He’s seen innumerable changes in the fire service over 30 years, but as on-call firefighter Howard Dalton looks to hang his boots up next month he knows he will miss nothing more than the camaraderie of the service.
I’ve been to a lot of places I’d never have gone and I’ve been held in such high esteem by the community. As soon as you say you are a firefighter they look at you in a different light.
The 55-year-old, who first donned the Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service crest 31-and-a-half years ago, is in the last weeks of serving his local community in Brewood.
On January 2, 2021 he will officially retire. He picked the date – 2/1/21 – just so, as he puts it, “it’s something I can remember when I start to lose my marbles later on in life”.
“I was going to go in March so it could be 4/3/21,” he adds, “but I haven’t quite made that one.”
It’s been a long period of service for somebody who has had to balance the demands of keeping Staffordshire safe with various manual jobs such as at the giant Goodyear factory in Wolverhampton for “20-odd years”. He has worked with a total of 51 officers in that time, with many believing he’d never be able to give it up. And even though he says he will, they believe he’ll “be back in a few months”.
“I started on 17 July 1989, and I was 23 at the time, coming on 24,” he adds. “When I first joined I’d been living in the village since 1984. You’ve got to live within five minutes of getting to the station so I haven’t moved anywhere.
“I initially joined because I’d heard about it on Radio 4. They said there was a national shortage.
“I’d never even thought how the fire station in Brewood operated. I’d cycled past it as a lad and seen the engine sat there and thought, ‘is this a spare engine or something?’ I’d never given it a thought, and then it was like this lightbulb moment when I heard the report.
“Then I found out the factory where I worked had a guy who was retained at Codsall, two who were retained at Wombourne and somebody who’d retired from Wombourne. I got talking to them and they said to go up on a Friday when they trained so I did. And I joined.”
His memory of his time in the service is quite vivid, and he obviously takes pride in the role and its history within the community as he also decided it would be a great idea to research those who had gone before him at the station. He created a ‘wall of fame’ for those who had served the community since the establishment of the localised services when the National Fire Service and Auxiliary Fire Services disbanded after the Second World War.
“I’ve served with 42 firefighters who have retired while I have been there and we have nine now, so that’s 51 people I’ve been with at the station,” he adds.
And he also remembers his first call too.
“At the time there was lots and lots of joyriding going on, it’s why we’ve got speedbumps everywhere in the country now. They used to steal the car, drive it round and round at high speed and then burn it. That was my first shout back in 1989.
“When I first joined we used to get about 180 shouts a year at Brewood Fire Station, and then it built up to something like 370 in a year – just over one a day. That was quite busy. But we’re a very pro-active brigade in trying to drive down fire calls to our stations and that has happened in recent years.”
And he has seen a lot more too.
“I’ve been on some memorable shouts. There was a big fire at the local Four Ashes chemical plant. That was early on in the early 90s. I remember the big ground tanks were on fire. I can’t remember if it was tar or something on fire in it. That was a memorable one. I’ve also had to do numerous fatal RTCs which nobody likes to talk about.
“But I have met a lot of people and been to a lot of places which I wouldn’t have done had I not been in the fire service. And I’ve had numerous people come up to me in the street and thank me for what we’ve done.
“There was one guy who came up to me and said ‘You and your crew cut my daughter out of a wreck on the A5 and I am eternally grateful to you’. I didn’t even know him. But somehow he had spoken to people in the community and knew who I was.”
And being based in the community where he also lives means a lot of familiar faces have been helped along the way.
“During the [coronavirus] lockdown I had a neighbour who had a shed fire set off in his garden started by a PIR floodlight that had fallen onto the floor and heated up the shed in the middle of the night. He lived 50 yards away across the road. It’s good to help them out.
“I was also in charge of the fire engine from Brewood when we went to the biggest number of people rescued down a ladder about eight years ago. We had eight or nine people rescued down out of a bedroom window aged from a babe in arms right up to an adult.
“That was 150 yards from my house as well. I’m not sure if it was the most people rescued nationally, but certainly in our brigade. I actually had to drive through the smoke from my house to get to the station. I had to drive away from the fire to get back with the engine.”
And he speaks fondly of the service clubs and bars that used to be based at the stations to help the personnel socialise and unwind.
“When we had the bar it was more like a club,” he remembers with a chuckle. “The bar would be open after training and it was a different culture to now. It’s good in a way how it is now, but we lost something when they closed the fire clubs because of the camaraderie. We had a lot of friends and families of the firefighters come in and we regularly saw a lot of the community in the fire station on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and a lot of the profits used to decorate the place.
“I see why it had to go, but I think a lot of people who look back and remember those days will think those were great days.”
But despite all the fond memories with SFRS, Howard knows it is time for him to go.
He added: “There’s a reason a lot of firefighters used to retire at 50 and my knees aren’t what they used to be. I can’t now run around with a hose under each arm and a branch tucked into my tunic as I used to. I’m going while I’m still good.
“Plus, I want to spend some time with the wife really,” he quickly adds.
When asked if he had a message to anyone who is thinking of joining SFRS either in a retained or full-time capacity, Howard thinks for a second, before responding: “Do it and embrace it. It’s opened up a lot of doors for me. I’ve done heavy goods driving. I’ve been to a lot of places I’d never have gone and I’ve been held in such high esteem by the community. As soon as you say you are a firefighter they look at you in a different light.
“It looks good on your CV and it just broadens your horizons. So do it, embrace it, and be careful because if it gets under your skin you could still be here in 40 years’ time doing it.”
Paul Danby, Brewood Fire Station’s current Watch Manager, will be sad to see his colleague go. He said: “I have known Howard for more than 27 years, which is how long I have been at Brewood. Howard has always been a positive and motivated member of the team and we will miss him when he retires.
“As an on-call firefighter he brings a level of knowledge, experience and life skills that we value, he has developed skills over the years that only the fire service can bring which will stay with him in his future work.
“He has assisted in the development of many other firefighters at Brewood and has supported the station growth over these years. There will be people’s lives in our community that Howard has saved or made better over the years with road traffic accidents or fire.
“He has also educated many children who visit the station and he has delivered fire safety advice to those who need it when we work in our community.
“He has over the years attended a vast array of different calls to assist our community when called upon, and he always has some wise words to share which make us all smile.”
And there’s always one eye on a possible return in another capacity, because Howard concludes the service has gotten under his skin.
“Now I’m going everyone is saying to me ‘oh you’ll be back in a few months’,” he finishes. “It’s going to be hard because this certainly gets into your blood.
“Some of the guys have said ‘oh come back and we’ll just let you drive’, but I wouldn’t want to do that. I’d want to do it all properly. Who knows what the future might hold.”