Upper Street fire station commander Winston Douglas retiring after 32 years

Winston Douglas, commander at Upper Street Fire Station. Picture: Rachel Dada

Winston Douglas, commander at Upper Street Fire Station. Picture: Rachel Dada - Credit: Archant

Winston Douglas, commander at Upper Street fire station, retires next week after 32 years of service. He looks back on his career, which started at Clerkenwell fire station, with the Gazette.

Thirty-three years ago, a talented hockey player approached a group of firefighters in a moment that changed his life.

Winston Douglas, 52, was plodding along in a factory job in 1983. But while taking part in a street hockey tournament in his native south London he approached a fire brigade recruitment stall.

“I don’t think a lot of people were paying attention to them,” he says. “I went over and spoke to the firefighters and I thought to myself: ‘This sounds pretty cool.’”

At Clerkenwell fire station the following year, Winston started a firefighting career that will end on Friday next week when he retires.

It is a career that took him across Islington – and London. He served at Clerkenwell for 10 years, followed by stints at Shoreditch, Shadwell, Clapham and Wansworth.

In 2003, he went back to Clerkenwell, with spells at Holloway and, finally, Upper Street – where he serves at station commander.

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Unsurprisingly for someone with more than three decades of service, some of his callouts have been downright bizarre. Like the man who got his head stuck in a cell door at King’s Cross police station.

“I’ll never forget that incident,” Winston laughs. “The guy pushed his head through the bars but then forgot about his ears.”

As well as his full-time role in Upper Street, he sometimes works on-call in south London. Winston was the first officer on the scene after last month’s Croydon tram crash tragedy, in which seven people died.

“I live in Croydon. I was really blown away emotionally at the number of people who called me after the crash to check that I was alright.”

Winston is the longest-serving black firefighter in the country, and said he experienced racism at the start of career: “Back in the early days, I had moments where I encountered racism but I realised I was forging the path, so I knew I was going to soldier through.”

Next year, he will enjoy retired life by staying in Miami for six months.

But first? “I’m planning my retirement party for February 11,” Winston says.

“I’ve only really had one party in my whole life, when I turned 30. I think this one is important to have.”