The Tory government doesn’t care about the fire and rescue service. If it did, it wouldn’t have slashed 7,000 frontline firefighter posts, closed around 40 fire stations and scrapped scores of fire engines since 2010.
The last recorded year saw a reduction of 1,200 in the number of firefighters – the biggest drop in a single year in the history of the modern fire and rescue service. All of this comes despite the fact that the role of firefighters is wider than ever. It is no longer about just tackling flame and smoke. It’s about dealing with the whole array of operational challenges: floodings, chemical incidents, road traffic collisions, terror threats and the 38,000 rescues firefighters carry out each year. But it’s also much more nowadays about getting out into local communities, educating people about the risks of fire, fitting smoke alarms, visiting schools and old people’s homes, engaging with young firesetters and trying to put them on the straight and narrow, and suchlike.
It beggars belief, therefore, that any government would wish to preside over the decimation of such a vital service. Yet that’s what we are seeing. A 30 per cent cut in central funding in the last six years is responsible for putting the service under the kind of strain it hasn’t experienced since the days of the Luftwaffe. The consequence in England is the longest response times in two decades.
Not even our capital city is immune. In 2014, Boris Johnson closed 10 fire stations that collectively had been protecting Londoners for around 900 years. Twenty-seven engines and 600 frontline jobs have also disappeared in the last two years thanks to diktats from Johnson. The result is an increase in response times across half of London. As things stand, the London Fire Brigade cannot meet its target response times across a third of the city.
So it’s not surprising that people are now dying in fires in London when they might otherwise have been saved. Since the cuts took effect, there have been several fatal incidents in areas where the local station had been closed, including the deaths in separate fires of two men and two women aged between 47 and 86. In all cases, the brigade missed its target response times.
This is no longer a theoretical debate. These were real human beings, real Londoners, with real families.
These tragedies and others are setting off alarm bells in the corridors of power. Labour’s candidate for London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has expressed deep concern over the cuts and pledged to conduct a full-scale review to determine whether the London Fire Brigade is sufficiently resourced. The Fire Brigades Union, which supports Khan’s candidature, will hold him to his commitment and seek to play a central role in that review.
The government argues that a downward trend in the number of fires justifies its cuts. But this is wrong-headed. First, this downward trend owes itself in large part to the community engagement and education programmes carried out by firefighters today and now risks being checked – or, worse, reversed – as a result of the deep cuts. Second, fire cover must never be fixed according to the laws of supply and demand; it must be arranged according to risk.
A reduced number of fires doesn’t mean that fire itself is suddenly less dangerous or that people can afford to wait a bit longer for an engine to arrive. On the contrary, fire becomes more deadly the longer it is allowed to develop.
The logic of the supply and demand argument dictates that, for example, the fire station at Heathrow airport should be closed on account of the fact that a major incident hasn’t occurred there for many years – an absurd non-sequitur.
The fire and rescue service remains under attack on other fronts, too. The crackpot decision to hand control of the service in England to police and crime commissioners risks compromising the longstanding independence of firefighters and paves the way to a full-scale merger further along the road.
And the dispute over pensions – the Government wants to force every firefighter to serve on the frontline until they are 60 – remains live and continues to do much to undermine morale among the workforce.
This onslaught is like nothing the fire and rescue service has ever experienced, at least not in peacetime. And it is having a hugely deleterious impact on the service’s ability to deliver.
Members of the public rightly expect that if they ever need a fire engine one will arrive in good time. All too often now, people are discovering that the expectation and the reality are two different things.
Paul Embery is London regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. The FBU’s Every Second Counts campaign video is available here.