Choi Yip died after leaping from a third storey window at his sheltered accommodation in Camden, north London, at the end of October. He was trying to escape a fire.
It took 13 minutes for the first fire engine to arrive at the scene. That’s more than double London Fire Brigade’s six minute target.
Neighbour Pat Bell said he was “almost positive” that Choi could have been saved if the engine had arrived sooner.
But the crew at nearby Kentish Town fire station were battling a fire in north west London. And the next closest station, Belsize Park, was closed in 2014.
Yet London fire commissioner Ron Dobson—backed up by Tory mayor Boris Johnson—is determined to push ahead with more cuts. The pair want to scrap 13 fire engines as part of a plan to save £11 million.
London Fire Brigade has already suffered the loss of 14 engines, ten fire stations and around 500 jobs last year.
Gareth Beeton, a London regional official from the Firefighters’ FBU union, told Socialist Worker, “The further reductions in fire cover would equate to around another 200 jobs.This will drastically reduce the fire cover to Londoners, and also the safety of firefighters.”
This isn’t just a London problem.
Brigades in regions such as Gloucestershire, Northumberland, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, The West Midlands and Manchester face dangerous cutbacks.
Fire authorities are passing on cuts from local councils, many of which are controlled by Labour.
Central government grants to fire authorities were cut by more than a fifth during the last parliament. And more than 5,000 firefighter jobs were slashed by the Tories, and over 40 fire stations closed.
Now firefighters are bracing for more.
Manchester firefighter Simon Hickman explained, “The grant from central government has been getting cut. They expect us to make efficiency savings.”
Firefighters in Manchester were awaiting full details of planned cuts to their brigade as Socialist Worker went to press. But the Labour-run council says it may slash as much as £27.6 million.
Simon said, “If that worst case scenario went through, it would be devastating. We wouldn’t be able to support neighbouring brigades.”
On Sunday 29 November, high winds saw Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue receive 129 calls in three hours as crews had to respond incidents including fallen trees, damaged buildings, dislodged chimney stacks and road blockages.
The brigade issued a warning on Twitter. “ALL our resources are currently attending incidents,” it read. “Our resilience is being seriously tested. Please be patient.”
Simon said, “If we’re stretched by the weather, imagine what it would be like if there’s a major incident.
“Even some of the chiefs are saying this can’t continue. You can’t expect a service if you carry on cutting like this.”
Bosses expect overstretched firefighters to do even more work
West Midlands Fire and Rescue service is one brigade that’s taken a major battering over the last few years as austerity has started to bite.
The FBU brigade chair Andrew Scattergood spoke to Socialist Worker.
He said, “We’re waiting for the next budget. But we’ve already lost £28 million, and expecting to lose another £14 million. We’re already down to the bone.”
Fire authority bosses are already planning on phasing out 300 jobs by not replacing firefighters when they leave the service. They call this loss “natural wastage”.
The brigade will become increasingly reliant on firefighters working overtime to provide a proper service.
“They’re looking at 25,000 shifts a year in overtime—that means about 25 extra shifts per firefighter,” Andrew told Socialist Worker
“It means there may not always be enough resources to mobilise an appliance.”
He added, “In terms of safety, if resources aren’t available, if the next station is understaffed, that means you have to wait longer for another fire engine to come from further away.”
In North Yorkshire, as many as six fire engines could be replaced with smaller Tactical Response Vehicles (TRVs).
The two?person crews of these trucks can’t enter buildings or deal with traffic accidents without backup from a larger crew. Vital minutes could be lost.
North Yorkshire have trialled similar vehicles before. The trial was a disaster, as former North Yorkshire firefighter Pete Woolley knows.
In a video he tells of how “helpless” he felt after arriving at a serious fire in a vehicle he and his colleagues nicknamed the “ice cream van”.
But the fire authority is determined to push ahead with the plans—despite the response to a public consultation being overwhelmingly against them.
North Yorkshire FBU secretary Steve Howley told Socialist Worker, “It seems there’s a pre-determined decision being made.”
He added, “We’ve had the highest number of fatalities in North Yorkshire in at least ten years, and probably the highest on record—five this year.
“The brigade states that there has only been two fatalities.
“That’s because they’re using the financial year, April to April. But if you go by the calendar year, it’s been five.
“Cutting the frontline is always the first port of call for North Yorkshire.”
Launch a national campaign over Tory fire cuts
Firefighters have started a fightback. FBU branches have lobbied fire authority meetings in London, North Yorkshire and the West Midlands.
In West Midlands firefighters were balloting for an overtime ban. And London could also see industrial action.
This is a good start. But as Simon from Manchester explained, to win will take a bigger campaign aimed at stopping central government cuts.
He said, “Firefighters want communities to put up a fight but we know that’s not always enough.
“In Manchester no stations have been shut. Instead bosses made it so you would have a fire engine most of the time, except for some nights. It’s difficult to have a campaign around that.
“Now it’s got to the stage where there’s going to be cuts. We need a national campaign”.