Mick Rowley on his career as a Berkshire firefighter
PUBLISHED: 11:21 23 November 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 23 November 2015
Mick Rowley has battled more than blazes during a fascinating career as a Berkshire firefighter, as he reveals to Jan Raycroft
There comes a time when each of us decides: “You know, that’s enough for now,” and so retire from full-time work. But very few can look back on such extraordinary memories as Mick Rowley, a proud former member of The Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. Before we’ve even considered tackling roaring flames or saving people in jeopardy, there’s the busy role of being a local Fire Brigades Union secretary during a period of upheaval and long battles to keep a full-time fire station in Windsor. High Court challenges, lobbying parliament and luring celebrity endorsements – Mick was at the centre of it all.
“It really became a challenge,” he recalls. “And something of a learning curve for me. I started using Twitter to rally support and a Facebook page rapidly took off and quickly had 6,000 to 7,000 supporters.
“Because it was Windsor the campaign got a lot of attention and notable supporters, even Barbara Windsor! Elton John sent a signed photo of support on which he’d written ‘Please keep Windsor Fire Station open. They do a fantastic job for the community’. We were delighted to receive that one, and I still treasure it.”
It was a long battle and by 2009 Berkshire Fire Authority had announced cost-cutting plans for Windsor Fire Station to be open in daylight hours only, with cover provided from nearby towns. Celebrities such as Sir Michael Parkinson, Lord Alan Sugar and golfer Nick Faldo were not the only ones paying attention.
The Royal Family never becomes involved in issues which have a political nuance, but it was clear they had not forgotten how the local station was first to arrive to help the castle’s own fire brigade during the devastating fire there in November, 1992. A letter from Her Majesty the Queen said she had ‘taken careful note’ of the firefighters’ campaign and asked for her letter to be passed to relevant authorities.
The Duke of York, who had been on the scene directing castle staff as art treasures were rescued from the blaze, expressed sympathy for the Windsor crews and wished them the best of luck. There was also a supportive letter from the Duke of Edinburgh, and Mick received another from the office of The Princess Royal congratulating him on his work and sending ‘you and your colleagues her best wishes for the future’.
Even with such notable support, by 2011 Windsor was down to daytime coverage only, a new fire station having opened in Wokingham. But two years later the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council funded the majority of a £400,000 station in Tinkers Lane, with the remaining £100,000 coming from a government grant. Mick would still like to see more. “It’s a bit of a fudge, really,” he says. “Most of the risk in Windsor is predominantly in the centre, while the station is on the outskirts. And you still get appliances from Slough having to cover gaps during the day.”
He may have retired in the summer, but concerns for local safety remain. So what made him decide to call it a day? “I’m pretty glad I started at a time when firefighters could work until 55 or when they had completed 30 years service. These days they are expected to keep going until 60. Yes, you have to be fit and strong to do the job, but the tests to ensure you are include some ‘brutal mechanics’ such as beep tests (where those taking part must cover a distance in increasingly shorter times). It creates a lot of anxiety when you are older, even if very fit. So at 52 I was happy to start a new life.”
Mick, a father of two, is originally from Newcastle and started out as an apprentice engineer. But he wanted to be a fireman – and during the recruitment process discovered he was among 2,500 applicants for 20 places. “It was like trying to join the SAS, I think,” he jokes. “I got down to the last 25 and then just missed out.”
For some this would be devastating, but Mick discovered the fire service in Berkshire was recruiting and decided to apply: “This time I was up against 1,500 and it was a case of ‘You’re late or badly dressed, so you’re out’. I managed to get on the basic recruits course and then you have four years of nerve-wracking training.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Mick decided to study law via the University of London (he claims to have only ever read one book up to then), and can now put LLB (Hons) after his name, not that it’s the sort of thing he’s likely to do.
Firefighters, of course, see some terrible sights. Mick says that those who claim they are impervious to such things are in denial: “There are always those incidents that can come back to wake you in the night. But I really believe that life is a wine glass that is half full or half empty – it’s definitely better when it’s half full, so that’s my choice.”
So he likes to remember events such as a call at Whitley Wood where the crew arrived to discover a man trapped by his ankles in a car that was well alight. “Four or five people were trying to help, but they couldn’t get close enough. There was a look on the face of the driver as if he had already given up, his clothes were starting to smoulder. But the man was rescued, and although he lost a foot it was a major turnaround and he got his life back.”
The Windsor Castle fire
Mick was off duty on 20 November 1992, but the first TV and radio reports gave him a quick jolt as to the potential of the blaze, and so he headed to the Windsor station, seeing smoke rising from beyond Peascod Street.
“At first it was a case of offering tea and coffee to those on duty, but as things went on more and more appliances from across the region were joining the Windsor Castle Brigade there. A bizarre scene sticks in my mind – dozens of soldiers carrying a huge rolled up carpet to safety, they looked like a centipede. The next day there was a lady wandering round inside the cordon we had to keep Joe Public out and I was going to politely ask her to leave, being big on health and safety, but then she was gone. The next day I saw photos in the papers and realised it was the Queen.
“We were damping down for days after as the fire was still smouldering. It was quite spooky at night patrolling the castle in the pitch black, looking for sparks and hot spots.”
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