“Sorry, you can’t have more than 12 bottles of water, we don’t have the budget for it.” No big deal maybe, unless you’ve just spent three hours fighting a field fire in 35 degree heat and know you’re about to be heading off to do the same again. Yet it’s what me and my crew were told recently as we did just that. For the past few weeks, field fires have dominated our list of fire calls. We go from one to another, trying to stop them spreading onto people’s property or, worst case scenario, killing someone.
I’m not complaining. It’s my job. I joined the fire service 20 years ago because I wanted to do stuff like this. But in those two decades a lot has changed, and that change has never been more obvious than now. Put simply, the recent heatwave has shown we can no longer do the job we’re meant to. Not properly, anyway.
We don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough kit, and yes, budgets are so tight that apparently we can’t even be provided with enough drinking water to keep us going in extreme conditions. That’s just one thing. In the past few weeks, when we’ve called for back-up – called “making up pumps” – we’ve been told no. Because there is no back-up. There aren’t enough fire engines available or enough firefighters to crew them.
When I joined at 20, we had crews of six on each fire engine. Gradually, those numbers have been cut. We ride four pretty much all the time now – the minimum crew for a fire engine. That would possibly be manageable if there were enough firefighters across our brigade to allow for four on each fire engine. But there aren’t. More than ever, we’re being sent to other stations to make up their numbers just so we can keep fire engines operational.
When we go to jobs – and this has happened countless times in the last few weeks – when we ask for backup from another fire crew, we’re told there just aren’t the resources. Again, not enough people. Not enough fire engines available to help. We’re going to jobs not quite knowing if we’re going to be able to save people or property because we just don’t have the crewing.
It’s not just me saying this, or a situation unique to my brigade. It’s nationwide. As FBU National Officer Riccardo la Torre said last week, the public cannot “any longer have the expectation that the fire service can respond adequately”. He tells similar stories of reports of firefighters calling for backup while they’re trying to deal with wildfires and being told there just aren’t the resources. He used the word “scandalous” and as a firefighter who’s experiencing this firsthand I have to agree.
But the real scandal is that this didn’t happen overnight. The heatwave has just made it impossible to gloss over. For years, I’ve watched resources be stripped away and budgets cut. We have fewer people than ever and many of those have little experience and a poorer level of training. Recruitment is in crisis, so standards are being dropped just to get people through. Meanwhile we have more managers than ever and their numbers very much aren’t dwindling.
It’s fixable, but not overnight. We need wholesale change to restore numbers and standards – and that means admitting that you can’t cut the emergency services to the bone without consequences. In June, we were offered a two per cent pay increase which was refused by the FBU as it basically means a pay cut in real terms. None of us joined the fire service to be big earners – but we do need to live, and is it too much to ask that we get paid a reasonable salary for what we do? And when it comes to recruitment, we don’t stand any chance of recruiting more firefighters if it remains so poorly paid.
Then there’s the kit – even basics like drinking water. Budgets have been slashed so far that the lack of resources is dangerous. It’s widely accepted that the extreme weather we’ve seen over the past few years is only going to continue – and whether it’s heatwaves, flash floods or other extreme conditions, it’s often the fire brigade who are there to pick up the pieces. How can we do that without the tools and bodies to do the job right?
Enough is enough, it’s time we stopped sweeping this under the carpet, because in the next heatwave things will only be worse.
The writer is a firefighter based in the East Midlands
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