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Thursday, 27 November 2014

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Dalton firefighters' farewell

THERE will almost certainly be tears, heavy hearts and a lot of reminiscing when a local fire brigade shuts down and locks up for the final time on Monday.

After more than 140 years of service, Dalton Fire Station is closing as a result of cost-saving measures by Cumbria County Council. It puts to an end the firefighting careers of five retained officers, who have saved lives and property across Furness and the Lake District collectively for 104 years.

John Roberts, Steve Tweddle, John Duffy, Carlos Mendez and Roy Coward are the last firefighters to be stationed in Dalton, ending a tradition started in the town in 1874 when servicemen were then paid just half a crown for every turnout attended.

Times have changed since then, and together the quintet have battled dozens of dangerous fires in the area, with two of the most serious – a blaze and evacuation at Dowdales School, and an inferno at Dalton Motor Breakers – occurring both on the same hectic day in September 2011.

The decision to close Dalton and move one of the two appliances from Barrow to Ulverston, was met with fierce anger earlier this year.

Despite a community-led campaign to save the station, councillors voted in the controversial measure.

But now is a time for reflection for the five strong team.

Speaking at their penultimate training session, crew manager John Roberts, who has served for more than 25 years, said: “It’s sad to think that (the brigade has) been here for 140 years and it won’t be any more.

“I have been proud and privileged to work with some great people. We can turn up at a moment’s notice but we all have to rely on each other to save each other’s lives.”

For Mr Roberts, the hardest thing about the job has been attending fires when people he knew had been trapped or injured.

“When you live in a small community, you nearly always know someone affected,” he says.

“When you get called out on a job you know that you are probably going to turn up to somebody that you are related to or know somehow – that’s the hard thing about it. We have to be mentally strong.

“We all like to be brave and big, but it does affect you emotionally.”

Life as retained firefighters has been incredibly unpredictable for the Dalton squad. Officers have been called out to jobs all over Cumbria at all times of the day and night – just ask Mr Roberts’ wife Jan.

“You think it won’t impact your lives a lot but it does,” she says. “Everything you do as a family depends on whether there is enough cover.

“You get a huge awareness of what commitment is involved with the job and what these guys do.

“You could be serving up your Sunday dinner or opening presents on Christmas morning when the beepers go.

“People say the retained service is a part time service, but they are actually working more than full time. It will be a big loss.”

This is a sentiment shared by John Duffy’s family.

The firefighter of 17-and-a-half years said: “It’s not just yourselves employed in the fire service, it’s your family too.

“The closure probably angers my wife more than anything because she has seen what I have given to it.”

Dalton Fire Brigade was formed in March 1874 and its proud history is displayed at Butts Beck station, with polished black and white photographs and plaques covering the walls.

Some of the old vehicles, appliances and equipment based at Dalton are hardly recognisable compared to their modern equivalents, but the principles of the job have remained the same.

Steve Tweddle said: “We have been doing this to serve the community and the town. It’s not big pay, it’s not for the money, it’s all about serving the community.

“You could be working nine to five and then be putting out a fire overnight until you are on call again in the morning.

“Over the years it has been a great experience with a great bunch of lads. There have been some good times but bad times too due to the nature of the job.

“We still want to be in the fire brigade but it’s been taken away.”

Dalton’s pending closure has led to fears for the safety of residents in the town, with appliances having to travel from Barrow to Ulverston when responding to emergencies in the future. Fire chiefs have dismissed claims that lives will be put at risk.

Nevertheless, the reliability and comradery of the Dalton crew will be lost.

Because of this, Carlos Mendez is expecting an emotional final shift.

He said: “It will be a sad day not just for us but for Dalton. We need to thank the community for their efforts to keep the fire station here.”

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