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Sawbridgeworth Fire Brigade - Call Out
Page last updated: 02/07/2020
Calling the Fire Brigade.
Paragraph Headings on this page:
The Early Days The War Years Changes were made The First Electronics Mains Electrics Improved Efficiency Remote Call-Out Alerters
The Early Days.

No records are available to identify what happened when a fire was discovered prior to 1897 or indeed prior to 1902, but it is clear from the Minutes of the General Meeting of the Brigade on the18th November 1902 that prior to the dedicated fire station in Church Street coming into use in 1906, the bell mounted on the front of St. Mary's Church steeple was to be tolled by the Church Sexton. At the same meeting it was agreed that Mr. Peter Taylor should send a Messenger on horseback to each of the firemen's residences. Although nothing has been established in writing it is generally understood that the fire engine, as well as the horses, were 'stabled' at the King William IV public house in Vantorts Road. The fire engine was undoubtedly a 'Manual Pump', but more of that on the Fire Engines page. Back on the 13th January 1902 the A.G.M. of the Brigade had suggested that wall-plates with the word "Fireman" should be provided and fitted to fireman's residences. However, this subject came up again on the 19th January 1905 with the Council being asked to supply them. This must have been implemented at some time as I recall my Father having one in his possession but unfixed to the house!

A 'pencil' sketch of The King William IV Public House in Vantorts Road, just 75 yards from the 'new' Fire Station in Church Street. It is believed that the horses used had a dual role, that of pulling the hearse for funerals and the fire engine. What happened if there was a fire call during a funeral has not been determined!


The 'new' Fire Station was provided with a bell tower complete with bell. The bell, of course, needed someone to toll it and undoubtedly this was a known local (local to the fire station) person. The earliest I am aware of is the Butcher in The Square, Gerald Kirkby and afterwards and for many years, Mr. Edward (Ted), Morris, Orsman of the Bakery, 3 Church Street (1877 - 1966). It has never been made clear as to how contact was made with these shop keepers other than that it was presumably 'Local Knowledge' as far as people in Sawbridgeworth were concerned! Additionally one can only assume that outside of the town, and from other towns when assistance was required, messengers on horseback or cycles would have been used. Perhaps there was a shop window notice "You can call the Fire Brigade from here"? The Minute Book referred to earlier only refers in one instance to calling Fireman to the Fire Station and this related to the duties of Messengers having responsibility to go to the Fireman's house if he had not responded to the Fire Bell. It is fairly clear that from the start of the new fire station and for many years to come the Fire Bell was the main method of call-out.

The War Years.

There was also an 'additional' call out in the early part of the war, particularly the period of the London Blitz of 1940. Every time the Red Alert Siren sounded the Firemen were expected to get to the fire station quickly and remain on standby until the All Clear. During the war I was at school at the Fawbert And Barnard and can well remember seeing my Father (Frank Wright) running up the twitchall (Pathway) that is between The Forebury and St. Mary's Church Yard several times a day. He was employed at the part of the Maltings of H.A. & D. Taylor, known as The British Diamalt Company and I was on my way to the School Dugouts in The Forebury, where the Memorial Hall stands today, with my class. This arrangement of call-out did not last very long because there were just too many false alarms!

Changes were made.

The first mention of a change to the system was in 1939, when in the Minutes of the Meeting held on the 13th January that year it was suggested that the Council be asked - amongst other things - to consider the desirability of installing electric bells in the houses of firemen. As far as I can recall this did not actually take place until the penultimate year of the war (1944) at a time when it was thought that Air Raids were more unlikely. As it turned out air raids became more prolific for a time by Germany pounding England with the V1 Flying Bomb and later the V2 Rocket, in that year. There were one or two close encounters with both!

The First Electronics.

The House Bells, as they were known, were fitted to each fireman's house, and maintained by the then G.P.O. (General Post Office). This was the days when most house telephones were connected by wires above ground with two wires from the telephone pole insulated by porcelain cups. It was significantly a Fireman's house when a single wire went to the house, often from a porcelain cup mounted on the very top of the pole!

The familiar site of an insulator 'top-of-pole' with one wire only to a premises usually indicated that a local fireman resided there!

The Bells were energised by a hand generator and switches, on the side wall and adjacent to the Rope Pull of the Fire Bell situated in the South West corner of the Fire Station. In fact I believe the generator etc. was originally placed on the front wall but were moved later to the position mentioned when additional alterations were made. The bells were connected by the use of 2 circuits, each circuit having a check bell of its own in the Fire Station. I believe that two circuits were really required on account of the voltage drop which would have occurred if all bells required would have been connected to one circuit. However, the additional value of the split was to cover for an emergency of one circuit not working: at least one would ring! The voltage generated was 50v.dc (see Addendum below). The circuits were switched manually by a brass surface mounted change-over switch of the pendulum type. This technical necessity of two circuits was often raised as an issue because some firemen would get the call before others! In the days of the Fire Bell, at night (after dark) the House Bells were always rung (twice) first and the Fire Bell used at the discretion of the ringer subject to the time of night. In the day time the Fire Bell was always tolled first, followed after a minute or so by the House bells being rung, again twice. Always though one ring on one circuit then on the other, then again: the duration of each ring was about 2 Minute each time. The fire bell itself remained being rung until sufficient men had arrived at the Fire Station.

