Dr Shane Ewen tells Jeff’s story as a reminder of the sacrifices firefighters make to protect their local communities and his significance in the union’s campaign for improved firefighter safety across the service.
On 10 July 1983, 36 years ago, firefighter Jeff Naylor died as a result of burns injuries sustained at a house fire in Keighley more than two months earlier. He was the last serving firefighter in West Yorkshire to die on active duty and is still remembered as a hero in West Yorkshire, with the town’s fire engine named in his honour.
On 27 April 1983, Keighley fire station’s white watch responded to a call to a domestic fire in Broomhill Walk, with five children trapped inside the house; all were rescued, but two sadly died from injuries. In his statement to West Yorkshire Police, from his hospital bed, firefighter Jeff Naylor recalled the following details: “I picked up the child and suddenly there was a flashover and all went red. I was knocked over and fell downstairs because of the blast. I picked the child up again but there was another blast and I lost hold of her. I staggered downstairs and must have gone into the room where the fire was because I felt myself burning.” Jeff was found collapsed in the hallway, his uniform in flames, clutching the young girl, and he was helped out of the house.
This matter-of-factness in his testimony reveals a professionalism and duty of care that was warmly appreciated by the grieving parents. The girl’s mother described to reporters how Jeff was “the bravest man I have ever seen … The fire engine didn’t even have time to stop before he was in through the door. He just went straight in regardless of the flames lashing out of the front room.”
Jeff had form in saving lives. In January 1982, he received the Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation for helping in the rescue of four young children from a house fire in Dalton Lane, Keighley. As one of his colleagues from white watch, Malcolm Pullen, said of him: “He was a real worker and was always first in there. You could rely on him.”
Jeff fought for his life in the burns unit at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, buoyed by the hundreds of get well cards and other tokens of appreciation sent from well-wishers. He sadly succumbed to his injuries 10 weeks later in July.
Given a funeral with full fire service honours, approximately 1,000 firefighters attended from across the country as his coffin, draped in a Union Jack flag was carried on a turntable ladder to St Joseph’s Church, only some 200 yards from the scene of the fire. His white watch colleagues acted as pall bearers.
Newspapers were full of tributes to this ‘shy hero’. Jeff’s divisional commander described him as a “quiet person with a quiet determination”, who was proud to serve his home town of Keighley for over eight years. His divisional union secretary, Steven Lofthouse, noted that the town came to a halt for his funeral, paying their quiet respects to “one of their firemen”, such is the bond between a firefighter and the community he protects. His bravery was recognised posthumously with a commendation from the Queen, which his son collected.
Jeff’s death also revealed the shortcomings in firefighters’ uniform, which had remained largely unchanged since the Second World War. Jeff was wearing the standard uniform at the time – woollen tunic, rubber boots, plastic gloves, and the infamous bright yellow plastic leggings over nylon under-trousers – which gave inadequate protection to his body. Writing in Firefighter magazine at the time, Dave Matthews, FBU officer for health and safety, raised concerns that firefighters were responding to calls in nylon shorts, tracksuit bottoms and even in some cases nothing but underwear under their leggings. Moreover, anyone suffering burns to their legs while wearing nylon under-trousers would face having the nylon melting into the wounds.
The union had in fact campaigned since the 1950s for safer working conditions, most famously with its ‘Give me a uniform of which I can be PROUD!’ campaign, and it was an active member of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Committee in negotiating national policy with the Home Secretary. Its goal was not to eradicate risk entirely from the service – this was impossible in a hazardous profession – but to better manage firefighter safety by learning from historic cases such as Jeff Naylor’s, and acting upon them through the appropriate channels as part of the state’s duty of care to public service workers.
Within a few years, thanks to collaboration between local and national consultative bodies, West Yorkshire Fire Service had introduced improved uniform – waterproof and fire-resistant tunic and trousers, leather gloves and Cromwell helmet; it would later go on to introduce the personal protective equipment system in the late 1990s to improve kit replacement and repair. Throughout this period, the memory of Jeff Naylor was repeatedly invoked as a symbol of the service’s responsibility towards its employees; improved health and safety in the service would be a lasting tribute to Jeff and his quiet heroism.
To commemorate Jeff’s bravery, the Fire Brigades Union is erecting a special red plaque in Lund Park in Keighley, just a short walk from the scene of the fire, and organising a special screening of The Firefighters’ Story.
Sunday 7 July 2019
1100 - Dedication ceremony
Lund Park, Keighley (Malsis Road entrance)
1200-1700 - Reception and film screening
Kirkgate Centre, Shipley