County Durham and Darlington's annual fire service awards were being presented just as the announcement came about The Queen's death. The event went ahead in a respectful way - and PETER BARRON suggests that Her Majesty would have approved whole-heartedly...

THE news that everyone had been dreading came at 6.30pm – seconds before the Being The Best Awards were due to begin.

The awards are an annual celebration of the dedication and courage of those who are part of County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service.

Guests were seated at Hardwick Hall Hotel, near Sedgefield, and, as compère for the evening, I was about to welcome them when I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. It was confirmation that The Queen had died at the age of 96.

In the hours leading up to the event, amid increasing concern about Her Majesty’s health, and her family being summoned to Balmoral, discussions had been held about whether the awards should go ahead if she passed away.

The decision, taken by Chief Fire Officer, Stuart Errington, was that the ceremony should proceed, in a respectful, more sombre tone, without the dancing that had been planned for the end of the evening.

Guests observed a minute's silence as a mark of respect and a moment of reflection before CFO Errington made a speech, paying tribute to The Queen.

Similar discussions about whether to go ahead with all kinds of events were no doubt taking place around the country in the light of the dreadful news. After all, there was no modern-day precedent for how to react – we’d had the same monarch for 70 years and 214 days.

Was it the right decision to continue with the Being The Best Awards? Absolutely. If there was a phrase that summed up The Queen’s fortitude, it was ‘Keep calm and carry on’. As a public sector emergency organisation, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue was her service – and she would surely have wanted its stars to be honoured for their courage and dedication…

For example, had the awards ceremony not gone ahead, the wonderful Christine Elizabeth Robson, winner of the final honour – The Special Recognition Award – would not have had her richly-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Christine is now 72. She joined the service on May 23, 1977, when she was 27. That adds up to 45 years of devoted service.

Having previously been a personal assistant in the chemical industry, she joined the fire control room in the days long before computer systems, when the operators were expected to know the area intimately, memorising the locations of even the smallest villages.

“When it was quiet on the nightshift, we used to play cards for pairs of tights,” recalls Christine with a smile. “Us girls were issued with 12 pairs of tights a year as part of our uniform, and they became a kind of currency!”

After 15 years in the control room, she became part of the project team behind the installation of the service’s first fully computerised mobilisation and communications system in 1994. She’s gone on to specialise in project management around communications ever since.

“I’ve seen huge changes over the years. When I started, we were a very reactive service, very much concentrating on commercial and industrial buildings, and less on domestic properties,” she says.

“It’s much better now. We’re very community-focused, fitting smoke alarms, and we’ve got great links with the NHS and social services, so we can take better care of vulnerable people.

“Forty-five years ago, we kept a minimum of 21 staff at Durham and 19 at Darlington. That’s down to eight per shift now but we still provide a 24/7 service because we've learned to work smarter and quicker.”

Christine’s latest project to make the service yet more efficient involves moving all critical equipment into the cloud, and she may retire once that’s completed, although she doesn’t look at all convinced that she really wants to go.

“It should be finished by Christmas, so we’ll see,” she adds. “I’ve thought about retiring before, but the truth is I’ve always just loved coming to work, even on Christmas Day, because of the friendship and knowing I was making a difference.”

Her daughter, Roberta – shortened to Bobbie (Robson) – looks back with affection at childhood Christmas Days spent with her mum in the fire control room.  “There were always plenty of people around to play with my new toys with me while it was quiet – it was great fun,” she says.

The day’s sad news about The Queen carried extra poignancy for Christine because she was born on Elizabeth II’s birthday – April 21 – hence her middle name. It’s become a family tradition because Bobbie also has Elizabeth as her middle name, and so does her little girl, Amelia. Christine had another daughter, who sadly died at just two days old. She was named Victoria Elizabeth.

“It was such an honour to win the award and it made it even more emotional to know it came so soon after hearing that The Queen had died,” admits the grandmother of eight.

“Whenever I came to work on my birthday, the Union Jack would be flying, and that’s not going to happen anymore.

“The Queen was such a role model. She was still doing her job, greeting the new Prime Minister, two days before she died. She had a phenomenal work ethic, and it rubbed off because I was always brought up to never leave a job half done.”

Stuart Errington was seven years old when Christine started, and his dad, Eddie, was Station Manager in the fire prevention department. Stuart is the seventh Chief Fire Officer Christine has worked under.

In presenting her with the Special Recognition Award, CFO Errington described Christine as “a very, very special person with an unbelievable work ethic”.

“To remain so committed, focused, and positive for such a long time is an incredible achievement,” he added.

Forty-five years’ service and still striving to bring about improvements at 72. Oh, yes, I think The Queen would have been very much in favour of Christine Robson being in the spotlight.

A FINAL thought on the events of the past week...In this digital age, when the number of website clicks are the commercial priority for news organisations, you can be sure that editors worldwide were taking extra care with their front pages on Thursday night, knowing that Friday morning's newspapers would be kept in drawers and cupboards for generations.

For momentous events in history, print still rises to the occasion.