28 April 1995


Situations dont come much stickier than a fire in a huge sugar warehouse but when the alarm was raised four farmers were at the scene in minutes. They are all members of Billinghay Fire Brigade and Tessa Gates met the fire-fighting farmers at their Lincolnshire station

WHEN his bleeper sounds, farm work stops and adrenalin starts to pump as Lincs farmer John Toulson rushes from Bridge Farm to Billinghay Fire Station.

Chances are he will arrive at the same time as three other local farmers, cousins Richard, John and Alan Marshall. Like John, they are retained fire-fighters on 24 hour call and all work on family farms.

"No matter what the farm job is you are doing, you just drop it," says John, who joined the brigade three years ago.

He is a relative newcomer compared with the Marshall cousins who have served 52 years between them. Richard Marshall attended his first fire 17 years ago – and it was at Johns farm. "It was his best tractor and it had been parked up for two days when it ignited. A wiring fault set light to straw," remembers Richard.

Alan Marshall came later to the service than his cousins and is soon to retire. "I will have done 10 years by the time I retire. I feel proud to be a fireman. I have always enjoyed it and just wish I could have joined up earlier," he says.

Peter Marshall is second-in-command at Billinghay. In charge is Station Officer John Sharp, the only full-time firefighter. Peter is still dedicated and enthusiastic after 25 years in the brigade.

"Farmers make good cover because we are self-employed. Many employees today cant just drop everything in an emergency," says Peter.

"It can be very difficult at harvest time but we can book off when really busy on the farm, as long as there are enough other firefighters on call."

Retained fire staff are recruited from men and women above 18 and under 45 years who have good eyesight and are 1.68m to 1.93m tall. They must pass a medical and physical and tests in English, maths, dictation and general problem solving. "If you have a good general education and O levels you should pass the tests," says Station Officer Sharp, adding that recruits attend a five-day or two consecutive weekends induction course and receive continuous training.

Billinghay has 14 retained

firefighters, among them a potato merchant and a blacksmith. All live within one mile or a five-minute drive of this rural station and are on either 24-hour or 18-hour call for which they are paid £120 a month or £90 a month. Attending the weekly drill night brings another £9.36 a week and the men are paid extra for call-outs.

"There is good fire prevention today, so we dont get so many calls. We are a quiet station and our average is about 40 a year – at Sleaford (8 miles away) they had 38 fires in 38 days!" says Peter.

The men agree that they dont do it for the money. They like providing a service and enjoy the camaraderie of the brigade which is quite a contrast to their often solitary farm work. They train hard, and can operate the most up to date equipment, for this modern station is very well equipped. While they are all pals together off duty, discipline is strict on the fire ground and everything is done by the book.

"It is good knowing that you have the best training and equipment and knowing that the officers will not ask you to do something they wouldnt do themselves. They have all come up through the ranks," says John.

A quiet station can be frustrating for the fire staff but the men at Billinghay have recently had cause to put all their training to the test. The fire was at a huge warehouse, the size of football pitch, stacked floor to ceiling with sacks of sugar worth £6m. The 15,000t of sugar had taken 26 days to stack and the fire started near the back of the shed.

All four farmers attended, their duties predetermined by the tallies they picked up as they entered the fire station. For all call outs the officer in charge picks up the top tally, the first driver to arrive takes the drivers tally – the next two in will use the breathing apparatus, if required, and the fifth man picks up the final tally. The crew is now complete and the tender is ready to go.

For a fire emergency, the 999 control mobilises the nearest station and sends a printout of the fire details. A predetermined number of tenders will go out according to the type of fire – two to a house fire, for example. The fire at C F Dickinsons sugar warehouse eventually had seven pumps and two hydraulic platforms in attendance and warranted the presence of the divisional chief officer.

"It was a huge fire, you might only see five like this in a whole service," says Peter, who did two shifts at the warehouse.

"There was just a quantity of smoke when we got there," says John. "We went in wearing breathing apparatus and Pete made the usual search. We had to crawl along the top of the sacks to get to the seat of the fire. We got the impression it started about 30m from the back."

Sugar burns fiercely and to get water to the fire the warehouse roof had to be smashed open with a crane.

But even in the heat of a fire the officers have to beware that the water run-off doesnt cause pollution and in this case the sugar syrup could have caused major problems had it got into the water course running at the back of the warehouse.

Flood barriers had to be quickly erected and at first light the National Rivers Authority got another local farmer to build a dam.

Three days after the fire started, tankers were still sucking up the syrup.

"Any food stuff will encourage organisms to grow and eventually this robs the water of oxygen and everything dies – it is called biological oxygen demand," explained Divisional Commander Mike Sinnatt. "Normally milk and yogurt are thought to be the worst things that can get into the water table but sugar syrup is at least 10 times as bad."

Inside the warehouse, after the fire was out, pallets were set in rock hard toffee which defied the heavy machinery trying to move them and where the sugar was still molten it oozed like black molasses. Anyone who had been at the scene carried sticky reminders of it on clothes and equipment.

The Billinghay firefighters put in several shifts at the fire and had some heavy duty cleaning to do to get their kit back in pristine condition. They were about to embark on this when Farmlife called at the station.

Spit and polish is part of the discipline accepted by the men "but polishing wellies seems curious to a farmer, at first," says John.

Station Officer John Sharp:The only full-time firefighter

at Billinghay.

Farmer-firefighters (L to R) Peter Marshall, Alan Marshall, John Toulson, and Richard Marshall.

Divisional Commander Mike Sinnatt takes a turn at hosing up the sugar mess.