London Fire Brigade

Hackney Borough Commander shares his experience of the 2011 London riots

12 August 2016

For three days in August 2011, lawlessness erupted in towns and cities across the country in some of the worst scenes of civil disorder since the early 1980s.

On Saturday, 6 August 2011, Steve Dudeney,  Borough Commander for Hackney, was off-duty at home when he was paged to return to duty and assist with a civil disturbance in progress in Tottenham.

He was asked to immediately report to a fire station in north London where, as an inter-agency liaison officer (ILO), he could begin to plan what appliances were needed to attend the numerous fires which were by now being reported in the area.

Crews were mobilised to the affected areas but it was soon clear that one ILO, who was already couldn’t possibly manage the area alone, as the disturbances and fires had now spread over approximately one mile of Tottenham High Road.

Steve would have to also report to the scene.

'A mile of fire'

"We arrived in Tottenham and I jumped off the appliance. The crew were given their instructions and went off while I stood to take in the scene,” said Steve.

"Tottenham High Road is a relatively straight road and ahead of me, like a scene from the World War II Blitz on London, I saw building’s burning left and right as far as the eye could see.

"I distinctly recall the phrase that came to mind was 'a mile of fire'.

"I had a conversation with a police chief inspector where we updated each other on information and then I made my way along the High Road.

"Almost every square inch of road and pavement was covered in debris. It was amazing how difficult it was to walk along, treading over broken bricks, glass and other debris.

"I walked past burnt cars and the still smouldering shell of a burnt out bus; I came across crews that were fighting fires in shops and buildings on either side of the road.



"Again, in my mind I conjured images of firefighting in The Blitz and laid 21st century firefighters, appliances and uniforms over them. It was exactly the same.

"I received an update from appliance commanders at each stop and noted them, as well as making welfare checks on the crews.

"Every one of them had been working flat out for hours, without a break, but their mettle and courage shone through as bright as the big grins that came from their grimy faces.

"This generation of firefighters, from the late 80s, 90s and 00s, had never been tested like this before in terms of civil disorder.

"As a senior officer I was immensely proud of them and of being part of London Fire Brigade that night.

"They showed that when the chips were down, the Brigade could still deliver like they had through the previous 145 years.



"Very quickly dawn broke and amazingly as I recall it, almost as if a whistle had been blown at the end of a football match, the disorder seemed to fizzle out.

"Within a short time, members of the public began to come out onto the High Road to take in the damage and small groups of exhausted police officers began to walk back past us. Each of them giving us the knowing but unspoken look of mutual respect and admiration for what each had been through.

"Gradually as the road cleared we began to get relief fire crews in to take over from the initial crews who had been right in the thick of this for over seven hours.

"I eventually got back in my car around 9am and drove home for a much needed sleep.

Sunday

"I was sent to a major police control room during the evening where it soon became clear more disorder was likely to occur.

"Tottenham was thankfully calm but soon trouble began in Enfield, with rumours of unrest elsewhere and before long it was apparent significant disorder had started in Brixton.

"We identified a number of fire stations where again, appliances were marshalled in readiness and soon we had a severe fire in progress in a shop in Brixton.

"My job now was to be on the other end of the radio from what I was doing the previous night and soon, working with police colleagues, we were able to get appliances and crews safely into Brixton to deal with the fire.

"For the Brigade, Sunday night was thankfully much quieter bit this was the calm before the storm for what was about to become London Fire Brigade's busiest night since World War II.

Monday

"Having been at the police control room all of Sunday night, I slept during the day and got up in the afternoon ready for a third night.

"It wasn't long before disorder was being reported in Hackney and then in Peckham, where a shop had been set on fire.

"After sunset, London seemed to explode into violence.

"I saw the Reeves furniture store erupt into flames in Croydon and soon began to paint a picture in my mind from messages received from colleagues, as well as news reports, of disorder breaking out in all corners of London.



"I was eventually called to a fire in Barking. A large derelict pub was burning on a corner and I arrived to make an assessment before calling crews in.

"There were masses of public order police in attendance and we had a decent sized cordon to work within.

"We had six pumps and an aerial appliance to deal with the fire but the incident commander soon released two of those due to the amount of serious fires burning across London.

"After a period of time, the inspector in charge of the police resources told me they had to leave as they had been ordered to Ealing - the opposite side of the capital.

"I negotiated with him that we would be vulnerable if left alone, so we agreed he would leave one crew of Territorial Support Group Officers with us as we finished with the fire.

"I left that scene at around 2am and with everything else covered, I went home.

"I did not know it at that point but with London thankfully quiet on Tuesday, as the riots had sadly spread elsewhere in the UK, my riots were over.

"London is a vast and resilient city. In the days and weeks that followed, many questions were asked and lots of commentary was made but soon life in this beautiful capital city returned to its usual, reassuring, busy, vibrant self."