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Exhausted, overstretched, unsafe: why firefighters are balloting for strikes

Over the summer, brigades battling record wildfires were outnumbered, even as fire engines stood dormant in garages for lack of staff. Then came winter - and the prospect of a real-terms pay cut. We spoke to the firefighters gearing up for a desperate attempt to save their service. 

December 03 2022, 10.01am

The Grenfell Tower fire was the worst domestic fire in living memory in the UK - killing 72 people, overwhelmingly of working class and minority ethnic background. Alongside the flammable cladding and the obduracy of the Conservative-led Kensington and Chelsea Council (which ignored years of warnings by the residents), the horrific, preventable tragedy threw into sharp relief another factor: the decimation of London’s fire services. 

Even today, five years after the fire, it seems like everywhere you walk in London there is an abandoned firehouse, its garage doors padlocked, the notice boards outside the entrance frozen in time. In his years as mayor, Boris Johnson presided over the closure of 10 fire stations and the removal of 27 fire engines, resulting in slower response times, sometimes with devastating results. Grenfell should have been a watershed moment - a wake-up call, especially in a city as scorched by fires as London. Instead, the latest available Home Office figures, released at the end of March 2021, show that a further 221 firefighter positions have been cut across the country since the fire.  

And for all the attention given to Johnson’s assault on the emergency services, they are dwarfed by the austerity-driven cuts nationwide: 11,000 firefighter roles were cut from the day David Cameron took office to the day the tower went up in flames. This week’s decision by the Fire Brigades Union to send notice of a formal strike ballot to fire and rescue service employers is a desperate, perhaps final attempt to turn back the tide. 

Cut to the bone

Despite being systematically gutted under local and national Tory governments, London remains the best resourced - or, at any rate, the least-worst resourced - fire service in the UK. “If you were to step out of London and have something like the Grenfell Tower fire in any area outside of it, we would really struggle to cope with it” says Ian Hibbert, a firefighter in Merseyside for over 21 years.

When Hibbert joined the fire and rescue service in 2001, there were around 1300 firefighters in Merseyside and 42 fire appliances. Today, there are around 600 firefighters and 26 fire appliances. “In the past, we used to ride on fire appliances with five riders. The vast majority of fire appliances in Merseyside now have only four riders,” he tells The Lead.

Prior to 2004, there were national guidelines on standards of fire cover. These guidelines were nationally treated as universal standards. But, in 2004, the New Labour government passed the Fire and Rescue Services Act. This new law abolished national standards of fire cover, allowing local fire and rescue services to set their own fire response targets without the national coherence of universally understood guidelines. The previous standards had addressed the number of fire appliances and the speed at which firefighters would attend an incident. In 2005, the Labour government scrapped fire certificates and watered down enforcement. New Labour also abolished the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council.  This was particularly damaging as the CFBAC had overseen decades of improvement in fire safety measures, equipment and in operational planning.

Before becoming a full-time official for the Fire Brigades Union, Riccardo la Torre spent 18 years as a firefighter in Essex. He says cuts played a part not just in the operational response to Grenfell, but also the fire inspections that preceded the fire. From the early 2000s onwards, the amount of fire inspections carried out were reduced.  “Since 2010, we’ve seen 11,500 firefighters cut across the UK. That includes fire investigators,”  says la Torre. “Every firefighter carries out an aspect of fire inspection and fire safety within their role.”

“It’s a postcode lottery,” he says. “If you compare the response someone in a metropolitan area will get, as opposed to someone in Norfolk or Suffolk, it’s drastically different.” That said, he adds all fire services are severely underfunded and have slower response times.

Jamie Newell, a firefighter in Luton for over 16 years, says the profession has taken a turn for the worst in recent years. He has become increasingly frustrated with the consistent downplaying of the importance of the response side of the job - which, he says, is only ever valued when there is a discussion about strike action. 

“The reduction in funding has fundamentally changed the way the job looks and feels. In 2007, I joined a watch with 17 people on it, crewing 2 fire engines and an aerial ladder platform” Today, Newell’s team rely on crews of 4 and sometimes even 3.

“It felt safer being at an incident with someone carrying out every key role on the fire ground. Now people have to double up on safety-critical tasks and we have to wait for longer for the next nearest pumping appliance to back us up,” explains Jamie. Cuts over the last 12 years have impacted safety of both firefighters and the wider public, with a significant impact on attendance times.

