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21 October 2012

London’s burning

The London fire brigade is under a grave threat, thanks to Boris Johnson.

By Paul Embery

What the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve, Boris Johnson might. Not since the dark days of 1940 has there been such a grave threat to the London Fire Brigade. Hyperbole? No, plain reality. Brigade managers have been told by the mayor to find an eye-watering £65m of savings. Letters seeking expressions of interest in redundancy have already been sent to all operational firefighters in London, and this week it was revealed that the fire stations and engines are also under threat.

The preferred option of managers – and the one, tweaks notwithstanding, most likely to be put before fire authority politicians in November – is the closure of 17 stations, with the resultant loss of the same number of engines and 600 frontline firefighter jobs. Fire stations which have stood proudly – in places such as Westminster, Clerkenwell, Clapham and Whitechapel – for generations, protecting local communities from fire, flying bombs and terrorism, now look set to have “For Sale” signs hammered to their front doors by the mayor.

The decision to slash the brigade’s budget by so many millions is as likely to have been driven by the mayor’s economic philosophy, his support for grinding austerity measures and general antipathy to the public sector, as by such technicalities as actual risk. He has, it is true, argued that attendance times – a target of six minutes for the arrival of the first engine (increased from five in 2008) and eight for the second – will be maintained. But insofar as that claim will prove correct – and the Fire Brigades Union is sceptical that it will – attendance times are far from the only consideration when planning a co-ordinated and effective response to emergencies. The weight of the response is as critical as its speed. Ensuring that adequate back-up resources are in place to assist with developing and large-scale incidents is vital. If the situation escalates, as it so often does, firefighters need to know that more engines and crews will be forthcoming quickly. If they aren’t, those firefighters and any members of the public who might be involved have suddenly got a big problem on their hands, regardless of how quickly the initial crews arrived. 

In August, a fire, described by the brigade as the largest since the Second World War, broke out in Dagenham. At its height, 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters – around a quarter of the brigade’s capacity – were tackling it. It was the weight of response that eventually ensured the fire was brought under control safely, without injury, loss of life or widespread damage to neighbouring properties. 

Likewise, the effective actions of firefighters at the 7/7 bombings – which, ironically, were attended by crews from several of the stations on the hit list – owed as much to the numbers responding as to their alacrity in getting there.

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All sorts of dangers arise from a lack of resources at incidents. Standard operating procedures, in which firefighters are relentlessly drilled, rely on minimum numbers carrying out designated jobs. A shortage of personnel and equipment would compromise the safety of those firefighters and the public they are trying to protect. Indeed, this very point was recognised by London Fire Brigade managers themselves as recently as 2010, when, in response to an Audit Commission suggestion that the brigade maintained too many fire engines, they argued that the commission had done “no work to demonstrate the particular demands which can arise if there are very large and lengthy incidents. Such incidents may be the product of terrorism or some other catastrophic event, such as a train crash, but they may also include ‘normal business’.” They concluded that “there are regular enough large incidents in London to justify the level of emergency response capacity which we hold ready each day”.

The proposed cuts, along with a disastrous experiment in privatisation which has jeopardised the renewal of the engine fleet due to commence in 2014 and the government’s desire to increase the retirement age for firefighters to 60, gives rise to the prospect that, in just a few years from now, London’s fire service will consist of aging men and women being mobilised to emergencies as part of a seriously reduced capacity of creaking and inadequate fire appliances.

In September, chief officers from six of England’s seven metropolitan brigades joined forces to warn ministers about the “potentially catastrophic impact” of fire service cuts. (The government has reduced the grant by 27 per cent, making it almost impossible for brigades to uphold the pledge made by David Cameron pre-election that there would be no frontline cuts and despite the fact that over the last decade the remit of the fire service has broadened substantially.) One voice was missing: that of London’s chief, Ron Dobson. The likely dire consequences of the proposals for the capital make it incumbent on him now to speak up. His first call should be to Boris Johnson; his second, to the prime minister.