Scotsman Obituaries: Douglas Leitch MBE, Scottish firefighter

Douglas Ramsay Langlands Leitch MBE, firefighter. Born: 7 June 1939 in Glasgow. Died: 14 June 2021 in Kelso, aged 82

As well as an MBE, Douglas Leitch, pictured right with a colleague, received two bravery awards

Douglas Leitch was one of the most distinguished firefighters ever to have served in Glasgow. The recipient of two bravery awards and awarded the MBE by the Queen, he also wrote a fire investigation guide that is still recommended reading for firefighters across the UK, and he played a leading role in the recruitment of the first female wholetime firefighters in Strathclyde.

News of Leitch’s death prompted a host of tributes from former colleagues. “A great commander on the fire ground”, “always reassuring when he took over at major incidents” and “a wicked, dry sense of humour” were typical compliments posted on an online forum for ex-Strathclyde Fire Service members.

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Leitch was brought up in Anderston, a close-knit community southwest of the city centre. His mother was a hospital nurse and his father a second officer in the Merchant Navy who spent part of the Second World War as a prisoner of war of the Germans after his ship was captured. After leaving school, Leitch became an apprentice shipwright at one of the Govan yards. He spent much of his spare time at a local riding school and it was his love of horses that made him decide to do his National Service with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.

He joined Glasgow Fire Service in 1961 when Glasgow was still “Tinderbox City”, notorious for a series of post-war fires that destroyed lives and property on a terrible scale. He was already on the promotion ladder in 1966 when he met his future wife Liz, a systems analyst at Glasgow University. He continued to rise quickly through the ranks after Strathclyde Fire Brigade became operational in 1975 and in the 1980s he took command of B Division, with its eight fire stations covering the south and east of the city.

In 1981, Leitch, then a senior divisional officer, and five colleagues were awarded the Strathclyde Regional Council Bravery Medal for a rescue operation at a tenement building on Shettleston Road that had collapsed onto a shop. For four hours the firefighters, led by Leitch, defied dangers posed by the threatened collapse of the rest of the building to rescue two injured people and recover the bodies of two fatally injured men. The following year, Leitch and four other colleagues received Strathclyde bravery medals for rescuing a man from another collapsed tenement.

A key feature of Leitch’s career was the close working relationship that was developed with the Police Service. This was initially prompted by a tragic incident in 1972 when three police officers entered a smoke-filled tenement to warn residents of a fire. Firefighters discovered the police officers unconscious and managed to resuscitate two of them but their colleague died.

Following that tragedy, it was decided that the Fire Service should instruct the Police on their conduct at fires and so Leitch gave lectures to senior officers at the Scottish Police College at Tulliallan. Also at Tulliallan, he lectured trainee detectives about forensic fire investigation, especially those related to fatal blazes. He played a major role investigating such fires, including the 1984 Ice Cream Wars arson attack which killed six family members in a Glasgow housing scheme.

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In 1989 Leitch was awarded the MBE for his “high reputation in the field of fire investigation” and four years later the Institution of Fire Engineers published his Guide to Fatal Fire Investigations, which is still studied by firefighters. In the same year Leitch achieved an ambition to see women being recruited as wholetime firefighters.

Before retiring in 1997, Leitch established a risk management unit, which still exists with many of the original staff. He also took it upon himself to “rescue” fire service artefacts for a hoped-for future Fire Service Museum – many are now displayed at the Fire Heritage Museum in Greenock.

On retirement Douglas Leitch and his wife Liz settled in the Borders village of Kirk Yetholm. The move meant Leitch could indulge his love of Scottish history, and he did that to the full, responding to an advertisement for a guide for Thirlstane Castle, where he was made Head Guide and spent 15 happy years.

During his time with the Fire Service, Leitch built up a team around him of officers who would go on to hold very senior posts. Among them was Brian Sweeney, former Chief Officer of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, who gave the eulogy at the Covid-restricted funeral service attended by Liz, family and friends. He said: “Dougie was a mentor to me and he was an outstanding incident commander. The firefighters trusted Dougie; when he arrived, people were relieved because they knew he wouldn’t send them anywhere that he wouldn’t go himself.”

Brian Sweeney gave an example of Leitch’s “wicked” sense of humour: “I was a sub officer in Calton Fire Station and in the evenings someone would shout ‘Dougie’s coming!’ if we heard the loud clicking noise of his shoes as he came downstairs, and we’d all be working really busily when he came in. After about 18 months Dougie cottoned on and he swapped those officer’s shoes for soft-soled Dr Martens shoes and we were now at a disadvantage when he’d pop out of staircases and cupboards when we just weren’t expecting him.”

Another retired firefighter described being caught off balance by Douglas Leitch when he had his job interview in 1979: “Dougie asked me what could I take to the Fire Brigade. Cars, says me. ‘Really?’ says Dougie, ‘Tell us how an ignition system works.’ Then I went for it hook, line and sinker, and Dougie’s response was ‘Really? Are you sure?’ ”

As well as his wife Liz, Douglas Leitch is survived by his sister Caroline and two nieces and two nephews.

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