The impact of austerity on our public services is again a hot topic, dominating Prime Minister’s Questions just hours after the Fire Brigades Union declared the pay cap “dead in the water” after they were offered a two per cent pay rise – the first above 1 per cent since 2013.
The pay offer comes just days after the Grenfell Tower fire turned attention on the impact that austerity has had on our most vital services. Firefighters were at the forefront of the response to the tragedy, but their ability to deal with such a catastrophic event was also under the microscope. Were there enough firemen available to fight the blaze? Could it have been prevented by better resourced fire safety services in the community? These are the sort of questions that are being be asked, though we’re unlikely to be sure of the answers for some time.
Speaking at a rally in Hastings – home secretary Amber Rudd’s constituency – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “You can’t keep our communities safe on the cheap, when you cut over 20,000 police officers, over 11,000 firefighters, and leave our hospitals in record deficit having to cut back on services.”
Yet while many parts of our public services are in desperate need of more staff – not least the NHS – that may not necessarily the case with the fire service.
The first engine arrived at Grenfell Tower six minutes after receiving the first call, and as the scale of the disaster unfolded, 200 firefighters in total were called in to tackle the blaze. While many worked longer shifts than normal, this was an unusual event and the fire service can’t and shouldn’t be expected to provide staffing levels that would enable the recommended shift change every four hours during a similar incident at all hours of the day and night. Simply, the money could be put to far better use elsewhere.
The fact is, the job of the fire service is changing. Decades of improvements to community fire safety – by local brigades – have resulted in a huge fall in the number of fire-related incidents attended by fire services. In 2009/10, fire and rescue services attended 830,161 fire-related incidents across Great Britain. By 2015/16, this had fallen to 654,571 – although that figure had risen marginally on the previous year.
Fire prevention is key, yet it is not solely down to fire brigades – in the wake of Grenfell, there are many more serious questions to answer about whether British fire regulations and their application are fit for purpose than whether the fire service is.
Data from the London Fire Brigade – which earlier this year warned all 33 London councils about the risks of external cladding – shows the service is exceeding its targets for fire prevention and impact across all key metrics, from a reduction in the total number of fires to an increase in home safety visits. It has also consistently exceeded its own six minute target window for attending emergencies.
However, a local government authority report highlighted that “the future for Fire and Rescue Services across the country will be different”, and “it could be particularly helpful to open up dialogue with staff about the future of the fire service – what roles will look like in 5-10 years.”
In a damning 2015 review of neighbouring Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, it became clear the force was neither ready to make the changes needed to become a service for the future, nor an adequate place of work for many of its staff.
The report stated the organisational structure at ECFRS was toxic, adding: “There is dangerous and pervasive bullying and intimidation and this may place employees and the communities that they serve at risk.”
One survey respondent said: “Some managers behave as organisational terrorists.” Another added: “I never felt less needed or rewarded; for first time ever I felt like leaving. I feel abused because of the commitment I and my family give every time I go out.”
Of equal – possibly longer term – danger is the observation that “with modern fire prevention and protection work becoming so effective, reducing the need for the traditional ‘blue light’ response services, it is clear that ECFRS needs to do more to embrace change in order to become fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.”
There was evidence staff were demotivated by a lack of communication regarding their own futures and that of the brigade. “There is nothing for you in the future; it’s dead men’s shoes, so what’s the point?” asked another respondent.
The point is our fire services need, and deserve, appropriate management for the future. Some brigades are better than others. Some need little work, others a lot. But stating that “we’ve cut 11,000 firefighters” and hiring 11,000 more won’t fix the problem, only push it down the road. The job is changing and to protect workers in the long-term – long after any guilt money from this government may or may not have been handed out – we need to ensure brigades are fit for purpose in a world where, thanks to their own good work, there simply are fewer fires.
That doesn’t mean we need fewer firefighters. It means they need the power and flexibility to continue catering for the wider range of emergencies they already deal with and management structures in place to ensure they can continue evolving.
Well, that and a decent pay rise.