PFCO Val Pluck: 46 years with ECFRS
When Val Pluck first sat down at the switchboard in Grays Fire Station in 1967 little did she know that she had embarked on a career which would span 46 years and see her running a busy Control Room in Essex for more than 25 years.
Val is now the longest serving member of staff and with a career in Essex County Fire and Rescue Service lasting more than 46 years, a record which it is extremely unlikely will ever be broken.
That career has seen huge changes in the way fire service’s work with Val working at the heart of the technological revolution which has seen pen and paper replaced with computers. In fact Val was responsible for installing the first computer in the service more than 30 years ago.
When Val started the control operator was at the heart of an entirely manual process. Since then Val has played a first hand role in the technological revolution which has led to the highly advanced mobilising systems used by control operators today.
Joining Essex County Fire and Rescue Service in May 1967 as a Firewoman, Val progressed up the ranks to become Principal Fire Control Officer in October 1986, a position she held right up until her retirement at the end of August this year.
Val said: “It was a job I knew I wanted to do, I know it sounds like a cliché but I wanted a job which helped people and this was one that definitely did that.
“It just developed from there, I didn’t take the job thinking this was something which I would be doing for 46 years, but it grew and it was something I found extremely rewarding.
“When I started I was at Grays Fire Station, which was then the Service’s B Division, and there were two of us. We had ‘dolls eye’ switchboards where we physically connected the calls by plugging and unplugging wires.
“All of the incident logs were recorded by hand and written up by the control operator taking the call and appliances were mobilised over the telephone all by the control operator who took the call.
“Obviously things have changed a lot since then, everything is on computers now and mobilising systems are far more advanced.”
Val was responsible for installing its first ever computer at Essex County Fire and Rescue Service shortly after Control was centralised at the service’s then new Hutton Head Quarters in 1977.
“We moved to a new central control room based at the new headquarters in Hutton
“All the information about our pre-determined attendance was kept on microfiche,” said Val. “It was horrible stuff to work with, it was hard to find what you were looking for and had a tendency to fly everywhere.
“So I got involved in a project with Essex University to transfer all the information to an Apple computer. This was around 1980 and it was the first computer which had been installed in the Service.
“It had a huge disc drive and used to make a lot of noise but it worked and it was a much better way of storing and looking up pre-determined attendance information that those unwieldy microfiche sheets.
“Little did I know at the time how central a role computers would play in the future of the fire service and Control. Since then I have been involved with countless projects which make the handwritten systems we started with seem unrecognisable today.”
Although the technology might have changed Val still feels that the basic skills of a control operator are the same today as they were on the day she started 46 years ago.
“You have to be accurate in everything you do, the information has to be absolutely right,” said Val. “I cannot remember the details of the first call I took but I can remember how it felt and it is the way it still feels to all control operators starting today.
“As soon as I put the phone down I worried whether or not I had got all the details down and had passed them on properly.”
The skills might not have changed but the calls certainly have.
Val said: “We used to deal with far bigger incidents. We would regularly attend 40 pump fires, and we used to get huge ship fires starting in ships in port.
“Over the years we have seen the size of fires reducing. But being there for those huge fires was great experience; once you have played a part in a 40 pump fire nothing can faze you.
“The biggest change I have seen working in Control came with the rise of mobile phones. We would get so many more calls, people used to have to be near a phone to report a fire now they can call as soon as they see it.”
Through all of the changes Val has never regretted her decision to join Essex Fire Brigade back in 1967.
She said: “I didn’t know then that this would be a career spanning more than four decades but I am glad that it turned out that way, it has been challenging and at times frustrating but always interesting and something I look back on with pride.”