Seven years of drastic cuts to fire services including reductions in personnel and the closure of fire stations have brought the fire brigade to the brink. An immediate reversal of this policy and increased investment is now a priority, writes DIANE ABBOTT
Figures obtained by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) last month show that under Tory austerity almost one in fivefront-line firefighter posts — some 11,000 jobs — have been lost since 2010, making it a post war record.
Firefighter jobs have been cut across Britain for seven years now and in total, these cuts mean that 19 per cent of the entire firefighting workforce has been slashed.
Almost 8,000 of the total jobs lost since 2010 are to full-time firefighter posts and additionally nearly 3,000 “retained” (on-call) jobs have gone. Over 1,000 firefighter jobs have been lost in Scotland, 300 in Wales and around 100 in Northern Ireland.
Such cuts have consequences, whatever the Tories may claim, and are putting the public at risk.
As Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: “After a tragedy like Grenfell Tower, the public need to feel safe. It is very clear just how badly we need adequate numbers of professional, trained firefighters to tackle these sorts of, thankfully, rare disasters. Continued cuts to front-line firefighters and emergency fire control operators — these jobs have been cut by 25 per cent for the same period — are a serious threat to public safety.”
These cuts to jobs, alongside the closure of record numbers of fire stations and cuts to equipment, mean hard-working and devoted people are left running the service on a shoestring.
There are now fewer firefighters on fewer fire engines at a reduced number of fire stations able to respond to emergencies.
The FBU has argued that government cuts are directly to blame for a rise in fire-related deaths in England in 2016.
Official figures show that 303 people died in fires during 2015/16 — up 15 per cent on the previous year. Response times to all types of serious fires also rose, in some cases by as much as one minute and eight seconds. In London, Anthony Mayer’s review into the London Fire Brigade concluded that it should not have its budget cut any further after eight years of cuts under Boris Johnson. The review pointed out that emergency response times have increased in areas where fire stations were closed in 2014, one of which was Kingsland fire station near my home in Hackney.
A report by the Home Office in January confirmed that the number of deaths as a result of fires in the home has increased. This tallies with BBC research released in December 2016 that showed fire crews taking longer to arrive at house fires. Cuts have real, human consequences.
Additionally, fire prevention exercises such as home safety checks have been reduced by a quarter over five years. Fire and rescue services are also spending 13 per cent less time on public safety campaigns and initiatives.
Over 60,000 signed a petition asking that the government sets national standards to improve rescue response times across Britain which are currently at their slowest for 20 years.
This matters as evidence shows that the longer it takes firefighters to get to incidents, the more likely it is that people will be injured or killed.
Even when the first engine arrives to a fire in time, it is essential that a second is present before fire crews enter a burning building and begin rescuing victims. This is to ensure that firefighting procedures are followed as well as assisting the first crew in case of difficulty.
Labour will continue to make clear the real impact of fire and rescue service cuts on both firefighters’ safety and the safety of the public as a whole.
Our fire and rescue service needs investment, not more cuts. As part of this, we are committed to employing 3,000 new firefighters under the next Labour government.
More broadly, we need to get the message across that cuts do have consequences — not least for public safety — and we need to change course and invest in our future.