GPO Bell Set 26

GPO Generator No. 13FN
Far left, the 'House Bells' unit, were the standard GPO black Bakelite unit with clapper in the middle of the two bells and was the same from the beginning only becoming redundant after radio bleepers took over in 1971. (More recent information below)
Left shows an example of a GPO AC Generator that could have been used in conjunction with House Bells.

GPO Bell 40B
Addendum 01/07/2020: The Webmaster's initial research indicated that the Generation of the voltage was Direct Current (DC) however the mention of House Bells on this page sparked the interest of an ex GPO Engineer based in Northamptonshire who worked on that counties Fire Brigade Call Out System. It seems that the systems were mostly operated on Direct Current using the GPO Bell 40B. However the style of that used at Sawbridgeworth indicates that these operated on Alternating Current (AC) and were GPO Bell Set 26. His further research along with ex GPO colleagues established that some of the early GPO systems did indeed use bells of that Alternating Current (AC) type. This is good evidence that Sawbridgeworth was equipped with house bells at possibly as early as 1939/1940 as indicated by the SFB Minutes of the 13th January 1939 and not towards the end of WWII as had previously been assumed! The webmaster is indebted to Chris Middleton & his colleagues for the research and information provided.

Mains Electrics.

The method of call-out mentioned above was continued until the new Electric Siren was placed on the Hose or Drill Tower in 1947-8 and this purely took over from the Fire Bell. Its sounding was a continuous 'note' as with the war time All Clear. At this time the method of calling for the fire brigade was updated to make more use of the telephone system that the general public were becoming more accustomed to! By this time, Mr. Orsman, the Baker, was now the principal contact for all fire calls and any member of the public who called the Fire Brigade via the Sawbridgeworth (manual) telephone exchange would have been put through to Mr. Orsman who would have taken the details of the type of fire and the address. He would then rush to the Fire Station and sound the alarm. This was nothing new of course, he had by this time been doing this for years - what was new, was that more calls were being made by telephone instead of by 'runner' and there was a button to press instead of the bell to pull! As with every fireman, he was of course issued with a key to the Station door, which in those days was just one of a three stage folding door set that reached to the height of the bottom of the arched front. Above the doors was a non opening glass panelled arched wooden frame also of three panels. Later on these doors were to be completely replaced by three full height folding doors that fitted to the arch, the left hand door having a small pedestrian entry door within it.

Improved Efficiency.

This much noisier method of alerting the Firemen during the day time and until around 10pm at night was much more efficient - the siren was fitted with a timer to prevent it sounding during the night. The Fire Bell was beginning to loose its ability to be heard because the 'world' was already becoming a noisier place and of course Sawbridgeworth was expanding and men were working further from the centre in many cases. The electric siren was also fitted with an electric period timer mechanism which originally was set to three quarters of a minute. There were numerous complaints about this because on several occasions men based at both Walter Lawrence Joinery Works and the Maltings failed to hear the call-out over the sound of machinery. The length of sounding was subsequently increased to a minute and a half. It seems almost unbelievable but on many occasions during evening time a full crew had arrived at the Fire Station (5 men) before the siren had finished sounding and it was often turned off at the main switch to prevent the 'awakening of the town' any longer! On one occasion the main switch was left off inadvertently and the siren did not sound for a subsequent fire call - it was fortunate that this was evening time and the house bells done their job! The Siren was apparently withdrawn from use on the 17th September 1971 and replaced by the issue of bleepers (Alerters) to firemen, which they were expected to carry at all times. The Log Book of 1971 indicates that House Bells remained in operation at this time.

Remote Call-Out.
  It was probably not until the early 1950's that the system was updated further. This was quite a significant change because it was based on all telephone calls for a fire being diverted to Bishop's Stortford Fire Station. By this time telephones in Sawbridgeworth and the surrounding district had been converted to automatic dialling via the small and new telephone exchange building off the very narrow Bull Fields road close to its junction with Station Road. This of course was the first provision of the 999 system in the area which allowed filtering of the calls and direction as required. Also by this time Bishop's Stortford Fire Brigade had become part full time but, only with two personnel on duty at any time, day and night. The system for call-out at Sawbridgeworth was now altered to fully automatic with the 'pressing of the button' being done at Bishop's Stortford: this was via a direct telephone line link between both fire stations. (The same arrangement was installed for Much Hadham). The new arrangement also automated the ringing of the bells in the Firemen's houses but now they rang 13 times of about 5 seconds duration instead of twice - and both circuits together! The ringing period was of the same duration as the siren and there was a very distinctive 'first ring' which was very short in comparison with the remainder. These two known features were used for timing in 'our' house. At night and in bed asleep, you needed to be out of bed and dressed by the third ring and out of the house by the time the bells had rung their course, i.e.  one and a half minutes! Otherwise there was every possibility you would 'miss the pump', as it was known. This meant that at dead of night the 'turn-out' (pump left the station with full crew) was usually achieved within four to four and a half minutes (#). Everything personal needed was of course meticulously laid ready for achieving this and the Brigade had an excellent record of turn-out times over a very long period of years. This revised system of call-out also brought the problem of the first fireman arriving at the Fire Station, particularly at night, and no one already there - he had to have his door key! I think it happened only once that there was a short wait until a key holder arrived but this was overcome by the placing of a door key on a piece of string inside the letter box and this remained the procedure for some years. I suspect it would not be possible to rely on such a basic arrangement today for fear of vandalism!
(#) It would be remiss here not to mention one of the shopkeepers of Church Street who assisted the brigade in its turnout achievements over many years after the time of Ted Orsman the baker! Next door to the baker's premises (nearer the fire station) was a cobblers run by the Blake family. The son of the cobbler was Harold Leslie Blake (1912 - 2008) who took a real interest on assisting with turnouts. As soon as the siren was heard he would go and, using the letterbox key, open the full doors so that access for arriving firemen was immediate. He also took a great interest in the incidents themselves and took many photographs, unfortunately most of his slides were unrecorded as to where the incident took place but some were obvious as shown by those taken of the destruction of Burton's Mill in Station Road.
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Alerters Information kindly provided by Simon Lincoln - Hertfordshire Fire & Rescue Updated 02/06/2o20  

