Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, stood tall at the Labour Party conference yesterday giving an impassioned plea to stop the ‘30%, and up to 50%, cuts in the fire services across the country’. He warned it was threatening lives. He described how the cuts were making the arrival at 999 calls later than they were 20 years ago. He urged other unions and Labour members to stand side by side with him. And he vowed that the FBU would fight the cuts to the bitter end in order to save lives.
Stirring stuff. And chimes with the pictures of firefighters rescuing children out of burning buildings and of the hero imagery that so many films and TV series have painted of the profession over the years. Except, if you know the fireservice, it is complete rubbish.
We have to give some context. Despite all these drastic cuts Mr Wrack talks about the number of fires and the number of deaths is, despite there being more people in the country than ever before, lower than anytime since the 1950s. So even though the FBU talk of risk to lives, you are safer than at anytime in living memory.
And there are six main reasons why this is the case, a further two why your fire engine response time is slower and a very critical reason why cutting fire services may actually save, not risk, your life.
Let’s start with the six fire and death cutting reasons which are, incidentally, nothing to do with the success of fire services or firefighters.
1 – The EU. In the 1980’s the EU brought in legislation to force furniture makers to make their sofas out of non-flammable materials. Before then everything was very, very combustible. But couches and armchairs don’t vanish overnight. They take up to 30-40 years to end up in landfill. They are held on to, sold on, handed down or left in the street where people scoop them up and recycle them. And the longer they are circulating the more likely they are to end up in the hands, or stay in the hands, of poorer people. Who smoke. And drink lots. Flammable foam+too much booze making a person drowzy+lit fag=combustion and death of individual. Almost all of those pre-80s settees have gone now and the number of deaths from fires has plummeted accordingly.
Incidentally, more recently, it is also the EU who are continually tightening laws around washing machines, dryers and fridge/freezers which was starting to be an ever growing fire source. That was until those pesky bureaucrats tackled it anyway.
2 – Fags. Ciggies cause fires. But two changes in smoking behaviour has done wonders for cutting deaths. The first is that people are vaping or not smoking or are smoking outdoors – that has dramatically cut fires and fire deaths. Secondly, again the EU. They introduced RIP cigarattes across the continent. This means that where previously pre-rolled ciggies would keep on burning once they were alight, today they have two break ‘speedbumps’ which stop the fag from burning to the end. These are estimated to stop at least 10% of deaths from fires a year.
3 – Smoke alarms. Sure they don’t cut fires, but they do get people out. Successful PR campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s hammered home the message to get these. And they work in saving lives even if they don’t cut fires.
4 – Successive Tory and Labour governments. Labour brought in something called the Regulatory Reform Order in 2005. It lumped a whole load of additional requirements on to landlords and businesses to do to keep the premises and people away from fire and reduce fire spread. Meanwhile, just last year, the Tories introduced a law that required all landlords to install smoke alarms on every floor of a rented property. Simple, but effective.
5 – Building design. Sounds really dull, but computers have helped understand the way fire spreads and the way it behaves in different environments. This has meant that in new buildings architects can design out fire spread and compartmentalise where the fire can escape to. Bung in the odd sprinkler as well and you see new buildings becoming extremely safe for people and property when it comes to fire.
6 – Cooking habits. People don’t deep fay fry as much stuff anymore. And if they do they use a deep fat fryer and not a frying pan. Less oil spewing about means less fires.
With the demand for firefighters dropping like a stone, and supply of firefighters staying the same, it is no wonder in times of economic belt tightening any government isn’t looking at this area for savings.
And what about the claim that firefighters take longer to get to a 999 call slower than 20 years ago? Well it is true, but it has nothing to do with cuts. Firstly – traffic. There is just more cars and more congestion on the road for fire engines to navigate. No matter how many fire engines you put in fire stations you would never be able to cut this response time unless you parked them at junctions – which the FBU refuses to countenance.
The second is more complex. Fire services used to respond to 999 calls where people were shut in lift calls and to automatic fire alarms in large buildings. Both these types of calls occur in densely populated areas and meant that an engine could arrive on scene within moments because the call was so near by. But fire services are either refusing to attend of charging for these calls now which means that the number of them has dropped. This means there aren’t as many 999 calls being responded to near a fire station and those that are left are instead more evenly spread. This pushes up average response times. It is a kind of jiggery pokery.
Let me try an easier way to explain. You have 100 calls. 50 are 2 minutes away, 50 are 4 minutes away. The average response time is 3 minutes. Take away half of the 2 minute calls because they don’t want to pay a fee for your services. Now you have 75 calls. 25 are 2 minutes away and 50 are 4 minutes away. The average response time is 3mins 20 seconds. Calls are down. No threat to life has been encountered because they were non-urgent calls but response times have increased by ten percent.
Yet what is more, by cutting fire staff, government may do more than just save money – it may save your life and theirs.
Firefighters don’t just need training to tackle fires. They need experience. Simulating a 1100C smoke filled burning building just doesn’t cut the mustard compared to when facing it in real life. So when fires have dropped so much and firefighting levels have stayed the same it means that crews are getting much less experience and means that they are less polished at doing the job. On average, crews are just in action for 7% of the time – 93% doing nothing to do with tackling fires or dealing with road crashes. That’s an average. For less busy stations this busy period is next to zero.
This leads to a lack of confidence when tackling blazes and mistakes – putting their, and your, life at risk. It also leads to crews who do not have experience but would likely be the first on the scene of a 999 call radioing back to base to request backup and then driving round the block a few times until the other engine gets there and starts tackling the fire. This happens. Not often. But it happens.
Yet no one will tell you this. Firefighters are popular heroes. Labour politicians would never tell you this as the FBU bankroll them. The Tories will do some of the cuts but will be led by fire chiefs. Yet the fire chiefs were, for most of their career, FBU members. They hate closing stations as they feel it is a snub on their egos. For all the union describes the top brass as ‘one of them and not one of us’, the very opposite is true.They are frontline firefighters through and through desperate to put any obstacle in the way of politicians to prevent closures. Meanwhile, journalists will never poke this bees nest as it doesn’t go down well with readers and advertisers.
So we are left with a mirage. A mirage that costs unnecessary money and potentially costs unnecessary lives. Strange world when defending firefighters can lead to such a scenario, but it is what it is no matter how distasteful it all feels and sounds.