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Tuesday 29th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Years of cuts have left the Scottish fire and rescue service dangerously understaffed, with over 700 front-line firefighters’ jobs lost since 2013, says DENISE CHRISTIE

THE morning of June 14 2017 is one that no firefighter in Britain will ever forget: the images that we all saw showing the horrific events unfolding were unprecedented.

Watching our brothers and sisters going into that building time after time to rescue people in desperate situations made us proud, but also concerned that there would still be a huge loss of life despite their efforts and, tragically, as we all now know, this was the case.

In over 20 years working within the fire and rescue service, I have never seen a fire pose such a huge threat to human life.

The firefighters’ bravery and professionalism, including those who took the calls in the operational fire control rooms, has rightfully been recognised by most. What must also be recognised is that these women and men are also trade unionists.

Trade unionists who have previously been demonised as militant and anti-Establishment for standing up for fair pay, fair pensions, workers’ rights and against cuts to their profession.

The night of Grenfell will have been the toughest shift of their lives, with the memory running deep for a very long time.

Questions have been asked as to whether the Scottish fire and rescue service could respond adequately to an incident on the scale of the Grenfell Tower disaster, where at its height there were 250 firefighters and 40 fire engines.

Since the introduction of the Scottish fire and rescue service in 2013, we have seen over 700 front-line fire- fighters’ jobs lost and five out of the eight emergency fire control rooms have closed — which has disproportionately affected women.

The year-on-year cuts to the fire budget are now affecting the front line, despite assurances from the Scottish government.

Staffing levels have depleted so much that there can be no guarantee that front-line appliances and operational control rooms are adequately maintained and crewed at all times.

It’s vital that fire appliances respond quickly and in numbers to incidents. This is known as the “speed of response” and the “weight of response.”

This would have been critical for an incident such as Grenfell. There is grave concern that the continuing austerity-driven cuts are having a detrimental effect on 999 response times and the critical life-saving service firefighters provide.

The risks in our communities are always changing and the job of a fire- fighter changes with them. It’s vital to nationally assess these risks to ensure the fire and rescue service remains suitably resourced with enough firefighters who have the skills, equipment and infrastructure to deal with them.

The continuation of budget cuts to the Scottish fire and rescue service is unsustainable. The service needs long-term, strategic investment to recruit firefighters and ensure the safety of the public.

The FBU’s priority has always been firefighter and public safety. We have a long history of campaigning on these issues and will continue to do so.

These campaigns include the strengthening of fire, building and housing regulations and, in 2009, the FBU moved our motion on sprinklers at the STUC Congress, where it was carried.

The resolution arose from the increase in deaths, injuries and rescues as a consequence of fire in Scotland and called on the Scottish government to make the necessary changes to building regulations in order to ensure that all new-build properties are required to have sprinkler systems installed and for local authorities to begin an installation programme of sprinkler systems in all their housing stock.

The recent fire statistics for Scotland have shown that fires and fatalities are on the increase again. In the last decade, Scotland has had a higher rate than England and Wales for fires, fatalities and casualties. In other words you’re more at risk of dying in a house fire in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.

The increase in these fire deaths, at a time where fire budgets and fire- fighter numbers are being cut, is extremely concerning and will not go without challenge by the FBU.

The Grenfell disaster may be at the heart of the political debate today, but it has been the FBU that has consistently for many years been raising concerns over public service cuts that impact on fire safety, fire protection and fire resources.

Grenfell has to be — must be — a moment for a major change of direction. The war on public safety has to end.

The relentless attacks on public services and those who deliver them has to end, and the best tribute we can pay to those who lost their lives is to fight for justice and ensure a disaster like this never happens again.

It is time to end the continued cuts to the Scottish fire and rescue service. Year-on-year budget cuts have left staff morale at rock bottom.

If we want a world-class fire and rescue service then the onslaught of cuts must cease immediately and investment must be provided. Cuts really do cost lives.

  • Denise Christie is Scottish regional treasurer of the Fire Brigades Union.