‘DON’T think of this as your own personal job – you’re only looking after it for the next person. This is one of the first things many of us were told when we joined the fire service,’ says Tam McFarlane of Avon FBU.
It is a view held so strongly throughout the service that it is expressed across our profession, by people of all ranks and in all areas. It represents a culture of pride in the achievements of our predecessors who built the fire service into the valued institution it is today. But it also represents a commitment that we value what was entrusted to us and that we will fight to pass it on in the best condition for the next generation.
This spirit was in plain sight on the streets of Bristol recently as firefighters went out into their communities asking the public to support their campaign against dangerous frontline cuts to the service.
As a result of government funding cuts, Avon Fire and Rescue Service recently announced plans to cut 49 frontline firefighter posts. This would mean the downgrading of a wholetime fire station in Yate and the permanent removal of primary crewing of aerial appliances and a heavy rescue tender.
These cuts would clearly impact on public safety and would damage a service that has seen its response times to emergencies slow. In 2009-10, the average response time was eight minutes and 40 seconds. By 2015, that figure had increased to nine minutes and 30 seconds. This came on top of staffing cuts that has seen the number of uniformed staff plummet from 684 in 2010 to 531 in 2016. We have reached crisis point.
The latest round of cuts was condemned by firefighters and a campaign of opposition was quickly established by the FBU in Avon. The communications team at the union’s head office were a huge help, assisting in the design and production of leaflets, banners, web pages and social media. An online petition was launched, attracting thousands of signatures, and ‘campaign days’ saw firefighters taking to the streets over the Christmas period to make their case to the public.
The response was nothing short of incredible. In Yate, where firefighters set up a stall in the local shopping centre, members of the public were queuing to sign the petition and offer their support. FBU members collected over 600 signatures in just two hours. All of us present were buoyed by this fantastic support. This was repeated in Bristol city centre the following week where 250 signatures were collected in just the first 30 minutes.
The response to our campaign puts a lie to any suggestion that the public support cuts to the fire service. In fact, quite the opposite. People were telling us that the cuts have gone too far and a change, of course, is needed. The thousands of signatures that we collected will be submitted to the fire authority, along with our full response, when we make the professional case against cuts at the close of consultation.
All the members who gave up their time and took to the streets to fight for their service have shown incredible pride in their profession. This is in stark contrast to others, particularly some chief fire officers, who accept the severe cuts without any protest.
The firefighters and control staff who are campaigning to save our service are the real custodians of our profession. It is proof that the FBU is the genuine voice of the fire and rescue service. Each time we campaign, we put a clear marker down; we refuse to accept cuts and we will not be brow beaten into submission.
• A chief fire officer has been accused of behaving recklessly after he sent home two firefighters from their shift on Monday (16 Jan) when they refused to operate a Tactical Response Vehicle (TRV). The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) say that these vehicles are unsafe because they cannot perform firefighting or rescue operations at incidents where there is a risk to life, such as house fires.
Nigel Hutchinson, chief fire officer for North Yorkshire, took the decision after a fire engine was removed from service at Scarborough fire station and replaced with a TRV. The two firefighters followed union guidance and refused to crew the vehicle. They were then relieved for the remainder of their shift and sent home leaving Scarborough without enough crew members to operate one of its fire engines or specialist equipment used to for high rise rescues.
Steve Howley, secretary of the FBU in North Yorkshire, said: ‘The actions of the CFO were uncalled for and unnecessary. He has sullied his reputation and put the safety of the public at risk. It is disgraceful that our members are being victimised by management for standing up to defend the safety of their colleagues and the public. It confirms a total disregard for public and firefighter safety.
‘The way that managers want to utilise and crew TRV’s is creating a major safety issue and moral dilemma for our firefighters. If these vehicles were the first ones to respond to a major fire, as management has indicated they could be, all they could do is survey the scene. They cannot perform rescue operations and have limited firefighting capabilities. These proposals are going to significantly increase the risk to firefighters and the public getting seriously injured or killed.’
The FBU in North Yorkshire is in a lawful trade dispute with the local fire authority over the introduction of TRV’s that are crewed by as few as two firefighters. The proposals were due to be phased in over a four year period so that the service and union could fully explore different efficiency savings.
However, the union now feels that the CFO is trying to ‘railroad’ the TRV’s into service over the next six months despite the safety concerns the FBU have raised remaining unanswered.
• Firefighters were deployed to areas of the UK at risk of flooding following severe weather last week. Fire and rescue services deployed boats, tactical advisers, flood rescue teams, high volume pumps and command units to tackle the flooding.
Fifteen fire and rescue services mobilised teams into the affected areas including ten rescue boats, seven high volume pumps and nine flood rescue tactical advisors. The Met Office issued 192 flood warnings and alerts across the UK and warned about the potential of a tidal surge on the East Coast. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned that lessons are not being learned from previous flooding emergencies.
Last March, the union reported how there was a lack of dry suits for firefighters to use when tackling the floods in December 2015. Many found themselves working in cold water for hours at a time wearing fire kit instead of proper flood rescue waterproof clothing. One firefighter had to work for hours in a padded tunic and jogging bottoms.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: ‘Firefighters are the consummate professionals who are leading the emergency response on flooding. They will be working tirelessly to keep the public safe and responding to a huge number of incidents.
‘At times like these, it is particularly apparent how important a fully resourced fire and rescue service is. It is yet another reason why the government should be giving the fire and rescue service a statutory duty to respond to flooding as already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland.’
Fire and rescue services deployed included Surrey, Bedfordshire, London Fire Brigade, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Hereford and Worcester, West Midlands, Nottinghamshire, Oxford, Cumbria, South Wales, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.