Fire Watching / Prevention

“The main objective of the Government is to secure that Britain shall not burn and it is with this objective in view that they have framed the present Order” - Herbert Morrison & Thomas Johnston, Ministry Of Home Security 1941, in forward to a Explanatory Memorandum to Fire Prevention (Business Premises) (No.2) Order 1941.

Fire watching was first introduced in September 1940 (Fire Watching Order 1940) but only required Fire watchers for larger factories / business. Fire watching was made compulsory under the Fire Prevention (Business Premises) Order 1941. The Fire Prevention (Business Premises) (No.2) 1941 Order canceled the previous Fire Watchers Order (1940) and Fire Prevention (Business Premises) Order 1941, and brought together these two Orders with some amendments.

It provided for certain fire prevention arrangements to be made on certain classes of premises as defined by The Regional Commissioner under powers delegated to him by the Minister of Home Security.

Fire Prevention duties (Defence Regulation 27a) were defined as:

• Keeping watch for the fall of incendiary bombs and any outbreak of fire as a result of hostile attack
• Taking immediate steps, as far as practicable, to combat such a fire
• Summoning such assistance as necessary
• Being in a state of readiness to undertake such duties

 Above: German 1 Kg Incendiary bomb and dealing with a fire caused by an incendiary bomb using a stirrup pump

The Order placed the responsibility of the occupier of premises to undertake the above duties. The occupier had to submit a statement of the arrangements adopted for the protection of the premises to an “appropriate authority”. The “appropriate authority” would depend upon the particular circumstances. The Regional Commissioner was the appropriate authority for local government premises and the local authority was the appropriate authority for business premises in its area.

If the occupier failed to submit a statement of arrangements the local authority could impose arrangements. It could also specify arrangements if it decided to disapprove the submitted arrangements. In some cases if there was not enough employees working at a particular premises to undertake fire prevention arrangements, the occupier was released from the responsibility of making fire prevention arrangements and the local authority had a responsibility for providing assistance and making such arrangements (the occupier was still liable to carry out any arrangements made by the local authority).

The fire prevention arrangements could be made voluntary or compulsory. If compulsory, all male employees at the premises (between the ages of 18 to 60) were liable to take turns in fire prevention duties. This would typically be not less than 48 hours duty in successive periods of four weeks. If voluntary, a person not involved in fire prevention duties at the premises could still be liable for fire prevention duties in the area they resided in if so called upon by the local authority under Civil Defence Duties (Compulsory Enrolment) Order 1941, with some relief arrangements for those working night shifts.

Under compulsory orders, certain classes would be exempt – those serving in the Home Guard, Royal Observer Corps or Special Constables. However those enrolled under other local authority fire prevention duties - Civil Defence Duties (Compulsory Enrolment) Order 1941 - were not exempt as the Fire Prevention Order had precedence over this order.

Fire prevention arrangements could also be joint or combined:

• A joint arrangement could be made between two or more neighboring premises. It was recognized that this would be more difficult to implement than arrangements covering a single business premises so such arrangements would only be approved in special circumstances.
• A combined arrangement allowed an occupier to notify single arrangements to cover two or more business premises under his control.

The Act also specified that that travel and subsistence allowances be paid to those to those undertaking fire prevention duties. This was borne by the occupiers under the first Order but under the new Order was to be borne by the national Exchequer as fire prevention duties were now regarded as a national obligation.

The Act allowed for occupiers to submit amendments to arrangements if circumstances changed or for the appropriate authority to make such amendments.

Where a property was in use as a place of residence as well as a business i.e. a shop, it was excluded from the Act. Responsibility for fire prevention arrangements would rest with the local authority as for any residential premises in its area.

The situation in Suffolk regarding these Orders probably mirrored that in the rest of the country. The Fire Watching Order of 1940 was not taken seriously with many business premises applying for exemptions. The two 1941 Orders did lead to an improvement in the situation although the minutes of the Ipswich Emergency Committee show that absenteeism amongst watchers was not an uncommon problem. One particular complaint the Committee had to look into was a claim of watchers clocking on then just going home.

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