NATIONAL FIRE SERVICE: United Kingdom. 1941-1948. In the United Kingdom, prior to World War II approximately 1600 Fire Brigades (fire departments) were independently organized and managed by local governments with no national standardization of organization, equipment, training, or ranks. There was wide variability in the capabilities of equipment, with metropolitan departments well equipped with modern appliances, but some village departments still operating steam powered or even hand powered pumps.  Although some Brigades had established mutual aid agreements, many did not, and there was no requirement for mutual aid for major events. 

A study in the 1920s had identified the need for significant reform in fire organization, but its recommendations were not implemented, in large measure due to cost.  The May 1936 report of a committee chaired by Lord Riverdale presented similar recommendations for reform, recommendations that were taken far more seriously due to developing tensions in Europe.  This served as the impetus for the Home Office Memorandum on Emergency Fire Brigade Organization, which provided local authorities detailed instructions on preparations for air raids.  The Air Raid Precautions Act, passed on 1 December 1937, and the Fire Brigades Act of 1938 provided the theoretical and legal foundation for the development of an effective wartime firefighting system by further defining local authority responsibilities for emergency fire planning and for standardization. However, the onset of the Blitz in 1940 still saw British fire organization structured around local Brigades.

Probably the major exception was the activation on 1 September 1939 of the London Fire Region, under the command of Commander A. N. G. Firebrace, CBE, RN (Retd) as Regional Fire Officer.  The 66 fire brigades surrounding London were divided into three districts north of the River Thames and two south of it, and procedures were established for the brigades and the districts to reinforce each other in the event of attack.

The severe impact of German strategic bombing of British cities highlighted shortcomings in equipment, in the ability to respond to multiple major fires at one time, and in the coordination of multiple Brigades at one major fire.  Incompatibilities in equipment were routine, with appliances from one Brigade having different sizes and threadings of hose connectors (three London metropolitan region departments carried, for example, 2 3/4 inch round threads, 2 3/4 inch instantaneous couplings, and 2 1/2 inch instantaneous couplings, none compatible with the other) , in many cases making it impossible for units responding out of their locality to connect with hydrants.  At times it was impossible to determine the senior officer on the fireground due to differences in insignia and titles.  Differences in training standards meant that some units were unable to set up a dam and draft from it.  And many Brigades sent their Auxiliary Fire Service units to respond to major events, sometimes without the supervision of experienced fire officers, while keeping their regular units at home on the excuse that the rate payers paid taxes to protect their own towns or cities, not the cities of other tax payers.

On 28 April 1941 the Home Secretary convened a meeting to consider possible solutions to these problems.  The recommendations from that meeting were that firemen should be dressed in standard uniforms with common ranks, use standard standard operating procedures, be trained to common standards, and have a standard command structure with unity of command.  These recommendations were submitted to the House of Commons, coming with exquisite timing on 13 May in the aftermath of a major German air raid, and were adopted by the House on 20 May.  As a result, the local Fire Brigades were combined into a national service in 22 May 1941 with Royal Assent to the Fire Services (Emergency Provisions) Act; this arrangement was officially established in secret as the National Fire Service on 18 August 1941.  The Auxiliary Fire Service, established as an Air Raid Precautions organization from its beginning was incorporated into the National Fire Service at this time.

The new structure was based on the existing regional civil defense structure.  The fire forces in each of the 12  Regions were assigned to the control of Regional Commissioners, with direct supervision by a Chief Regional Fire Officer and subordinate Fire Force Commanders.  At the peak of staffing 118,000 men served in the National Fire Service with 180,000 members of the Auxiliary Fire Service; 29,000 full time women served, with 41,000 members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.  In one of the ironies common in preparedness, the developments of World War II meant that the National Fire Service never had to face the level of threat met during the concentrated German air raids of the Battle of Britain by the local fire brigades.  However, this structure served efficiently during the German Vengeance weapons (the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile) campaign of 1944-1945 and was generally viewed by the fire service as having been very successful.

King George VI approved the design of a flag for the National Fire Service on 11 August 1943: the Blue Ensign with the National Fire Service badge in the center of the fly. After the conclusion of the war, fire services reverted to the control of local government in 1948 in keeping with the original agreement for the activation of the Service. This was symbolized on 20 January 1949 by the laying up of a National Fire Service Ensign at the Imperial War Museum.

Sources: “Home Front 1939-1945 Timeline,” location, accessed 6 September 2001. Prothero, David, “National Fire Service (United Kingdom),” location, accessed 6 September 2001. Spender, Stephen, Citizens in War - And After, London, United Kingdom, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1945. Kirkwood, Graeme, The History of Scottish Fire Brigades, location, accessed 28 July 2003.  Ramsey, Winston G., editor, The Blitz: Then and Now, Volume 3, London, United Kingdom, Battle of Britain Prints International, 1990.

Entry 0130 - updated 21 August 2003