As we have said, the stations nearest to the scene of conflagration turn out engines and men; but the other stations furnish a man each. Thus machinery is set in motion which moves, as it were, the whole metropolis; and while the engines are going to the fire at full speed, single men are setting out from every point of the compass to walk to it, with their sailors’ caps on their heads and their helmets on their arms.
And this takes place in the case of every alarm of fire, because fire is an element that will not brook delay, and it does not do to wait to ascertain whether it is worth while to turn out such a force of men for it or not.
In order, however, to prevent this unnecessary assembling of men when the fire is found to be trifling, or when, as is sometimes the case, it is a false alarm, the fireman in charge of the engine that arrives first at once sends a man back to the station with a “stop”, that is, with an order to telegraph to the central station that the fire turns out to be only a chimney or a false alarm, and that all hands who have started from the distant stations may be “stopped”. The “stop” is at once telegraphed to the foremen, from whom it is passed (just as the “call” had been) to the outlying stations, and this second telegram may arrive within quarter of an hour of the first.
Of course the man from each station has set out before that time, and the “stop” is too late for him, but it is his duty to call at the various fire stations he happens to pass on the way, where he soon finds out whether he is to “go on” or to “go back”.
If no telegram has been received, he goes on to the fire; sometimes walking four or five miles to it, “at not less than four miles an hour”. On coming up to the scene of conflagration he puts on his helmet, thrusts his cap into the breast of his coat, and reports himself to the chief of the fire brigade (who is usually on the spot), or to the foreman in command, and finds, probably, that he has arrived just in time to be of great service in the way of relieving the men who first attacked the flames.
If, on the other hand, he finds that the “stop” has been telegraphed, he turns back before having gone much more than a mile from his own station, and so goes quietly home to bed. In the days of which we write the effective and beautiful system of telegraphy which now exists had not been applied to the fire stations of London, and the system of “stops” and “calls”, although in operation, was carried out much less promptly and effectively by means of messengers.