The history of Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service

Find out about the history of Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service:

Early Formation

In 1947 it was decided that the National Fire Service should be reorganised into a series of regional Fire Brigades. At that time there were 23,500 firemen in England and Wales, with an additional 18,000 part time personnel, including a small number of women. It was recognised that these numbers were to prove too small for future requirements.

Cheshire County Fire Brigade was formed on 1 April 1948 after a period of nationalisation spanning six and a half years.

The years following the Second World War were a time of great shortages. A plea was made to the new Fire Brigades from His Majesty's Stationery Office that when disposing of NFS documents all pins, tags, paperclips and file covers should be saved. Severe problems also arose in finding suitable housing for the firemen, firewomen and their families. This continued to be a problem into the next decade.

The 50s

The summer of 1949/50 was exceptionally dry and this led to a considerable increase in the number of fires, with a 33% rise in the number of calls.

There was also an increase of malicious calls, with 53 being noted in that year. It was a worrying trend that was to continue until 1956/57.

At that time about a third of fires were either chimney fires or were caused by children playing with matches. Sparks from railway locomotives were also a problem. A growing area of work was special service calls, many involving the rescue of animals from "precarious positions".

Fire prevention was stepped up with the number of inspections almost doubling in 1950. In 1952/52 a Fire Safety campaign was launched with films shown in every cinema including "Every Five Minutes" and "Fire The Enemy".

Recruitment was a major issue facing the Brigade. A major recruitment drive was launched in 1950 but many officers were leaving the service for more remunerative employment in industry. Another problem was the suitability of candidates. In 1953/54, of the 102 who applied to join only 20 were found to be satisfactory.

After protracted negotiations with the Police, limited participation in a trial of wireless communication was agreed. For the first time fire stations would be linked by radio and by the mid-50s 25 fire appliances had radio communications.

Many fire station premises were found to be totally unsuitable. Many had unsatisfactory facilities with drills being carried out on public thoroughfares. New fire stations were opened at Audlem n 1954/55 - the first since the formation of the Brigade - and Ellesmere Port in 1956. New temporary premises were found for Tarporley in the following year. Poynton fire station and Bebington fire station came into operation in 1958 and 1959 respectively.

New made-to-measure fire tunics with greater protective quality were introduced in 1953/54. Similar arrangements were to follow for part-time staff. Subsequently a new type of helmet was issued to all members of the brigade.

In the early 1950s 240 members of the Brigade became qualified in the use of breathing apparatus. Demonstrations were given in using the equipment underwater. Special thanks were given to the Mines Rescue Station at Boothstown who helped in testing the breathing apparatus.

The 60s

The summer of 1960 saw a major water shortage and the Brigade assisted in laying over one mile of six inch pipe between a moorland stream and a reservoir in Macclesfield. 200,000 gallons a day were pumped for a period of several weeks.

The upward trend in calls, fatalities, special service calls and injuries to firefighters continued throughout the decade. In 1963/64 the number of calls rose to a high of 7450 and 18 people lost their lives. Many were elderly people living alone who died trying to keep warm in the severe winter.

By the end of the decade all calls to the Brigade in Cheshire were received in the central Control Room at Brigade Headquarters. Home Office statistics highlighted in 1969/70 an increase on 20% in property fires costing £120 million of damage.

The Cheshire section of the M6 Motorway had opened in the November.

A growing trend of special service calls arose in 1964/65. These included the Brigade assisting with beach cleaning operations in Cornwall during May following the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster and assistance with disinfecting operations at hundreds of farms throughout the county affected by the dreadful foot and mouth disease.

Perhaps not in the same category of special service call, but an unprecedented search involving 182 members of the Brigade, also took place to find a missing school girl.

The joint Police - Fire Service Wireless Scheme became so congested in 1962 that an independent frequency for exclusive use of the Fire Brigade was agreed. A Wireless Scheme independent of the Police was achieved a year later.

