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The fire service is in crisis and only a fight will save it

This article is over 7 years, 4 months old
As the FBU firefighters’ union launches its new Sounding the Alarm report, Annette Mackin looks at how cuts and job losses are putting lives at risk.
Issue 2421
The FBU union launched its Ring of Fire tour to higlight the new report at last week’s TUC conference
The FBU union launched its Ring of Fire tour to higlight the new report at last week’s TUC conference (Pic: Socialist Worker)

The fire service is at crisis point. Ever since the Tories came to office in 2010 over 5,000 frontline firefighter jobs have been cut—and more are expected to go.

It means crews are not able to respond to emergencies safely. Most are now forced to run a skeleton service and are having to travel longer distances, putting themselves and people at risk.

In March the cuts claimed their first victim, when 83 year old Maurice Cunliffe died in Woolwich, south London. The station was one of ten cut by London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson.  

The Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) looks at the impact of the cuts in a new report Sounding the Alarm: the future of our fire and rescue service.

It outlines how one in ten firefighter posts have been axed in the last four years. In the last year alone more than 1,500 jobs have been cut. 

There is a crisis in recruitment, as there are less and less job opportunities for young firefighters.

Merseyside FBU secretary Mark Rowe told Socialist Worker, “We haven’t had any substantial recruitment in over a decade,” said 

“If things continue the way they are going, the fire service as we know it could collapse in the coming years.”

In Merseyside crews are down to 28 engines from 42. It’s projected that by 2016 there will only be 680 firefighters left out of a workforce that numbered 1,200. Another 100 could go by 2018.

Mark said, “Many fire stations might look like they’re open. But although people still see an engine inside, regularly there aren’t any crews to operate it.”


Firefighters have been posted to other stations after years of working together. 

“Stations are having to close on shift by shift basis,” said Mark. 

The cuts also mean that crews lack access to basic equipment in emergencies, with 145 fewer frontline pumping appliances, meaning crews 

The cuts to the number of engines also means attendance times have doubled in some places. Where once firefighters could respond in five minutes this has gone up to ten.

Mark explained, “There used to be two engines available at stations in Merseyside, but this has gone down to one. When we are called to a fire where someone is trapped inside we have to send three engines.

“This means that whole areas are being stripped of appliances and are without engines in an emergency. Crews are having to travel further distances to get there.

“People are going to die because of these cuts.”

Firefighters have faced cuts going back a decade, but they have escalated significantly since the Tories came to office.

But whoever gets elected next year, one thing is certain—there will be more cuts. Even now less than half the cuts have been implemented so far, and only two thirds by 2016. 

“The station closures and job losses has meant that entire workforces have been scattered and broken up,” said Dave Waterman, FBU secretary at Battersea, south London.

“The fact that individuals are being posted to other stations after years of working together has hit morale hard.

“This is a fight for the future of the service, and it’s far from over.”

Keep up strikes for pensions to beat the Tories’ cuts

The attacks on the fire service come at the same time that the Tories are threatening firefighters’ pensions. 

Under proposed pension changes, firefighters will be expected to work and a further five years until they are 60. 

If they fail to achieve fitness standards and have to retire earlier, they could lose up to half of their pension or face the sack.

Les Skarratts, FBU union secretary for the North West region, told Socialist Worker, “We’re facing impossible cuts and attacks on our pensions.

“It’s a really cynical move by this government, and fire service cuts hit working class areas hardest.”

Firefighters have struck on more than 31 days against the attacks. They joined the 1.4 million workers who struck on 10 July and walked out on a series of shorter strikes.

Previous fire minister Brandon Lewis was forced to reoffer a deal he withdrew.

“Most members have seen how taking industrial action can affect change. They see strikes as a very powerful tool,” said Les.

But over recent weeks the union leadership has held back from calling further action while they have been meeting the new fire minister Penny Mordaunt.

Some FBU regions have argued that it is a mistake to be taken in by the Tories, and that the union should call more action while they are strongest.

The FBU executive was due to meet this week to discuss the outcome of the talks.

Les said, “A lot of people are impatient, and that’s a good thing—it shows the confidence of the members.

“If there is nothing constructive from these talks then harder, more determined action will be inevitable.

“And how much can we trust the Tories?

“The North West region has been part of the call for increased action if nothing comes out of the talks.

“Momentum is imperative. We’re facing impossible cuts, but there is a mood to fight out there.”

Crime and fire commissioner?

The Tories are drawing up plans that could put police and crime commissioners in charge of all emergency services, including firefighters and ambulance staff.

But the FBU union has said it is “fundamentally opposed” to the commissioners, who “are not fit to oversee the fire and rescue service”.

Fire sale for private firms privatisation of the fire service is a real threat. 

The government’s white paper from 2011 stated that the service was “broken” and in “outdated” fashion.

It was also excluded from a list of services that should be “free at the point of contact”.

Former Tory fire minister Brandon Lewis set out new laws to make it easier for the authorities to contract out the full range of services to private providers.

More cuts and fewer rescues?

One of the reasons given for cuts to the fire service is that there are fewer emergencies to respond to.

But the FBU’s report points out that firefighters take part in 100 rescues a day—40,000 rescues a year.

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