The Origin of The Stop

If you've ever wondered where 'The Stop' began, read on...

An introductory explanation for persons who have never served in the fire service

'The Stop' message is recognised in fire and rescue services across the nation as a key message passed from an Incident Commander to his Fire Control Centre at a key stage of an incident.

The message indicates that whatever resources, in terms of engines and crews, the commander has at the incident, it is sufficient and that they shall not be requiring any further assistance. If sent verbally by radio the Stop is used to construct a message as per the typical example - 'From Incident Commander at High Street, Newport. Stop for fire in commercial premises, over'

This is a key piece of information for the Control Operators who, in the case of a potentially developing incident, will be anticipating requests for further fire engines and will be considering how to supply them, where from, and how best to disperse remaining engines and crews to cover the wider area for which the service is responsible. Receiving the Stop means they can stop planning these contingencies. 

Increasingly the Stop is more regularly used to indicate that the incident has come to a close - which by definition retains the original value of the message that no further resources are required.

The difference in use between decades past and today became apparent when I first scoured the pages of Ryde's original watchroom logs from the 1950's. At that time one fireman would be dedicated to the role of Watchroom Orderly tasked with maintaining contact with Fire Control by telephone from where he would receive timed details which he was expected to transcribe into the Turnout Log - from contemporary accounts I gather this was not a popular job - all firemen wanted to be at the fire not stuck in the watchroom.

The very first incident I read in the 1950's logs involved Ryde Fire Station deploying their Main Pump to a fire on the Esplanade. The time at which the call was received was detailed followed a few minutes later by the time the engine departed the station including how many were in the crew and the name of the Officer in Charge (OiC). Next appeared the time at which the OiC reported in attendance at the incident and this was followed by receipt of the Stop message - just three minutes later. My initial thought was - wow they worked quick at that job - until noting that they remained at the incident for a further fifty minutes before returning to the station. This evidenced the Stop message being used by its traditional definition - that the OiC used those first few minutes to size-up the job and decided that his single fire engine and crew was sufficient for the task which they then engaged in and took almost an hour to complete. 

In the modern fire service it is more common for the Incident Commander (IC) to refrain from issuing a Stop message until the action of the incident is all but over. It means the same thing but is delivered much later in the operation and as such for the firefighters on the ground, hot, sweaty and tired, it is a welcome sign that they can soon begin making up the equipment ready for departure.  

But for many years I could never ascertain the origin of the Stop. When first in the service I asked several of the older hands and officers, a few of them had been serving since the 1960's but none of them could give me an answer. For a message of such significance for all concerned, known by every UK firefighter and used in services the length and breadth of the country every single day, it seemed madness that no-one understood where it came from. 

The answer, which I discovered by chance, is revealed below.

Today the 'Stop' is most likely to be declared by tapping the touch screen 'STOP' icon on a Mobile Data Terminal stowed within the cab of the appliance.

When researching the Victorian period of the history of Isle of Wight firefighting I found it useful to access any material of the era with a link to firefighting to get a feeling for brigades, the society in which they existed, how they functioned and how they fought fires.

During that quest I visited a second-hand book store at Sedburgh in Cumbria and discovered a dusty copy of Fighting the Flames, by Robert Michael Ballantyne, published in 1867.

By the 1860's Ballantyne was a revered writer of children's adventure stories in the vein of a Boys Own yarn. At the beginning of that decade a major conflagration in London's Tooley Street saw the London Fire Engine Establishment's celebrated superintendent James Braidwood perish beneath the debris of a collapsed structure. The death, in such tragic circumstances, of the man who created the world's first municipal fire brigade at Edinburgh and then moved south to create London's first co-ordinated service, caught the attention of all levels of society and his funeral of 29 June 1961, with its one-and-a-half mile cortege, reached state-like proportions as his body was conveyed to Abney Park Cemetery at Stoke Newington. 

It would take a man of equal pedigree to replace the man who had commanded firefighting in the capital for over thirty years. That man was Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, an Irishman with a captaincy gained as a commissioned officer of the military. 

With interest in the heroics of the LFEE still filling pamphlets and papers, Ballantyne (Fig.1) befriended the new superintendent and secured permission to live on stations and attend fires with London's firemen for the purpose of gaining valid experiences to use in his intended publication Fighting the Flames.

I read Fighting the Flames and found it an easy uncomplicated yarn of the battle between cunning pyromania and heroic deeds with the focus on fireman Frank Willders and his precocious younger brother Willie, who longed to reach adulthood and emulate his elder siblings endeavours.

To enlighten readers to the world of the fire brigade, Ballantyne interspersed the tale with short passages of factual explanation, to enable the reader to grasp the context and meaning behind phrases used and actions taken.

In Page 92 of the 16th edition (1882), the protagonist Fireman Frank Wilders, is chatting with his colleagues in the station watchroom (Fig.2 an accompanying image from the book) when...

...a young fireman entered the room with his helmet hanging on his arm.

'Is it go on?' he enquired, looking round.

"No it's go back, young Rags" replied Baxmore, as he filled his pipe "it was only a chimney so you're not wanted."

After blagging a wad of chewing tobacco from Baxmore - "Young Rags put the quid in his cheek and went away humming a tune".

At this point of the book Ballantyne breaks from the narrative to illuminate the reader with the context of the brief conversation between Baxmore and Rags.

What follows is Ballantyne's words, verbatim, that explains the system of The Stop, as created by Superintendent James Braidwood (Fig.3) sometime between 1833 and 1860 as an standard procedure in the life of the London Fire Engine Establishment during his reign. It's incredible to think that Braidwood's simple method of controlling resources created over 160 years ago, is now commonplace and used every day by fire and rescue services across the United Kingdom - albeit via the channel of modern communications facilities. 

In explanation of the above incident, it is necessary to tell the reader that when a fire occurs in any part of London at the present time, the fire station nearest to it at once sends out its engines and men, and telegraphs to the head or centre station at Watling Street. London is divided into four districts, each district containing several fire stations, and being presided over by a foreman. From Watling Street the news is telegraphed to the foremen’s stations, whence it is transmitted to the stations of their respective districts, so that in a few minutes after the breaking out of a fire the fact is known to the firemen all over London.

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 sailor’s 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 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 the 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 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.

No.68 Watling Street, headquarters of the London Fire Engine Establishment (1833-1865) as mentioned in Ballantyne's explanation. The establishment continued as headquarters of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (1866-1878).

Life in the Red Brigade

In 1873, Ballantyne published a second novel featuring London’s firefighters – Life in the Red Brigade.

Reference to the Stop and its associated workings is made right from the start of Chapter One. Described as wet, worn, and weary, in the small hours Fireman Joe Dashwood returns to a fire station at a location in a small street not far from Regent Circus. Dashwood has been on a shout. He was the sole member of his station whose duty was to proceed on foot to a fire outside their own patch. Evidently as he passed one fire station after another, dutifully checking in for an update, no Stop was forthcoming, and Dashwood arrived at the scene of the blaze to find he was very much required.

Returning to the loosely identified station, a mixture of charcoal and water streaking his face, he disturbed the snoozing fireman Bob Clazie. The watchroom fireman moaned that the telegraph had – roused me four times already within the last hour – stops for chimbleys. In adding some context, Ballantyne added a snippet that didn’t appear in his reasoning of the Stop in his earlier publication - This use of the telegraph in thus stopping the men of the Brigade from going out in force to trifling fires, is of the greatest service, because it not only prevents them from being harassed, the engines from being horsed, and steam got up needlessly, but it prevents rascals from running from station to station, and getting several shillings, instead of the one shilling which is due to the first intimator of any fire.

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