My problems started in early 1975, Britain was in yet another world recession. At the time I was working at a tyre company in Leeds a large city in the north of England. Leeds was a vibrant place, but most of the time I would be working away. The job I did was fitting tyres onto the giant machines that work in quarries and open cast coal mining sites. This was very hard work but I really loved the job, especially in summer. The summer of 1975 was very hot, it was the first of two hot spells.1975 and 1976 were to become the hottest summers for years.

As the year went on the work started to dry up due to the recession and by the Autumn I was beginning to feel a little insecure. A friend told that he heard that the fire brigade were looking for new recruits. This did not interest me at first, but I became used to the idea and filled in an application form. To my astonishment I was accepted and asked to attend the training school for a medical. The training school was based near Bradford in a village called Birkenshaw. The medical was very intense and I must admit to have been very nervous, however I passed and was invited to take an I.Q. test, this I also passed and before I knew it I was new recruit fireman Roberts and kitted out with my new fire fighting outfit and a new dress uniform, for special occasions.

Looking back I was that bit unsure whether I was doing the right thing or not, I always enjoyed my life in the tyre and battery trade, but perhaps it was time to move on and try for an upgrade in life, indeed a fresh start. Training started in late Autumn and at first found things very difficult. We had to be very fit and the days were very long, we had to combine physical work with studying and must confess that there were times that I could have easily quit. However I persisted and six months later I graduated and attended the brigade passing out parade. This was a very proud moment and because I held a truck driving license I entered the parade ground driving the first fire engine in the line, a good day.

Training school was over. I had made some good friends during my training one of them was a guy called Mark, he was a tall guy and a bit lean looking, but was a good guy and we were to become good friends, indeed we were to be seconded to the same fire station at Huddersfield, a very large town in Yorkshire northern England. After the course we were given a couple of weeks leave and then turned up for our new life at the fire station.

The first few weeks were spent cleaning the fire trucks and hanging fire hoses out to dry, everything had to be in its right place and spotlessly clean, all the batteries had to be tested in hand lamps to make sure they worked when required and generally immaculate. Mark and I were on blue watch, the fire service had a three shift system, three days on nights, three on days and three days off. The three days off were very good, as in my former jobs I was expected to work six or seven days a week. This explained why so many fire fighters took second jobs, most were window cleaners or gardeners and van drivers. After a week or two things started to take a turn for the worst, one day we were all summoned to the mess room by a guy called Bob. Bob was the union representative for our station and was really committed to the cause. Because of unrest and a change of working practices been forced upon us by the Government of the time, Bob was talking of strike action, this meant withdrawing our labour and only attending emergency incidents. The older men thought this was great but I wasn't sure, the thought of doing even less than we were doing now dulled the little enthusiasm that I had left. Boredom began to set in, we were doing nothing but attend a few grass fires and it seemed that the training we had received was going out of our heads. Things though were going to get more exciting.

One Monday morning Mark and I were just finishing the last night shift and were looking forward to our three days off. We were waiting to be dismissed. The fire brigade follows old Royal Navy traditions and at the end of a shift, we have to have our names read and answered and then we were dismissed from duty, the same applies when starting a shift. So at the change of the shift you would get two sets of men waiting around to start or finish the shift whichever the case may be. To our surprise the alarms bells went off and electric doors started to open automatically. We all panicked and mark and I made a dash for the first fire engine. The procedure was that it was on a first come first go basis when at the change of shifts and the alarm goes off.

Before we knew it we were racing across Huddersfield, to the first real fire in three nights, the adrenalin was flowing.

Jock, as he was known was also on our engine, he was our station officer, but he didn't really know Mark and I because he was in a different union and we had little contact with him during the dispute as we all did nothing all day. Jock looked round to see who he had on board,and to my surprise instructed Mark and I to don our breathing apparatus in preparation for the fire ahead. We both looked at each other as we knew that we were both new recruits and still on probation, the procedure is that a new recruit must be accompanied by an experienced fire fighter, however who were we to argue.

