Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade: there for the city since 1884

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Last Sunday, members of Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade marched through Peterborough to celebrate 25 years since the brigade was granted the Freedom of the City. Claire de Silva finds out more about this unique organisation.

Last Sunday, members of Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade marched through Peterborough to celebrate 25 years since the brigade was granted the Freedom of the City. Claire de Silva finds out more about this unique organisation.THE dangerous and often life-threatening job that a firefighter carries out to help save lives, day in day out is hugely appreciated and respected by the public.

But across Peterborough there is a group quietly supporting this emergency service and carrying out similar duties – for free.

This group of civilian firefighters, who all manage busy lives and have regular day jobs, families, hobbies and like to relax, have one thing in common – the need to help people.

It was in 1884 that a group of Peterborough businessmen got together to form the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade after a large fire at the city's infirmary.

The service has remained a vital support for people ever since, and is believed to be the only fire service in the country staffed entirely by volunteers throughout its 125 year history, supporting paid firefighters at all of the major emergencies seen by the city.

It's this commitment to the volunteer fire brigade that is at the heart of the service for chief officer Tony de Matteis, who by day has a demanding job as a prison officer at HMP Littlehey, near Huntingdon.

"I have a difficult job to do in the day time, but I know that the instant our pocket alerter goes off and I'm down at the station, within minutes I can be helping save someone's life.

"It is intense. It's commitment to this which is the most difficult thing, that and the time of course.

"You need to put the hours in, keep up with the training and manage all that on top of your full-time job. You need support from your family, your employer, everyone, but what drives you is the knowledge you are helping other people, putting something back into the community."

Tony (47) who was born and bred in Peterborough, celebrated 25 years as a member of Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade this year. He joined in the brigade's centenary year in 1984 and was the last member to join the brigade in its first 100 years.

He says: "Things get better and better. The equipment is better, the training gets better and so the service we can offer gets better, which, ultimately, means we can help save more lives.

"We treat every incident the same, they all demand our complete attention and there have been many where people have sadly lost their lives, but you keep going and don't really think about it at the time, it's only after you reflect. But we're a team, we support each other and keep going."Last Sunday, Tony and members of the brigade past and present proudly marched through the streets of the city from the town hall to attend a special service of thanksgiving at Peterborough's cathedral – itself the scene of fire which the brigade helped to control in November 2001.

The service was held to mark the 25th year since the brigade was granted the Freedom of the City as part of its centenary celebrations.

Tony said: "We are the only volunteer fire brigade which is left in this country, and so for us it is a massive honour for all the guys to be able to give something back to Peterborough.

"For me, this is a way of saying thank you to Peterborough, to the people who support us and to our colleagues.

"Many people don't understand what we do, don't even realise we are there, so it's really important for us to keep our heritage alive, too.

"My two daughters are immensely proud of their dad, and it's lovely but they've grown up with me doing this. I'm immensely proud to be in the brigade, too."

More volunteers needed to join the brigade

The brigade owns its headquarters in Bourges Boulevard and receives all its equipment, uniforms and training from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service.

It has 16 active volunteers, including builders, carpenters and telephone engineers, aged between 21 and 52, who are called to emergencies when the city's full-time firefighters need extra support.

Only one woman has been in the voluntary fire service in its 125-year history.

The station tries to keep one full crew of six people all day, every day.

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade was made Freemen of the City on May 28, 1984.

Volunteer firefighters provide their assistance, skills and expertise for free. More people are needed to join the brigade.

If you would like to know more, drop along to the drill station on Tuesday evenings between 7pm and 10pm.

Next page: Training is the same as full-time colleaguesTraining is the same as full-time colleagues

"We get nothing and double nothing for what we do in terms of monetary value, but that's not even an issue when you are in the position we are in and can help people in times of need," said Ian Benton, who has been a volunteer firefighter for the last 14 years and is currently treasurer of Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade.

A busy carpenter and joiner by day and a grandfather of two and father of four, Ian (51), from Woodston, Peterborough, is hugely passionate about his role in the service, which he calls his full-time hobby. His family have always supported him despite fears for his safety.

Ian said: "I joined because of the camaraderie, the sense of doing something for someone else, and as time has gone on things have got so much better in terms of conditions and equipment as we've moved into the new millennium.

"I wanted to do something more than just the nine-to-five, and this certainly does that.

"Of course there have been times when I've been injured and lots of things go through my wife's mind the same as the loved ones of any firefighter, but they are all very proud of me; well I hope they are!"

The pressure of being always on call is par for the course, and Ian, along with other volunteers, must live about five minutes away from the station in order to quickly man the appliances. As treasurer, he is also responsible for keeping costs down and helping the station run efficiently.

The intensive training programme, the same programme which paid firefighters adhere to, keeps Ian fit and healthy, and the relationship with the other brigade members and firefighters in the local area helps with training and support.

"We're doing the same job as our colleagues across Peterborough and within Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue. We're called to the same jobs, we are working with them as a team, so we have to be well trained and fit.

"We're there to help them, not do the job for them, so the relationship works really well. They rely on us, we rely on them."

Ian has attended many incidents across the city in his 14 years service, but particularly remembers the flooding of 1998.

"The incidents which have been at the heart of the community are probably the most poignant and stick in my mind like the flooding, the large job at the greyhound stadium and the cathedral blaze, of course.

"Our local knowledge helped the firefighters stop the fire from escalating – we just got there promptly along with the whole fire service and backed them up – that's just what we do.

"We augment the city's emergency services – we're always there. We might not always be known about, but we're always there for the people of Peterborough, we always have been since 1884, and we hope we always will be.".