The Pagers were, and still are, known in the Fire Brigade as Alerters. The radio signal to sound the alerters, and call the crew, is transmitted from equipment installed at the fire station. This transmitter is operated remotely by Fire Service Control, using primary, secondary or tertiary barriers, each one using a different method of triggering the station end equipment.

Pye Sentinal SR1 alerter 1970's
Hertfordshire were one of the first brigades to adopt the alerters for their staff (Sawbridgeworth on 17th Sept 1971). This system of calling out the brigade was a remarkable improvement on the siren and house bells. Although bulky by modern standards, the Pye alerters were small enough to be fitted into a top pocket; although it was more usual for them to be clipped to the trouser belt. At night they were slipped into a battery charger by the bedside. The fire call was an intermittent bleep tone, and the test was a continuous tone, both of which sounded for about sixty seconds. Although pagers are now commonplace they were quite a rare item when first issued in the 1970s, and for many years firemen were regularly asked by inquisitive members of the public to explain their purpose. In mid 1980's the Pye alerters were withdrawn and smaller ones were issued, which were only a quarter of the size of the original Pye model.

Copy of advice to users pamphlet.

Multitone Tone Plus 412 alerter mid 1980's - 2006
The Multitone Tone Plus 412 were about quarter of the size of the previous Pye models and was powered by an AA battery (HP7 at the time). It had a sprung loaded belt clip and a clip on lanyard to secure to trousers. Units had a red light, that flashed when operated and was used with 2 separate tones. Each tone sounded 4 times for approximately 10 seconds with 5 second pause between. One tone was for a operational call, the other was the weekly test, this sounded on a Tuesday evening at approximately 18:35. Each tone could be muted, but this had to be done for every 10 second burst! LCD display displayed a number from 1-4, each number indicating the type of call received along with a distinctive tone for each, i.e. a fire call or test etc. received. This display could be reset by pressing of buttons on top of unit, or could be turned off by pressing the small round recessed button in between the 2 larger ones.

Datanet 2A alerter 2006 - 01/06/2020
Similar size units to the Multitones, powered by an AA battery. Again it also has sprung loaded belt clip and lanyard. 4 LED lights on the unit, 3 red and 1 green and 2 tones still used. During activation for operational call all 3 red LEDS flash and a dual constant tone sounds for approximately 30 seconds along with a vibration function. If the unit is not muted/reset by pressing button on side, after a minute the green LED flashes every 15 seconds along with a bleep indicating a missed call. Following a missed call, once the button on side is pressed, the alerters will resound the last signal received (either and operational call or test 30 second bip bip tone) These are the current items in service.
Currently various options are being investigated in the way forwards to alert fire-fighters. Smart alerters with a function to enable acknowledgement of your attendance or mobile phone app paging functions using a multi-network SIM card to name a few. The Emergency Services Network (ESN) trial due to start in 2019, could bring newer technology with regard paging and alerting systems, across the wider emergency services.

  Copyright, Trademarks or Registered Designs are acknowledged
Birdy Multitone WP 02/06/2020 - Present day
Slightly larger than the Datanet 2A, due to the fact it has a 4 line LCD screen that can display call information. Again powered by an AA battery and it has a sprung loaded belt clip and lanyard. 2 LED lights on the unit and 2 tones still used. During activation for operational call the red LED flash, screen lights up red displaying Sawbridgeworth Fire Call and a dual constant tone sounds for approximately 30 seconds along with a vibration function. The unit has an unread message alert that after 1 minute the unit resounds indicating a missed call. It also has some user adjustable settings (font size, vibrate and or tone or silent setting, alarm clock, battery level notification (with a night time low battery mute)) Screen colours vary too, Red for Fire call, Green for Test call and Blue for Menu functions. IP67 dust and waterproof making it more robust to contamination.

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