W e arrived at the scene of the fire with the screeching of tyres, followed by fireman running all over the place like organized chaos, I had my breathing apparatus on and grabbed the hose reel with Mark not far behind me. The lady of the house ran out to meet Jock screaming out that the fire was in the front bedroom and it was a bed on fire, we were instructed to go upstairs and proceeded at speed, one behind the other, I felt the hot door with my hand and slowly entered the room. Although it was a sunny day outside, the room was pitch black and you could not see anything. The only time I had ever experienced this before was in a controlled room at training school. Fear shuddered through me, in split second I had dragged the hose reel into the bedroom and in the darkness found a bed with my gloved hand, I sprayed the bed with the hose reel thinking I had found the source of the fire, but I was wrong. Little be known to me the lady had placed a child's mattress onto a two bar electric fire to dry out. The mattress had fallen onto the fire and had been cooking for about an hour. All the fire needed was oxygen and I was about to help it out, unbeknown to me the hose reel had jarred the door open allowing air in the room, but when I applied water onto the bed I induced a large volume of oxygen into the already over cooked mattress causing a big explosion, this is now known as a flash over. Mark was relatively lucky as he was blown out of the door and fell down the stairs to safety, but I was not so lucky and was blown into the far corner of the room.

I knew that I was in a big mess, my hands had melted along with the gloves I was wearing, my helmet had melted and my uniform had burned through to my backside. The room was now an inferno, showers of burning polystyrene tiles were dripping droplets of fire on top of me, I could hear other fire fighters trying to get into the room to help me but the flames beat them back. Whist on the floor I tried to crawl into what felt like a wardrobe but remembered the words of an instructor at training school, he said that if we were ever unlucky enough to get trapped, never crawl into a cupboard or wardrobe as this would not give us protection and indeed would make matters worse and could indeed cook you alive. The next few minutes were crucial I was in excruciating pain, I crawled on the back wall, army commando style to the far corner and looking saw a small chink of light, and in a split second realized it was a window and leapt out through glass cutting the main arteries in my wrist. The next thing I knew I was on my back in the garden looking up at the flames leaping out of the window.

Two fire fighters picked me up and dragged me against a garden wall to support me, this would not be done these days, after a twenty foot fall I should have not been moved off the floor until the paramedics arrived to support my back and neck before moving me. A policeman then came to try to help me, believe it or not the station officer had not called for an ambulance and by this time I was almost passing out. The policeman then took upon himself to sort me out and bundled me into his small police car, we headed for the hospital but his car was what we used to call a panda car. This type of car was used by the police for local work and did not even have a siren on thus we were struggling to get through the busy traffic. We finally arrived at the hospital where I was attended to, but did not wake up for five days in the intensive care unit. I was later transferred to the burns unit in Wakefield hospital, there I had my hands rebuilt by skin grafts, and was in and out of hospital for two years.

Looking back the whole incident was a complete mess up with me taking the brunt of it. I often reflect on how much the fact that we had been on strike and losing the momentum of training had contributed to the lack of leadership at the scene of the fire the total procedures were a mess and you can not do that at a fire, luckily there were no members of the public involved.

As for me I think that been a fire fighter would not have suited me, I think that I would have been bored and I ended up back in the tyre and battery business. Everything I did went right for me and I met my wife of now 30 years, the best thing that ever happened to me. We have had eight children and two grand children with a third on the way, we have been successful in our tyre business and have had a truly wonderful life. That day of the fire really did "change my life".

Author's Bio: 

My name is Eric K Roberts i am the proud owner of Pellonautocentre in Halifax UK after my horrific incident as a firefighter i recovered after two years medical treatment and started my own business as a garage owner. I have been married to Michelle for 31 years and we have 8 children and 3 grand children. We sell tyres online at http://www.pellonautocentre.com