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Tories’ fire cuts will cost lives—and they know it

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
Thousands of firefighters’ jobs have gone since the Tories took office and the latest round of cuts is the most dangerous yet, says Simon Basketter
Issue 2359
Firefighters marching against cuts in Brixton, south London
Firefighters marching against cuts in Brixton, south London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Thousands of firefighters’ jobs have gone since the Tories took office. But the latest round of cuts is the most dangerous yet, says Simon Basketter

Every minute counts when it comes to rescuing people from fire. But as far as the Tories are concerned, there’s plenty of time to spare.

Former fat cat fire chief Sir Ken Knight produced a review for the government last month laying out his plans for the service. He suggested privatisation and cuts.

Thousands of fire service jobs have already gone and stations have closed, but Knight believes many more should follow.

Sir Ken seems to think that waiting longer for a fire engine is no more inconvenient than waiting for a bus. Matt Wrack, leader of the firefighters’ FBU union, knows better.

He says the cuts will kill—and that the review was “just a fig leaf for slashing our fire and rescue service to bits”. “Last year alone a further 1,200 firefighters’ jobs were cut,” he said.

In total, the UK now has over 3,500 fewer firefighters than when the coalition government came to office. This is a 6.6 percent cut in ­frontline firefighter jobs in just three years.


There have also been cuts in non?uniform support roles, with around 1,300 jobs cut in three years. Last year, some 300 support jobs were cut across the UK. 

This means that people desperately waiting to be cut out of a car in an accident, or directed out of a smoke-filled building, will have to wait longer.

The government claims that a drop in callouts and deaths justify the cuts.

Total fire deaths rose from 937 in 1981-82 to a peak of 967 in 1985?86.  But there were just 380 fire deaths in 2011-12. That represents a 61 percent decrease.

The drop in deaths is pretty similar regardless of type of fire.

These figures on fires and fire deaths show longstanding improvements. Many of these them predate a move to focus on fire prevention.

But a falling number of fire deaths shouldn’t be seen as a reason to cut the people who are bringing the numbers down.

It takes the same number of fire appliances to put out a fire, regardless of how often they occur.

One nasty way the government justifies cuts is by saying they will cause only small changes to response times—the time it takes a crew to get to a fire.

But the differences aren’t that small. Depending which government figure you use, response times have risen by over two minutes in the last decade. 

In a report published in 2009, the government said the slowing of response times was because of increased traffic. 

But in 2012 its own figures showed that traffic levels peaked in 2007, but response times continued to rise. 

Five years ago firefighters were able to reach one in three incidents in five minutes or less.

In 2011-12, when there were fewer fires, this had dropped to just one in six. But don’t expect these stubborn facts to get in the way of the Tories and their plans.

Twice as long to get help 

The Tories’ plan for fire services in London would double response times in many places. 

For example, in Clapham, south London, response times will rise from three minutes 56 seconds to seven minutes 53 seconds. 

Clapham town station sent the first engines to the recent fire after a helicopter crash in Vauxhall. It is earmarked for closure.   

In Bow East, the response time will be seven minutes 20 seconds if the Tory cuts go through, up from four minutes nine seconds.

Alarms can’t replace crews 

The Tories say that it doesn’t matter if response times rise because most people now have fire alarms.

Some 8 percent of households had smoke alarms in 1988. By 2008 this had risen to 86 percent.

But 39 percent of battery alarms failed to operate in a fire. More than a quarter, 27 percent, of all fire alarms failed last year.

Some 95 percent of all automatic fire alarm signals were false or unwanted. 

And fire alarms alone don’t guarantee that people will escape fire.

Knight in slimy armour

The government expects firefighters to work longer for a worse pension. In contrast, fire boss Sir Ken Knight pocketed a huge 17.5 percent pay increase of £26,000 from the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority in 2006. 

It took his salary up to £175,000. He was 59 at the time and got a lump sum of almost £400,000.

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