Over recent years, fire provision on the island has changed out of all recognition. When I joined in 1985 the uniform consisted of very basic water proof jacket, leggings and a plastic helmet similar to one you would find on a building site. The basic equipment of two portable pumps, hose reels and various odds and ends were kept in a small ‘garden’ shed on the site of the present station.
One pump was a Swedish Husquvarna which was fantastic when it started, which was rarely, and woe betide anyone who stalled it as it would never restart when hot! The second was a 3.5 HP Briggs and Stratton which was more reliable but less powerful – and indeed the same pump is to be found in a supplementary role on the appliance today. We also still used the original hand operated pump. This was operated by four men and was an incredibly strenuous activity, 10 minutes was probably about the maximum even the fittest could manage.
One of the basic rules in those days was that no member should work close to a fire and under no circumstances enter a building. We were effectively unable to do more than spray water on a fire from a ‘safe’ distance. With the regionalisation of Scotland in the 1970s Argyll and Bute became part of Strathclyde, and with it Argyll and Bute Fire Brigade effectively became North Command, one of the four commands which make up Britain’s second biggest Fire Brigade (the largest being London). The unique geography of Argyll and Bute with its scattered population means that the bulk of fire stations are categorised as volunteer units, indeed there are 27 volunteer units compared with 13 retained and 4 full-time. There are only 4 other volunteer units throughout the whole of Strathclyde.
For many years volunteer units were effectively poor relations. One factor in particular changed this situation, and this was the new Health and Safety legislation of the 1980’s. Also giving credit where credit is due, John Jameson, the then Commander, made it one of his priorities to upgrade rural fire provision. The argument ran that a fire on Coll carried exactly the same risks as that presented to a full-time unit in Glasgow.
Coll was one of the earlier communities to benefit from this significant investment, being given a head start in that Kevin Oliphant generously offered a piece of land to Strathclyde on the provision that his offer was acted upon with minimum delay. This was a more than effective lever meaning that Coll was the first of the Argyll islands to be upgraded.
The result of this investment is that our station and appliance has much the same capability and equipment (less sometimes in quantity and size) as any you might see in the region. The Mercedes chassis has proved a great success, and with its robust design, permanent 4 wheel drive, low range and differential lock, it means that we can get to pretty much every property on Coll, in dry weather and possibly all.
Dry weather does carry its own problems though, as our water carrying capacity is only some 1500L and the majority of properties outside of the village, where mains coverage is unavailable, simply do not have adequate reserves to tackle a fire. Everyone should be encouraged to build Rob Wainwright style duck ponds in the vicinity of their houses.
In the past years we have seen new breathing apparatus, lighter with carbon fibre/glass fibre composite cylinders instead of steel and giving increased working time, 40 minutes instead of 30. The most recent developments have been the issuing of new protective clothing; gone are the familiar blue uniforms, replaced by a more lightweight and sophisticated gold coloured one. The more traditional style helmet has been replaced by the new Gallet helmet, made of Kevlar with two shatter proof visors for eye and face protection, again a super piece of kit but limited by the fact that when you put it on you can’t hear anything.
The Fire Brigade traditionally has had a rather military structure and modus operandi. Over the past few years we have seen a move away from this. No more standing in lines at attention, less formal inspections by Senior officers and now the dropping of ‘Fire Brigade’ to be replaced by ‘Fire and Rescue.’
The ‘Command’ structure is being replaced and instead of North Command, Coll will operate within a new autonomous region, ‘Argyll and Bute,’ which will still be part of Strathclyde. The familiar motto ‘Semper Paratus’ and motif on the fire appliance will disappear and be replaced by a simple ‘Fire and Rescue’.
Equipment, though important, is not the whole story and the effectiveness of any volunteer unit depends on the enthusiasm and commitment of the members, of which here on Coll we have in abundance!