‘HYPOCRISY!’ That was the reaction of angry firefighters picketing Downing Street on Wednesday night – disgusted that crews who fought the giant Buncefield oil depot blaze, last December, were being invited in for a ‘do’, at the same time as being threatened with the sack!
More than 100 Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members and local residents demonstrated opposite the gates to Number 10, warning that the planned cuts to the Hertfordshire Brigade will ‘rip the guts out’ of the county’s fire service.
They held up banners saying, ‘From Heroes to Zeros’ and ‘Tony Thatcher – Job Snatcher’, as well as placards against the proposed closures of Radlett and Bovingdon fire stations.
Justin Chalkley and Dan Bathurst, FBU members at Radlett and Borehamwood, told News Line: ‘On the one hand the government want to shake our hands and tell us: “Well done for the Buncefield incident’’, and with the other, in less than a month’s time they’re proposing to cut 50 frontline firefighters’ posts, aerial capability, fire stations – there’s a long list of things.
‘In fact, the list is endless what they want to cut, as well as attacking our pensions.
‘And while our principal officers and county councillors are being patted on the back for their “marvellous efforts’’ at Buncefield, the crews that tackled the fire are stood out here in the cold!’
Justin added: ‘We just feel disgusted. I’m sure this Buncefield reception, as they’re calling it, is at the expense of the taxpayers.
‘If money’s so tight in the Brigade at this time, then why spend the money on a do at Downing Street when the money can be better spent? It just seems like a PR stunt.’
Dan Bathurst added: ‘If they thought we did that well at Buncefield, why do they want to smash the Brigade?’
Justin said: ‘It seems to me it’s a cup of tea and sticky bun and “well done’’, but in three weeks we’re going to be stabbed in the back!
‘If Blair really appreciates us that much, then give us the money to keep the stations open and keep firefighters’ jobs and, above all, keep the public safe! That’s what we’re there for.’
Pointing across the road, Dave Greaves, a sub-officer at Bishops Stortford, said: ‘These people here are now going to have cups of tea and pass pleasantries with the ODPM (Deputy Prime Minister Prescott’s office) and yet they are directly affected by the cuts they’re proposing.
‘Now they are going to drink with the devil and it doesn’t make any sense.
‘We are fighting these cuts and this picket is part of our campaign against the closures.
‘This is on the back of Buncefield, where we struggled. We had to bring in manpower from various other brigades around the country.
‘The government has acknowledged what a wonderful job we did and now they are suggesting we lose two fire stations and reduce manpower in fire stations throughout Hertfordshire.’
Adam Ford, another FBU member at Bishops Stortford, said: ‘If they’re so desperate to save money and they really wanted to thank us, then why didn’t they spend the money on saving one of the stations, instead of putting this soiree on?
‘You’ve got guys from Radlett and Bovingdon who’ve been invited to shake Blair’s hand and they’re going to get the sack the next week, if these cuts go through. It’s just hypocrisy.’
Malcolm Forest, an FBU member at Radlett, said: ‘We’re astounded at these cuts.’
Disputing the figures being used to justify the cuts, he added that: ‘We also do a lot of rescue work from car crashes and train crashes.
‘We’re often the first emergency service on the scene of any incident in the area and closing one station to save £100,000 a year, it’s not a lot of money. They could easily find that money to save it.
‘We must stand up to these cuts.
‘We’re also Hertfordshire residents – our Council Tax bills never go down, but the services do.’
Tony Smith, vice-chair of Hertfordshire FBU, told News Line: ‘We’re angry because we think this is a sycophantic gesture by the prime minister.
‘He’s saying he wants to thank us at a time when we’re facing redundancies.
‘It’s well documented that Buncefield was the largest peacetime fire in Europe.
‘Every firefighter in Hertfordshire worked at the scene at some point. Some crews attended for over 50 hours.
‘There were crews there from Essex, Cleveland, Tyne and Wear, Buckinghamshire – so it was a real national mobilisation of the fire service – at the same time as day-to-day emergency calls were being answered.
‘Tonight’s event is too much. It’s inappropriate.
‘That incident has proved how stretched we can be. It’s not a one-off, it’s the fourth major incident we’ve dealt with in Hertfordshire in ten years.
‘It’s not the time for cuts. We’ve had our budget cut every year for the last five years and now it’s come to the point where there is no meat left on the bones.
‘We’re concerned that the Buncefield incident happened.
‘We’re the ones who had to deal with it and we’re behind a full investigation, not just into how it happened, but how it was dealt with and how it stretched our resources.’
Peter Cargill, Hertfordshire FBU retained firefighters’ representative, said: ‘My personal feeling is the people who were asked to go to Downing Street, we’re fighting for their jobs.
‘We’re losing 50 firefighters and a frontline appliance at night and the loss of a hydraulic platform.
‘For us in Hertfordshire it’s going to have a major effect on the services we provide in the county.’
Bovingdon resident Sharon Sims told News Line: ‘What we think of these cuts is not printable!
‘The closure of Bovingdon fire station will put lives at risk.
‘Our message to Blair is finance these stations properly.
‘Give the firemen what they deserve and that’s their fire station.’
Kim Dell, another local resident, said: ‘I’m dubious about the morals of the county council, that they will close fire stations but will vote themselves a raise over and above what was recommended for their expenses.’
Steve Duncan, Hatfield FBU branch secretary, told News Line: ‘I was part of a control unit at Buncefield.
‘We were in control of all the logistics, making sure firefighters were in the right places etc.
‘I was there from day one of the fire and we were there right through to the last day of fighting the blaze, and afterwards.
‘We actually pulled out of Buncefield on New Year’s Eve. We were the last unit to leave.’
He stressed: ‘The main thing is safety. Safety has to be top of the agenda.
‘The Buncefield fire was one of those things you don’t think will ever happen.
‘Our station has three machines, a control unit, a fire engine and a rescue support unit and we’ve got a boat in there, which was used to put the big pumps into the nearby lake, to get water onto the fire.
‘It was quite a feat, considering there were only 16 of us at the station.
‘I’m angry with Blair, but more angry with the firefighters who have gone in there, because we expect Tony Blair to pull a stunt like this.
‘This government is worse than the Tory party. They are the new Tory party. They’re dismantling everything.
‘Our taxes go up, our services go down. I’d like to know where the money is going?
‘And when you consider the size of the fire service budget, it’s absolutely tiny. It costs nothing to run the fire service in real terms. They’re playing politics with people’s lives.’
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack joined Wednesday night’s picket and said: ‘Any reductions in the number of firefighters will reduce the service and put people’s lives at risk.
‘It was very serious at Buncefield – the case is for expanding the fire service, not cutting it!’