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UK’s longest serving firefighter Malcolm Cowie from Deal retires

By Eleanor Perkins

A man believed to be the UK’s longest serving operational whole-time firefighter is hanging up his helmet after half a century.

Watch manager Malcolm Cowie, 65, from Deal has dedicated his life to Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) after joining as a junior firefighter in 1969, aged 16.

With almost 50 years now under his belt, he’s attended thousands of incidents ranging from small fires and simple rescues to devastating explosions and international aid missions.

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Malcolm Cowie aged 18 - second from the right (4764036)
Malcolm Cowie aged 18 - second from the right (4764036)

Mr Cowie has been based at Deal Fire Station in London Road for large sections of his career, but his role has seen him posted to a number of different stations around the county.

That includes to Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Dover, as well as abroad as part of his specialist UK International Search and Rescue work.

He described his work as part of the Kosovo aid mission as the hardest he's ever done.

He said: “I’ve been to so many incidents over the years, and there have been so many that have impacted me.

"It’s the larger ones that you remember the most as they’re the ones that are talked about the most.

"For example, the Crypt fire at Dover (March 1977), the Herald of Free Enterprise ship disaster (March 1987), the Deal bombing (September 1989), and the fires at the paper mills.

"They all have an impact, but I suppose it’s often the incidents that you tend not to talk about that probably have the biggest impact on you.”

Malcolm Cowie from Deal in Kent is thought to be the country's longest serving full-time firefighter
Malcolm Cowie from Deal in Kent is thought to be the country's longest serving full-time firefighter

Over the years Mr Cowie’s dedication to the fire service hasn’t gone unrecognised.

In 2008 he was awarded the prestigious Kent medal - a rare accolade recognising outstanding service and commitment to Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) and the wider Kent community.

During his career, he has become deeply involved in search and rescue, joining the UK Fire Search and Rescue team in its founding days and becoming an early member of the overseas UK International Search and Rescue team.

The team responds primarily to international disasters on behalf of the UK government, and crews are deployed to assist in search and rescue missions all over the world.

Malcolm Cowie (front row, second from left) with other Kent firefighters who were thanked by Sarah Brown at Number 10 Downing Street for their efforts in Haiti Photo: West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service
Malcolm Cowie (front row, second from left) with other Kent firefighters who were thanked by Sarah Brown at Number 10 Downing Street for their efforts in Haiti Photo: West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service

He was also heavily active in the setting up of Kent’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team, now known as the Technical Rescue Team – one of the UK’s first fully operational teams able to respond to a wide range of major and catastrophic incidents.

These include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events, search and rescue scenarios, major flooding and transport incidents.

Mr Cowie said: “My role within search and rescue has allowed me to attend many incidents abroad, including the volcano on Monserrat back in 1995, the Kosovo conflict, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and many more. The work has been very varied from search and rescue, to teaching and training, and refugee aid.

Malcolm Cowie in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake (4764032)
Malcolm Cowie in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake (4764032)

“Our job in Monserrat was predominantly to train their search and rescue team, but we did end up doing some search and rescue ourselves because about 40 minutes after we arrived the volcano decided to erupt.

"The power was immense, enormous, indescribable. A huge boulder about the size of a small house had been spat out by the volcano some two to three miles away, and that really highlighted the true power of nature."

Malcolm Cowie, left, in his technical rescue kit (4764034)
Malcolm Cowie, left, in his technical rescue kit (4764034)

He continued: “Kosovo was an aid mission during the conflict.

"The war was going on at the time and we were working at an airbase which was military and civilian.

"My role there was to offload aid from aircrafts and get it to the trucks and out to the refugee camps.

"We were there for about five weeks and it was the hardest work I’ve ever done, it was constant.

Malcolm Cowie with members of the technical rescue team (4764030)
Malcolm Cowie with members of the technical rescue team (4764030)

“We were sent to Haiti after the earthquake on a search and rescue mission, and we were part of the first rescue teams to land there.

"Conditions were terribly hard, the temperatures were in the high 30s and the devastation was enormous.

"As we all know there were over 250,000 fatalities. But the Haitian people were great people, surviving people, and good people to work with, as were the other international search and rescue teams we worked with. We worked hard and we hope we left the people and the area in a better place than how we found them.”

The fire service has changed and advanced dramatically during Mr Cowie’s time at KFRS.

He said: “Technology is a big change. When I joined the fire service we’d never heard of a computer, let alone had a computer. So that’s been a massive change and it’s made a big difference to how we work.

Malcolm Cowie has taken part in many Christmas collections in Deal High Street
Malcolm Cowie has taken part in many Christmas collections in Deal High Street

“Incidents have changed too. When I started we had a lot of fires, particularly house fires, and not that many road accidents. I probably only attended one or two road accidents in my first year.

"Now it’s swung the other way. We seem to be getting an awful lot of road accidents and not so many fires.

"That’ll be down to the changes in things like building construction, technology and smoke detectors.

“People have changed because of education. They’re far more educated about how to keep themselves safe, and not just from fires, in all walks of life.

“The firefighters however are the same sort of caring, practical person as they’ve ever been. And those are probably some of the biggest qualities of a firefighter. The comradery, team work, and the friendships you build over the years, all those things – they’re just the best bunch of people.”

When Malcolm was asked to describe his time within the fire service he said: “Enjoyable, rewarding and not least, fun.”

Ann Millington, chief executive at KFRS said: "Our very best wishes to Malcolm in his retirement – he has been a role model for compassion, technical expertise and commitment to the people of Kent.

"His contribution has been magnificent and I thank him for everything he has done."

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