Today marks the 10th anniversary of the London riots – one of the busiest and most challenging periods in London Fire Brigade’s history.
Between Saturday, 6 August and Tuesday,10 August, 2011, the Brigade’s 999 control room received more than 5,000 emergency calls, averaging out at one every 48 seconds. London’s fire crews battled one blaze every nine minutes for five consecutive days. On an average day the Brigade would receive around 500 calls and attend around 50 fires.
Just like every major incident the Brigade attends important lessons were learnt during the riots that have helped the service plan and prepare better for other major events post-2011. These include:
- Greater intelligence sharing for pre-planned or spontaneous events including public demonstrations working in liaison with London’s partners including the blue light services.
- Improved forward mobilising tactics. This is where fire engines are moved into a temporary strategic location so that more resources can be sent quickly to an incident. During the London Riots, some fire stations were close to the rioting making it challenging to mobilise from. Moving firefighters to a central mobilising point early meant they were still able to get to fires. This approach has helped the Brigade at subsequent terrorist attacks and civil order offences.
- Improved training relating to public order events for National Inter-agency Liaison Officers (NILO). During incidents NILO’s are a vital communication link between other agencies and the Brigade and are able to provide incident commanders with advice and support regarding the nature of specific risks and threats.
- Having a greater voice within councils and community groups, enabling the Brigade to demonstrate the value in prevention work and seek for increased funding of Brigade youth programmes, which are aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour.
London Fire Brigade’s Deputy Commissioner Richard Mills said:
“The London riots showed the tenacity, professionalism and bravery of every member of staff who was on duty during those incredibly challenging days in the summer of 2011. The frontline could not have performed as well as it did without the incredible support from our 999 control officers fielding an unprecedented number of calls, our FLEET team making sure we had fire engines available and our staff ensuring vital equipment made it to the scenes to assist crews. It once again proved, just as the recent pandemic has done, that London Fire Brigade has the ability to step up, adapt and never stop in its objective to help save life and protect property.
“At the time I was the Borough Commander for Haringey and like all officers at the time attended a number of the incidents over those days. Following the riots myself and other Borough Commanders listened to the community in order to better understand how we could serve them and what their expectations of the fire service were. We may not have always got it right in the past but I was, and remain, determined that the Brigade be a force for good. We want all of London’s communities to feel that London Fire Brigade represents them and be proud of the service we provide.”
The Brigade has a long-standing history of delivering youth initiatives at fire stations and education programmes in schools aimed at children and young people in order to reduce fire risk and anti-social behaviour, raise awareness of fire safety, and to increase confidence and personal skills.
Since 2013 the Brigade’s Fire Cadets has evolved in a ‘Fire Cadets unit’ which has been active in every London borough since early 2021. Originally engaging teenagers involved in, or at risk of anti-social behaviour, the Fire Cadets unit is now open to all young people aged 14-17 and to adult volunteers of 18+ from the local community.
View from the frontline
Station Commander Stephen-Remell Coleman was stationed at Wallington Fire Station on Monday 8 August 2011 when he was called to attend a large fire at the House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon.
“I was in charge of the fire engine that night and we had seen the news coverage of the preceding days riots. During Monday we could see the increasing anti-social behaviour build. At around 10pm we could see from the roof of the station a huge plume of smoke not far away. The bells dropped and we were called to Reeves corner in Croydon.
“Normally when you’re on your way to a shout there’s a bit of chat in the cab but there was an eerie silence as everyone knew the enormity of what we were going to face.
“When we turned up the furniture store was well alight and the radiant heat was causing property across the road to catch fire so we needed to make sure the blaze didn’t spread further and endanger others. It was hot, hard and intense work. My crew and I knew immediate resources might not get there as soon as we would like but it’s at times like this that the crew pulls together, no one hides, and we all played our part to bring the blaze under control.
“I moved to the UK from Ghana when I was four and love London. The vast majority of people I encountered as I tackled fires that night were helping us and offering drinks to keep us hydrated. Their help makes me proud to be from London and that it is the greatest city in the world.”
View from 999 control room
Pete May joined London Fire Brigade Control in 1978, he was the officer in charge on Monday evening of the riots.
“It was an unreal experience. From the moment I walked into work it was non-stop. I can’t really remember taking a break and stayed alongside leading and supporting my colleagues, some who remained on duty for a full 24 hour shift. I was very fortunate to have fantastic teammates who without their tireless professionalism I don’t think we would have been able to deal with the volume of calls we did. We came off duty totally exhausted but at the same time so proud at what we had achieved.”
“When you’re in the moment of a major incident you must remember that you can only deal with one call at a time and that every call counts. Some of the large fires like Reeves Corner or the Sony Warehouse in Enfield would have had a much larger response if they were happening in isolation. We had to try and get as many appliances there as possible and making sure we prioritised calls based on life risk It is a miracle that no one lost their life in a fire.
“Today being able to see the position of a caller via their mobile and mobilising fire engines based on their GPS location has helped us send fire engines quicker. But you still need dedicated and professional control officers to take the public’s calls in a calm manner. That is what we had that day and throughout my 43 year career.”