Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade: How country's only volunteer fire service keeps up dedication

Chief fire officer Tony De Matteis has seen it all during his 38 years at Peterborough’s Volunteer Fire Brigade

By Adam Barker
Sunday, 3rd July 2022, 5:00 am
Updated Sunday, 3rd July 2022, 4:35 pm

“I still get the same buzz when my alerter goes off as when I first joined 38 years ago,” Tony De Matteis, chief fire officer at Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade, says from the meeting room at brigade’s station on Bourges Boulevard.

“You could be fast asleep at three o’clock in the morning when the alerter goes off. It only sounds for a minute but I’m already in my car backing out of my drive before it turns off.”

Tony joined the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1984 - the year the brigade celebrated its 100th anniversary and moved from its former King’s Street station to its current Borges Boulevard home.

The Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade - the only volunteer fire brigade in the country

“I’m born and bred in Peterborough,” Tony, who was working as a full-time mechanic when he first joined the Volunteer Fire Brigade and has since worked as a manager in the prison service for 24 years, said. “I was looking to find a way to put something back into Peterborough.

“I looked at joining the specials but I failed my final interview, which is when I decided to join the Volunteer Fire Brigade.”

History of the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade

Formed by a group of Peterborough businessmen – who believed the efforts of the existing fire brigade, the Corporation Brigade, were ineffective in putting out a fire at Peterborough Infirmary in 1884 – the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade is the only volunteer fire service in the country.

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade chief officer Tony De Matteis

It has operated as an independent, private fire brigade throughout its 137-year history, despite events such as in 1941 when over 1,600 separate fire brigades merged into the National Fire Service, and when the fire service returned to local authority control in 1948.

Recognition for 38 years of service

In June this year, Tony was among 490 people across the country to be awarded a Platinum Champions Award by the Royal Voluntary Service and its president, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, for his 38 years of service to the Volunteer Fire Bridge.

The awards were in honour of the charity’s patron Her Majesty The Queen for her Platinum Jubilee and 70 years of service to the country.

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade

“The commitment of everyone at the station is incredible - I couldn’t ask for more from them,” Tony said.

“We had a professor from the University of Cambridge visit the station, who was working on something about people who volunteer. When he finished, the outcome was that you get a lot more work out of a volunteer than someone who gets paid.

“We do the same training and attend the same incidents as full-time firefighters. We’re always available from 6pm through to 6am during the week, and from Friday at 6pm all the way through to Monday.”

A ‘second full-time job’

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade

For the 11 volunteer firefighters at the station Tony said “it’s a second full-time job.”

“Sometimes we’re out all night; we get back at six o’clock in the morning, shower and go straight to work. Every week we’ll have someone new knock on the door to say they’re interested in joining.

“When we do a recruitment drive, I invite them to the station to talk to them about what we do. I try to put them off in the best possible way I can because I need to get through to them the level of commitment that is needed.”

Risk in the line of duty

The Volunteer Fire Brigade has been responsible for putting out some of the biggest fires in the city - including Peterborough Cathedral in 2001 and the inferno at the Greyhound Stadium in 1999.

Although the volunteers at the station enjoy the work they do, Tony appreciates the level of risk that comes with fighting fires.

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade

On March 22, 1989, 41-year-old firefighter John Humphries, a full-time firefighter from Stanground station, lost his life in the line of duty while tackling an industrial fire in Fengate alongside volunteers from the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade.

“It was a sad day for all of us,” he said. “A lorry carrying explosives turned into one of the industrial areas there because it had caught fire and exploded.”

In 2020, the Volunteer Fire Brigade tragically lost another firefighter. Will Baker, 40, had been part of the team for 12 years and maintained the brigade’s 1971 Rolls Royce-powered Dennis fire engine.

“They were dark days for us all. We’ve supported his family and everyone who knew him the best we can.

“He was the most helpful, friendly and gentle person you could imagine – you couldn’t ask for more from him.

“We had support from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue service and I made sure I looked after the lads and that we kept talking about it rather than not. We’ll never forget him.”

The next generation

Tony thanked Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue for its continued support for the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade over the years.

“We couldn’t ask for more from our relationship with Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue,” he said. “They provide us with our training, fire kit and our fire engine. The station belongs to us, but we couldn’t operate without them because they give us the calls.”

After 38 years of service, Tony admitted that a it will be “difficult emotionally” when the time comes for him to hang up his helmet for the final time - but he isn’t ready to do so yet.

“I’ve started to give people more responsibility because we’re looking after it for the next generation of volunteer firefighters. We want to make sure it’s left in good hands, which I’m sure it will be.

“We have a yearly fitness test, so as long as I continue to pass that and our mandatory training I will continue. I still get the same buzz when my alerter goes off as when I first joined.”

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade's Rolls Royce-powered Dennis fire engine