Complaints started in the mid 60s regarding the use of sirens to summon part-time firemen. Sounding mechanisms were adjusted to reduce the time of sounding 30 seconds. A growing number of complaints was reduced by the late 60s and alternative methods were to be sought to alert the part-time service.

The County Council's Fire Brigade Committee introduced the first Junior Fireman Scheme in the mid-60s. Under the scheme boys were enrolled at 16 years and until 18 years undertook further education and training. A serious shortage of staff was reported in this period with many experienced members of the Brigade leaving to take better paid jobs in industrial Brigades. By the end of the decade note was again made of the recruiting problem; finding staff with the right physical and educational standards was as big a problem as ever.

The 70s

The 1970s saw the first major revision of the Brigade since 1948 with amalgamations between Lancashire County, Warrington County Borough and Chester City. Widnes, which had previously been part of the Lancashire County Fire Brigade, Warrington County Brigade and the City Of Chester Fire Brigade all joined to form a smaller Cheshire Fire Brigade, the word County having been dropped from the Brigade title. The Wirral became part of Merseyside and Hyde, Stalybridge, Dukinfield, Marple, Altrincham and Sale joined Greater Manchester. Cheshire now had 23 stations.

By 1976 the Chief Officer was battling to try and make savings of £38,000. He reported to the Committee that this could not be done without reducing manpower.

The 70s are remembered by many as a decade of change and industrial unrest. The decade began with an industrial dispute and was to culminate in 1978 with a strike lasting 9 weeks.

It started when the Fire Brigades Union instructed its members to refuse all duties except answering emergency calls. This situation existed for seven weeks. The Government promised to set up an enquiry to evaluate a fireman's job. It was hoped this would form the basis of a future pay structure.

The strike lasted nine weeks and ended following much bitterness. Fire losses in Cheshire were fortunately small compared with some areas, though there was one major fire at Rock Oil Warrington and a number of serious domestic fires.

The issue of using sirens to alert retained staff was addressed with the introduction of pocket alerters. Other technological developments saw research into infra-red equipment for viewing through smoke. More modern materials were used to replace the old woollen fire tunics. A microfiche system was introduced making obsolete the mobilising cards used in the Control Room.

New fire engines were tendered for the late 70s, for the first time incorporating steel safety cabs and a skid check breaking system.

A staff suggestion scheme was introduced. The princely sum of £3.00 was awarded to a member of staff who proposed an identification board for locating incidents on complex motorway systems.

The early 1970s saw the introduction of fire safety education into the school curriculum. Television also started to play a major part with the launch of a national campaign to try to prevent children playing with matches.

The 80s

In the early 80s the Association of County Councils condemned a report from the Chief and Assistant Fire Chief Officers' Association suggesting the nationalisation of the Fire Service. "Responsibility for the Fire Service clearly and rightly rests with the elected local government" said the ACC.

An emphasis on efficiency and financial controls continued to be an issue. In 1986 the Audit Commission Report "Value For Money In the Fire Service" stated that in Cheshire "one reason for the relatively modest value improvement potential is that the Fire Service appears to be notably well managed." They also concluded: "it is difficult to avoid asking whether the Service would be better off with longer hours on call and higher pay."

Recruitment difficulties also continued to cause problems. A proposal for a Junior Firefighters Scheme for school leavers with financial assistance from the County Council's Youth Training Scheme was requested in 1987. This was subsequently to become known as the Apprentice Firefighters Scheme.

Word processing technology was introduced at Brigade Headquarters and Divisions in 1983 and a completely new radio system was installed at Vaughan's Lane, Chester, in 1984.

At this time Knutsford received new heavy rescue hydraulic cutting and spreading gear - the location being chosen due to its proximity to the motorway network. Also purchased were two sets of equipment to seal leaks on tanks and a thermal thermometer which could be pointed from some distance at tanks and pipework to establish internal temperatures.

One of the greatest tragedies of recent times occurred in 1986 when a holiday flight caught fire on take-off from Manchester Airport. Wilmslow Fire Station who rescued one of the last survivors was awarded a citation from Greater Manchester Fire Service for their work at the disaster. This incident was instrumental in providing a major review of airline safety.

