Obituary: Dr Frank Rushbrook CBE FiFire E DSc – 1914 to 2014 - 17th February 2014
Dr. Frank Rushbrook CBE
Born: December 6 1914; Died: February 17, 2014.
Frank Rushbrook, who has died aged 99, was a leading figure in the Scottish fire service and a pioneer in the fire engineering profession. It was his vision, his financial contribution and arm twisting of the fire protection and insurance industry that has led to a greater understanding of how buildings respond to fire, how to prevent fire, how to fight fire and how to investigate fire.
His great hero was James Braidwood, who founded the world’s first municipal fire service in Edinburgh, and it was Mr Rushbrook who was the driving force behind the statue of Braidwood that now stands in Parliament Square. A first edition of Braidwood’s manual on fire engines and firefighting has been signed by every firemaster since, including Frank Rushbrook who became firemaster of South Eastern Brigade in Edinburgh in 1959.
He was born the son of a photographer in Edinburgh and his career began as the brigade photographer although he was also the firemaster’s driver. He once asked his boss Willie Muir how he kept so cool. “Son, I didn’t start the fire, I just put them out,” was the reply.
It was not long before Mr Rushbrook signed up to become a fireman and he served with the National Fire Service during the war. He was fond of the story of attending a tenement in Leith where the front wall had been blown down by a bomb. A woman was trapped on an upper floor and Mr Rushbrook was dispatched up the ladder to rescue her. But she was having none of it. “I can’t leave,” she said. “I haven’t got my teeth.” As quick as a flash, the answer came to him: “What do you think the gerries are dropping… sandwiches?”
He participated in the first fire prevention course run by the British Fire Service in 1944 and served as third officer in Leicester and deputy firemaster of Lanarkshire before becoming chief officer of East Ham in the 50s. The area included the Royal Docks and he became interested in ship fires and became convinced of the need to train sailors in how to fight fires. He published Fire Aboard, recognised the world over as a leading textbook on the subject.
He passed up a chance to be chief of London Fire Brigade to return to Edinburgh in 1959 where he was soon appointed firemaster of the South Eastern Fire Brigade. He had a ship constructed on dry land to use to train mariners and it is still in use today.
The publication of Fire Aboard brought Mr Rushbrook to the attention of maritime attorneys in New York where he is remembered with great affection as an outstanding expert witness. He was retained by Shell tankers and by Mather and Platt, now Tyco, and advocated the use of water spray to protect ship’s engine rooms rather than carbon dioxide, before water mist was invented.
He was awarded a CBE for his service in the British Fire Service in 1970 and retired the same year, although he continued to investigate fires and give expert testimony well into his late 80s. He was particularly proud of having appeared in New York before Judge Soto Mayor, now a Supreme Court Justice, and having appeared for the United States Department of Justice in the Scandinavian Sea case carrying a letter with their thanks in his jacket which said: “Well done Frank, you’ve won another one”.
A chance encounter on an overseas flight with Sir Michael Swan, the then principal of the University of Edinburgh, gave him a chance to discuss his next project; the establishment of the first university department of fire engineering in the world. The then Chancellor HRH Prince Phillip took an interest but disliked the name and it was he who suggested that Fire Safety Engineering would better describe the department’s function. Established in 1973, it celebrates its 40th anniversary in a few months. Mr Rushbrook was to have been the guest of honour.
Its first professor David Rasbash and lecturers Dr Dougal Drysdale and Dr Eric Marchant started a masters course in fire safety engineering in 1976. Mr Rushbrook gave lectures on ship fires equipped with a pilot’s briefcase with Concorde flashes.
He continued to support the university and provided the money to set up the present laboratory which was a key component in the growth that Professor Jose Torrero was able to bring about. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh for his contribution to fire safety engineering.
He was past president of the Institution of Fire Engineers and in 1998 he was awarded an honorary life time achievement award by the International Association of Arson Investigators. He continued to give expert testimony in courts around the world and was on occasion asked by the Crown to comment on the actions of the Fire Service. Strathclyde Fire Brigade did not like the testimony he gave about their failure to rescue two men who fell to their deaths in a fire in the high flats in the Gorbals, but the result was the information system Strathclyde established which is used throughout Europe to inform firefighters of the location of key facilities when they attend a fire at multi-storey residential buildings.
He was a fierce critic of the Health and Safety Executive, believing them to be emasculating the fire fighting profession. Hindsight he said was their greatest friend but even he recognised the need for good risk assessment prior to committing firefighters into a burning building. He believed fires should be fought and not surrounded to burn out in a safe and controlled manner. In that, he had the support of the insurance community who have watched the value of large claims rise inexorably in the past 13 years which has seen a record fall in the number of fires attended by the fire service. The reason for that fall is in the main due to the emphasis that men like Mr Rushbrook put on fire prevention, which led to the adoption of smoke detectors and the early warning they afford occupants
Whilst his roots were in the fire brigade, he was careful not to live on past glories. He loved to be invited back to events at Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade and to the university. He was particularly proud of the museum at Lauriston Place. He and his family lived in the firemaster’s flat above what became the museum.
He is survived by his daughter Jean and daughter-in-law Anne. His wife Violet died in 2001 and his son Ian, a financier, died in 2008. He had five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.