Fire officer Mike's vital mission to keep Shrewsbury shoppers safe

Get this one wrong and people's lives could be in danger. That was the level of responsibility on the shoulders of Shropshire's Mike Bickford.

Mike Bickford as an Assistant Divisional Officer in 1989.
Mike Bickford as an Assistant Divisional Officer in 1989.

Mike, from Oswestry, used to be in charge of the Shrewsbury fire safety department based at the headquarters of Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service, and it fell to his department to issue the fire certificate without which two major shopping centres in the county town, the Charles Darwin and Pride Hill, would not be able to operate.

The Darwin shopping centre.

Mike decided to write his recollections of the twists and turns of the story which was to end with a big change in Shrewsbury's shopping environment in a short time, with the Pride Hill shopping centre opening on March 18, 1988, and the Darwin centre opening on September 22, 1989.

Having joined the fire service in 1964 he was a Fireman, Leading Fireman, and Sub Officer, before moving into fire safety full time around 1976, transferring to the Shrewsbury headquarters in 1984 to run the Shrewsbury area fire safety office.

Mike Bickford as an Assistant Divisional Officer in 1989.

It was not long before something really big arrived on his desk – the new Pride Hill shopping development.

"This was the very start of a journey that absorbed much of my time and energy over the next few years," he said.

Mike describes working with the council building control team to ensure there were important safeguards, such as sprinklers throughout the complex, an automatic smoke detection fire alarm, a smoke control system, and emergency lighting.

Some of this work went on to the last minute and beyond, which meant that although the opening time to the public had been scheduled for 10.30am on the big day, Mike and the building control team were not happy to allow public access until 2.30pm, by which time all fire safety requirements had been met.

Work under way on the new Pride Hill shopping centre in the 1980s.

"Following the opening of the Pride Hill centre I visited it many times, both in a professional capacity and as a shopper," said Mike.

"I was always surprised at the large numbers of people who used the building in the 1980s."

Shoppers in the Pride Hill centre.

He knew, he said, that the sprinkler system was a major step forward which would help contain any outbreak.

As for the Charles Darwin centre, he says that was much larger than Pride Hill centre and far more complex, and the opening very much followed the pattern of that at Pride Hill.

"From my point of view it was a relief that the projects were coming to an end and all that remained was for a fire certificate to be issued.

"Throughout the 1990s and after my retirement in 1994 I have been an occasional visitor to both the complexes and still cannot help but check that things are in place. I am shocked however at the gradual decline in the number of shoppers and the closure of so many shops.

"What the future of these shopping centres will be, who can tell?"

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