By the late 80s a computerised Stores System to provide "effective low cost solutions to existing clerical problems" was installed at Winsford. The system assisted in stock control and general administration.

1989 saw the purchase of the first thermal imaging camera. Its effectiveness in locating trapped victims was noted and further cameras were purchased in future years.

Finally late in the decade the Brigade attended the First Annual General Meeting of the Welephant Club. Cheshire's Welephant went on to become a key feature of fire safety education.

The 90s

The Brigade installed a telephone answering service into which members of the media could telephone for the latest information about incidents that were being attended. This "voicebank" system was in response to the greatly increased number of calls from media organisations.

Cheshire introduced an education programme to primary schools which taught young children how to react if caught in smoke. Initially this proposal caused some concern with educationalists, but was subsequently proved to save lives in Cheshire with young people putting the lessons into practice.

The Chief Fire Officer was commended for his work on introducing Fire Engineering degrees. In September 1991 the first degrees of this kind worldwide were made available through the University of Central Lancashire, enabling firefighters to become Chartered Fire Engineers.

1992 a management review began the process that would see an end to the historic Divisional Structure and a move to a style of management more befitting a modern Fire Brigade. The Home Office approved the move from three Divisions to a new structure and the establishment changes that this would entail.

Fire Brigade Headquarters and the former home of famous Victorian architect John Douglas was advertised in Country Life in 1996 in order to attract potential purchasers. This was the final phase of the move onto one site at Winsford.

At this time teddy bears started riding with first-line appliances - the idea being to comfort children following fire or accidents. The same year Her Majesty's Inspector comments on Cheshire noted an: "efficient and effective Brigade, particularly the high morale of the firefighters."

Road accidents involving people trapped in vehicles had grown by 50% over this decade. As a result all first-line appliances were equipped with newly available hi-tech cutting and spreading equipment. Frodsham - the first station to be equipped - was sponsored by funds raised at the Bull's Head public house after the tragic death of a customer.

The risk from the many chemical plants in the county led to a major educational drive within the local community. A video was produced for schools and leaflets distributed to every house in Cheshire.

The brigade started a scheme called Fire Cadets at Poynton. Similar to the Scouts or Guides, it encouraged young people between 14-17 to take part in community activity and training.

The new Gallet or Eurohelmet was purchased for firefighters which offered a far higher level of protection than the traditional cork helmet which dated from the just after the war. They soon proved their worth in preventing injuries where the old helmets would have failed.

The extreme weather in the summer of 1995 led to a great increase in calls - over 1000 in one weekend. This caused budgetary problems at the end of the financial year mainly due to turnout fees for retained firefighters.

In March 1997 a final farewell function was organised at Walmoor House to which staff and retired members were invited.

In October 1997 the Duke Of York officially opened the new headquarters marking the start of a new era.

On 1 April 1998 Cheshire County Council shared its responsibility for Cheshire Fire Service as part of the new Cheshire Fire Authority with Halton and Warrington Unitary Councils. This was 50 years from the date that Cheshire County Fire Brigade Department had been formed. The Brigade continued to serve its operational area with dedication, courage, selfless determination and professional skill. The future contains new challenges with national discussions and amalgamations, standards of fire cover, fire safety, conditions of service and new goals of cost effectiveness. Whatever the outcome, Cheshire firefighters are proud of their history and prepared for the future.

2000 to 2010

On 1st October 2006, the new Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was introduced. This set new fire safety rules, which affects all non-domestic premises in England and Wales.

Also in 2006, our work on prevention and protection saw us leading a successful £1 million 'Respect' project to work with young people and delivered over 30,000 Home Safety Assessments.

In 2007, the Service emerged with flying colours from the biggest-ever independent review of the way it delivers services to the communities of Cheshire, Halton and Warrington. The Audit Commission - the national body which ensures public services deliver value for money - has gave the organisation Four Stars, the highest possible rating, and added that it is "performing well".

