A selection of front covers from the FBUs members magazine Firefighter dating back to the 1950s

A key role in history and firefighting

By the end of 2018, FBU members and the public should know a great deal more about the history of the firefighters’ union and the key role it has played in shaping a much loved and trusted emergency service.

For 2018 is the union’s centenary year. Regions, sections and head office are already gearing up to shape a memorable programme of events aimed at connecting with rank and file members.

General secretary Matt Wrack said the union was “under huge pressure” as the fire and rescue service faces “unprecedented cuts”. But he made it clear that the union’s leadership will not be deflected from marking an important milestone in FBU history.

Speaking at “A Hundred Years of Firefighting and Unity”, a seminar held at the TUC with academics, fire service representatives, EC members and FBU officials from across regions and sections, he said: “We didn’t want the centenary to just pass us by. So it’s important to plan well ahead.” The seminar was the first formal event in the run up to 2018.

Wrack opened the day with a whistlestop tour of key moments that helped to shape the union and the modern fire service. The Second World War, which claimed the lives of many firefighters in the Blitz, proved a turning point, he said.

There was a “big strategic debate” in the union over recruitment of wartime auxiliary or part-time firefighters. Those who believed they should join won the day, despite fierce opposition from some FBU officials and many full-time firefighters. As a result, the union “grew very, very significantly”.

A bigger, stronger union was in place after the war. As the new politics of the post-war consensus gave unions “a seat at the table” the FBU was, Matt Wrack said, in a “strong position to shape the new fire service”. Which is exactly what it did.

This was the fire service he had joined in the early eighties. Now, many of the structures then in place have been dismantled.

Today’s firefighters face a very different world – where public services are treated “much more like markets’’ in the drive towards privatisation.

Leeds Beckett University historian Shane Ewen, author of Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service 1800-1978, argued that the fire service was, for the most part, created by its firefighters.

It was firefighting professionals who championed saving people as well as property from fire and pushed for fire prevention measures to help save both lives and buildings.


Academic researchers are already interviewing fire­fighters in preparation for a book to be published on the union’s centenary. Tessa Wright of Queen Mary University of London has found that the FBU was seen as a leader in promoting equality and diversity at work by other unions in the late nineties.

Tessa Wright
Tessa Wright of Queen Mary, University of London, spoke on equality issues in the FBU and in the fire and rescue service 

Minority sections for women, black and ethnic minority and LGBT members have also strength­ened activism to the union’s wider benefit. Women activists “punched above their weight”, focusing on all industrial issues alongside securing good deals on maternity leave and lobbying for separate facilities.

Sam Rye, national women’s committee (NWC) secretary, hopes to research and tell the stories of past women members who influenced their peers and made a difference, inspiring those who have come after. She is impressed by women auxiliaries who played key roles in keeping citizens safe during the Second World War, decades before women were recruited as frontline firefighters.

Michael Nicholas, black and ethnic minority members (B&EMM) secretary, cites the historic resistance of the UK fire and rescue service to employing black people in operational roles – and those who left the service after facing overt discrimination.


Equality sections were, he says, prompted by self-organising groups, enabling the union to take the lead role in driving the equality agenda in the service. Changes in union rules and structures “gave minority members the voice they rightly deserved”.

Male homosexuality was criminalised until the late sixties. Now gay marriage is celebrated. LGBT pioneers supported members in an overtly hostile culture – an important part of the union’s story, says Pat Carberry, LGBT section national secretary.

Regions are already gathering material for centenary celebrations. In the South West, the union is going through its archives.

Photographs of members at rallies and confer­ences back in 1948 have just been found, says EC member Tam McFarlane. “Our history is that of our job and our industry. We are uncovering not just the history of the FBU as an organisation, but the pivotal role our union played in developing and building the fire service.”

Retired firefighter Keith Handscomb wants to commemorate firefighters who have died in the line of duty
Retired firefighter Keith Handscomb wants to commemorate firefighters who have died in the line of duty 

Retired Essex firefighter and FBU official Keith Handscomb is keen to commemorate firefighters killed in the line of duty over the decades, chronicle his own experience and encourage other retired members to share their stories.

Wrapping up the history seminar – which could be the first in a series in the run up to the 2018 celebrations – Wrack said the centenary would be “not just about looking backwards but organising for the future”.

The union’s leaders hope members will connect with and contribute to centenary events. Expect news soon from your local region and section.

And if you’ve unearthed a relative’s firefighting diary from the Second World War or pictures of firefighters marching against austerity many years back, get in touch and share what you’ve found. After all, it’s your union …

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