Rising Covid cases have left London fire and rescue with ‘unprecedented’ staff shortages, meaning that up to a third of London’s fire engines have been out of action in the last week.
According to London Fire Brigade statistics 40 fire engines were unavailable both day and night on Thursday 16th December, a level also reached for at least parts of the 10th, 11th and 15th December.
There are a total of 142 fire engines in London. Throughout the rest of the week engine unavailability was generally at above thirty, according to the statistics.
Covid has been skyrocketing in the service as the Omicron variant has taken hold in the capital, with almost 10% of operational firefighters now either having tested positive or self-isolating.
According to London Fire Brigade statistics for 16 December, 141 firefighters had tested positive and 283 were self-isolating.
However, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) points out that staff shortages due to Covid are only having such a great impact because of the already low levels of fire and rescue staffing in the capital.
FBU data show that since 2010 London has lost almost one in five of its firefighters – just over 1,110 – and an operational firefighter recruitment freeze in the service has only just been lifted.
Furthermore, there are fears that the levels of staffing could grow even worse, with a potential ‘mass exodus’ of hundreds of staff ahead of pension changes in the new year.
FBU London regional secretary Jon Lambe said: ‘The new Omicron variant is having a devastating impact on the London Fire Brigade. But let’s be very clear – this should not be affecting London Fire Brigade the way it is, with almost a third of our fire engines unavailable.
‘The reason that’s happening is firefighter numbers being too low, due to the devastating cuts imposed on the London Fire Brigade since 2010.
‘London has lost one in five of its firefighters, ten fire stations and 27 fire appliances since 2010, and seen huge cuts as a result of austerity such as almost 10% of its budget since 2016.
‘Going forward, the London Fire Brigade needs to urgently address savage cuts made by central government which seriously undermine the ability of the brigade to best protect London, Londoners and London’s firefighters.
‘We simply must not continue in this situation which is seeing nearly one in three fire engines unavailable.
‘Firefighters have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic assisting other agencies.
‘Now, firefighters themselves need assistance and to be given the safety they require – they need to be appropriately resourced and “backed up” at all times.’
The last week has also seen high levels of shortage of Fire Rescue Units, with six of London’s fourteen of these units being off twice in the last week – almost half.
Fire Rescue Units provide specialist capabilities for incidents including rescues from high structures, building collapses and hazardous materials incidents.
Meanwhile, Surrey Fire and Rescue is suffering from the effect of cuts more than ever, says the FBU, after a new inspection of Surrey Fire and Rescue service claimed to find ‘progress’ which the union describes as ‘ridiculous’.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has statutory responsibility for the inspection of fire and rescue services across the country.
Their new report into Surrey Fire and Rescue Service found that the service ‘requires improvement at effectively and efficiently keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks’, but also states that the service has ‘made good progress’ including on ‘how it uses its resources to keep people safe.’
However, multiple incidents have cast doubt on the safety of the brigade’s ‘Making Surrey Safer’ plan, voted through in September 2019 in response to financial restraints and now implemented.
This plan included removing seven fire engines, removing night-time cover at three fire stations, and axing 70 firefighter jobs.
In an incident last month an elderly man died after the first fire engine took 13 minutes to arrive, with a nearby fire station having been closed at night and thus ‘substantially’ lengthening response time.
Previously this year, a life was lost after the first fire engine took 14 minutes to arrive, and last year fire crews had to wait 57 minutes for a high-reaching aerial appliance to reach a fire.
Overall, average response times in Surrey have gone up for every type of fire since 2018, according to Home Office figures.
Joe Weir, FBU regional secretary for South East region, said: ‘We are at an absolute crisis point, and this report, whilst containing some recognition of shortfalls, does not go far enough in identifying this.
‘The idea that “progress” has been made since 2018, the point of the last inspection, is ridiculous.
‘The brigade’s cuts under its “Making Surrey Safer” plan – voted through in 2019, and brought in due to financial constraints – mean that fire engines are constantly out of use due to staff shortages, with average availability just 68.31%, and that response times are often missed.
‘We have seen the human cost of that in recent incidents, including one last month where the first fire engine took 13 minutes to arrive, and a similar incident earlier in the year where the first engine took 14 minutes to arrive
‘Tory austerity since 2010 has been a disaster for Surrey Fire and Rescue, with the service losing nearly one in every five of its firefighters since that point.
‘Between 2013 and 2020 fire and rescue services across the UK saw their real-terms spending cut by 38%.
‘Morale in Surrey Fire & Rescue is at an all-time low, and no wonder: firefighters want to be proud of the service they provide to their community.’
- The Fire Brigades Union has said that an inspection of Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service confirms that the fire and rescue service is not getting the funding it needs from government.
The HMICFRS report, released last week, found that Lincolnshire Fire & Rescue Service ‘requires improvement’ in various areas, including in terms of ‘effectively and efficiently keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks’ and the ‘extent to which the service looks after its people’.
Ben Selby, Fire Brigades Union executive council member for the East Midlands, said: ‘The concerns raised by this report – that the fire and rescue service may struggle to fulfil its functions – are similar to concerns that our local officials already had prior to this report. We’d already been hearing noises to this end from firefighters and members of the community.
‘We do not need to look far for the culprit here. Steep cuts over the last decade have left Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue severely under-resourced. For example, Lincolnshire now has around one in seven less firefighters compared to 2010. That is a huge reduction.
‘As a trade union we will continue to work with Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue as they work to try and improve the areas of their service that need requirement.
‘However, we recognise that there is only so much that they will be able to do without further resources.
‘The government cannot take significant funds from fire and rescue services across the country and expect everything to work as communities want.
‘Worryingly, the report suggests that Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue requires improvement when it comes to ensuring fairness and promoting diversity. This is an area of vital importance and we particularly look forward to working with the service on this area.’