This summer of 2007 saw unprecedented rainfall levels and major flooding across the country which caused devastation to areas such as Yorkshire and Worcester. Crews from Cheshire were mobilised to assist with the devastating floods in South Yorkshire.

In 2008, following the closure by Cheshire County Council of the secondary Control Room 'back-up' system at the Beacons near Frodsham, a new secondary system was commissioned at Warrington fire station.

In July 2008, the Service was one of the first in the country to achieve Level 3 of the Local Government Equality Standard through a rigorous external assessment process and the achievement was marked at a special awards ceremony in Manchester.

In November 2008, we saw a dramatic fall in the number of bonfire incidents, a major reduction in calls received by Control operators and no reported injuries.

In March 2009, the Service hit its target of carrying out 60,000 Home Safety Assessments in 12-months.

April 2009 was a time for new beginnings with the launch of new councils for Cheshire East and Cheshire West and Chester resulting in a new-look Fire Authority and new Chair. This was also the month that the major new building programme started at Headquarters.

October 2009, existing Deputy Paul Hancock was appointed Chief Fire Officer. He replaced Steve McGuirk who moved to the Chief's role at Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

2010 onwards

In June 2010 a new extension to the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service HQ in Winsford was completed. This included new offices, meeting rooms, restaurant and a re-furbishment of existing rooms and corridors throughout the HQ building.  A new car park was also opened to the rear of the building.

In February 2011 firefighters in the International Search and Rescue (ISAR) team embarked on an emotional mission to New Zealand to help in the country’s recovery following a massive earthquake.  The following month the Service’s search and rescue dog, Bryn went to Japan with his owner Steve Buckley to assist in the aftermath of yet another major natural disaster.

At The Fire Fighters Charity annual national awards ceremony the Service was given the prestigious title of Fire and Rescue Service of the Year, prompting a royal visit to Headquarters by His Royal Highness, The Duke of Kent.

What is believed to be the longest fire in the history of the Service ignited in October 2012.  Fire broke out at a recycling plant in Widnes and burned for four weeks, with firefighters on site throughout. 

Earlier that year, in April, a sprinkler campaign was launched with a live demonstration at a Crewe housing association property and a couple of months later the most was made of an overnight closure of the M56 when a major exercise involving a multi-car pile up and a leaking tanker was held.  The exercise no doubt helped the crews dealing with a difficult collision on the M6 in December.  Nine vehicles and 15 casualties were involved.

2013 began with a premiere of a series of road safety films made by Cheshire Fire Cadets in memory of their friend and fellow Congleton Cadet Hayley Bates.  A new Healthy Hearts Gym was opened in May at Runcorn Fire Station to assist those in the area with cardiac-related illnesses, working in conjunction with the Halton Health Improvement Team.

A film crew spent a large part of the year with the Service as television choirmaster Gareth Malone formed a choir made up of firefighters, support staff and volunteers to take part in the BBC 2 series of Sing While You Work.  The 24-strong choir proved a great hit with the national television audience, making it all the way through to the final programme.

A new emergency services’ hub was opened at Poynton Fire Station in January 2014.  Firefighters were joined by police officers and north west ambulance personnel in a bid to create a more efficient service. Two members of staff were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year; Chief Fire Officer Paul Hancock was given the Queen’s Fire Service Medal, awarded to members of the UK and Commonwealth of Nations fire services for distinguished service or gallantry, and Watch Manager Peter Shields was given the British Empire Medal for his work as Fire Fighters Charity coordinator and welfare officer.

Six Cheshire firefighters returned from a challenging mission to Bosnia as part of a 33-strong UK Flood Response Team. They had been helping in the aftermath of wide-spread flooding that had resulted in a state of emergency being declared in parts of the Balkan Region. In a heart-warming October the Nantwich co-responder team won a national award for their life-saving work in Cheshire East. 