The worst time to cut fire services

New government figures, released in February this year, showed that response times by the fire and rescue service to significant fires in England had slowed by the biggest amount since 2015. The average response time for primary fires in England was 8 minutes and 43 seconds for the year ending September 2021, a slowing of six seconds when compared to the previous year. This is part of a long-term trend where response times have become slower over the years, to the detriment of public safety. When the current response recording began in 2009, the statistic stood at 8 minutes and 6 seconds.

Central funding for local fire services, meanwhile, has been cut by 40% in real terms over the past decade. 

The relentless cuts are taking place even as the increased incident risk driven by climate change has become abundantly clear.  Firefighters have had to respond to a growing number of flooding incidents and wildfires, without additional funding. “Just a few months ago, we hit record temperatures in this country. You only had to turn the TV on and pretty much the whole of the south of the country was on fire for two or three weeks,” says Hibbert.

This is far from the personal observation of one firefighter. Earlier this year, Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College, said it’s possible only low winds stopped what could have been the next ‘Great Fire of London.’ Wildfires are now spreading further than they used to, with homes lost, infrastructure destroyed and firefighters ending up in hospital. La Torre recalls how back up calls were flat out refused because the resources simply didn’t exist. “During the heatwave, we had firefighters on the ground getting injured, desperately calling for more resources. At the same time we had fire engines left dormant all over the country because we simply don’t have the people left to be able to crew them and get them out the doors. It’s scandalous.”

The final straw

Firefighters’ salaries have been cut by nearly £40,00 in real terms between 2009-2021. An initial two percent pay offer in June was met with anger and disgust across the board. “Once you factored in National Insurance, tax and pension contributions a two percent pay increase actually worked out  as a seven pound a week take home pay increase and that’s before you factor in the cost-of-living,” says Hibbert. A revised five-percent pay rise offer was also rejected by firefighters in November: With inflation climbing to double that figure, this would still be a real-terms pay cut.  

As the Fire Brigades Union regional secretary in Merseyside, Hibbert often finds himself trying to assist firefighters who have nowhere else to turn to. “For the last few years, we've seen a steady rise in firefighters who come to us because they can't pay the bills, he says. “ I know many firefighters having to take out payday loans to buy food. People are struggling.`` 

“Firefighters are having to use food banks to feed their families. It’s an absolute disgrace.” adds la Torre. He describes the most recent pay offer as an insult in any circumstances, but particularly on the back of the pandemic, where firefighters took on additional duties to assist the national effort.  “We moved the bodies of disease, drove ambulances, delivered medicine and PPE, he says. “Just a few months ago, firefighters were being hospitalised trying to get their communities through extreme weather events.”

Industrial Action

The Fire Brigades Union has been around for 104 years. In that time, instances of national strike action have been few and far between. Firefighters are due to ballot for strike in the next few days, with the fifth national strike in the FBU’s history a real possibility. An inevitable narrative over the coming months from government ministers will be that industrial action puts lives at risk, a narrative that firefighters vehemently take issue with. 

For years, fire chiefs have pursued a narrative of an underworked and over-resourced fire service, says Ian. “They’ve presented an image of firefighters sitting around fire stations, playing snooker and darts.” Nothing could be further from the truth, he says.  “Nobody became a firefighter because they thought they were going to be rich.” says Ian. “We do what we do because we care.  We’ve fought to maintain fire cover, maintain funding not only for our brave firefighters who put their lives at risk on a daily basis but for the safety of the wider public.

Firefighters are particularly angry about the hypocrisy from government quarters who have spent the past decade lecturing workers about public safety while taking fire engines away from communities. “We’ve now lost 11,500 firefighter jobs in the UK. That affects public safety every minute of every day but the government simply does not care” says Jamie. 

Ian points to the irony of government ministers claiming firefighters are too important to go on strike while simultaneously implying they are not important enough to be paid adequately. “Firefighters will be on the picket lines after this ballot because they've been forced through years and years of attacks on pay and conditions,” la Torre says.

Strike action isn’t inevitable. If an adequate offer is made, firefighters may not be on a picket line next year. Individual firefighters alike  insist that industrial action is only being considered as a last resort, and are acutely aware of the vital role they carry out in society. It’s precisely for this reason, they say, that they are fighting to demand their worth.