers. Generally they have been sailors, I believe, and I am not quite certain that men who have been out of training for five or six years will be able to do everything that is physically expected of them when the need arises. The other point was in reference to house-breaking. There ought certainly to be some corps available of ordinary masons and their mates who can deal with the house-breaking which will certainly be necessary. Again, I go back to the example of the Great Fire. The whole trouble of the Lord Mayor of the day was to get people to pull down houses in time and thus keep the fire from spreading.


I should have said that that point has not been overlooked by the Government.


In view of what the noble Marquess has said regarding the paper which he is placing in the Printed Paper Office, I would ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.