This was also the year that saw one of the biggest changes in the Service’s history when the control room functioned transferred to North West Fire Control in Warrington. The facility is now responsible for handling all 999 calls and the mobilisation of crews and fire engines on behalf of Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire fire and rescue services.

Early in 2015 the Government announced new safety laws to make it compulsory for all landlords to fit a smoke alarm on every floor of a rented property. As chair of the Chief Fire Officer Association’s national home safety committee, then Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark Cashin led the successful campaign. The first of four new Cheshire fire stations was opened in Alsager, as part of the Emergency Response Programme. It is staffed by on-call firefighters. In Warrington, more than 70 firefighters tackled a blaze at the former Mr Smith’s nightclub, made famous in the late 80s early 90s as the venue for Pete Waterman’s dance music show The Hitman and Her.  Four teenagers were later charged with arson.

In April the ISAR team, including Bryn the search and rescue dog, was deployed to Nepal to help after the devastating earthquake. On his return, Bryn put away his passport and retired from international duties. He was later presented with the canine equivalent of the OBE by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

Just after 9am on Friday July 17 an explosion ripped through Bosley Wood Flour Mill, killing four people in what is probably the Service’s most challenging incident. The resulting fire involved more than 200 tonnes of wood flour in a silo. All three emergency services were given a Pride of Cheshire award at Silk FM and Cheshire East Council’s local hero awards ‘for their hard work, dedication and courage during the Bosley fire and explosions and for their continued commitments in the weeks that followed. Throughout this dreadful episode they never failed to be kind, courteous and sensitive to the community and all those affected’.

It was a musical start to 2016 when the Fire Choir was invited to sing at both the world-famous Carnegie Hall and Ground Zero in New York. Later in the year the choir released a download of The Rising to raise money for the Fire Fighters Charity and headlined their first concert at Warrington’s Parr Hall. The Service’s first app, Risk Rater was launched, enabling Cheshire residents to assess the safety of their homes online.

Wilmslow Fire Station became home to one of Cheshire Search and Rescue Team’s vehicles, meaning members of the team are able to collect the vehicle quickly and improve response times. The first cohort of firefighter and community safety apprentices were honoured at their Prince’s Trust graduation, the prelude to their apprenticeship, the first scheme of its kind in UK fire and rescue services.

All 28 fire stations across the Service were fitted with publicly-accessible defibrillators throughout 2017 in a bid to help save the lives of people who suffer a cardiac arrest. The first wholetime cohort for seven years passed their initial training course with excellent results. Penketh Fire Station opened in February of this year, with Powey Lane Fire Station opening a couple of months later in April.

Blue Light Collaboration gathered pace throughout the year, with several back office departments making the move to Clemonds Hey and joining forces with police counterparts to provide a joint support service to operational firefighters and police officers.

Safe and Well visits were introduced, replacing and building on Home Safety Assessments. In addition to home fire safety information crews and advocates give additional advice on slips, trips and fall prevention, bowel cancer screening and offering additional support to people who want to stop smoking, taking drugs or reduce their alcohol consumption.

The Service was in the first tranche of English fire and rescue services to be independently assessed in 2018. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) assessed effectiveness, efficiency and people during a week-long inspection. Chief Fire Officer Paul Hancock retired after 34 years with the UK fire service. He was succeeded by Mark Cashin who had joined the Service as Deputy Chief Fire Officer in 2007 from Greater Manchester FRS.

A pilot project was launched in partnership with Cheshire Police in a project introducing a drone, or unmanned aerial system, for use at a wide range of incident types. Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal officially opened Safety Central, the Service’s purpose built lifeskills education centre at Lymm and firefighters rescued 17 people trapped on a rollercoaster at Gulliver’s World in Warrington. A founding member of the UK International Search and Rescue Team (UKISAR) in 1993, the Service was proud to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the organisation. Firefighters also commemorated all those who have lost their lives while serving in one of the UK’s emergency services on the first national Emergency Services Day in September.  

Last updated: Thursday 10 January 2019