Fire Brigades Union conference: Call for sweeping reforms
The next Labour government must deliver an overhaul of fire and rescue services, the Fire Brigades Union has demanded. After years of cuts to services, the Labour-affiliated union’s annual conference voted for sweeping changes to the Fire and Rescue Service and a new regime of investment in fire safety.
Firefighters voted to demand that the next Labour government implement:
- UK-wide standards and structures, including minimum response times and a commitment to five firefighters on every fire engine
- Investment in a new generation of firefighters and fire safety officers, after the loss of one in five firefighter jobs and one in four fire safety officers since 2010
- A statutory duty for firefighters to respond to flooding in England, as in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales
- An end to police and crime commissioner take overs of fire and rescue services and the end to the privatisation of training facilities and control rooms.
Firefighters also called for sweeping changes to their working conditions, free cancer screenings, and a review of their pensions. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said: “Tory governments have made firefighters’ lives a misery for the last decade, not to mention the risk to public safety overseen by this government. That has to end when Jeremy Corbyn enters Downing Street.
“We have faith that the next Labour government will support our firefighters and deliver the change needed to keep the public safe. All that we ask for is a safer, fairer, well-resourced and accountable Fire and Rescue Service. A service that is publicly owned and delivers for the many.”
Shadow Fire Minister Karen Lee and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner addressed FBU conference. Karen Lee MP said: “With the government in chaos, we are building on the 2017 manifesto. We cannot rest on our laurels, and the damage caused by sustained austerity over the past nine years must be rectified. This includes addressing the long overdue pay rise, ensuring fire services receive the resources they need and fixing broken fire regulations.”
The FBU holds a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee. The union was an affiliate to the Labour party from the 1920s until 2004 when a bitter pay dispute with the then Blair government led the union to disaffiliate. It re-affiliated in 2015 after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
The Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell co-founded the union’s parliamentary group, and McDonnell, who has chaired the group, has been a staunch supporter of the FBU’s many campaigns and a regular speaker at its conference. Karen Lee MP, the Shadow Fire Minister, is Private Parliamentary Secretary to John McDonnell.
Firefighters Prepared for Industrial Action in Role Expansion Dispute
Firefighters have threatened to withdraw from all non-contractual work, as tensions heat up between the union and employers. Fire Brigades Union members voted to prepare for industrial action.
Union leaders will re-enter pay negotiations with a serious threat at their disposal, after firefighters voted overwhelmingly to prepare for industrial action. All work outside of a firefighter’s core role, such as water rescues and aerial drone operation, could be withdrawn.
Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters spend each day risking their lives to save others, but governments and employers have thanked them with a real terms pay cut and massive cuts to jobs, all while piling on new duties onto their daily work. Enough is enough. We will not stand by while the work of firefighters is done for free.
“We don’t take industrial action lightly – no community should have to go without their firefighters’ vital non-fire work. But we need to make it clear that, unless the government and fire service employers treat firefighters fairly and with respect, we can and will consider all forms of industrial action”
“All that we ask for is a safer, fairer, well-resourced and accountable Fire and Rescue Service”
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack
Last month, firefighters rejected a pay proposal from employers, which would have seen them enter into open-ended contracts in return for the possibility of a pay rise, funding for which had not been agreed with government. Fifty eight per cent of FBU members voted in the ballot, exceeding the threshold required for industrial action.
Firefighters rescued 42,000 people from non-fire incidents and nearly 4,000 from fires between April 2017 and March 2018. Central government funding for fire and rescue services has been cut by £155 million from 2016/17 to 2019/20.
Government Complacency Risks Another Grenfell
Nearly two years since the Grenfell tragedy in which 72 people lost their lives, the government has done nothing to adequately prepare fire and rescue services for a similar incident, the union claims.
Officials say new evidence reveals a postcode lottery of preparedness across the country, with some fire services planning to send as few as two fire engines to a high-rise fire. The Westminster Fire Minister has repeatedly misled the public about fire services’ preparedness and has grasped neither the severity nor the basic details of the risk.
The Fire Brigades Union called on the government to end the postcode lottery of public safety by implementing:
- A national review to understand the scale of failed compartmentation in residential buildings
- National standards for the pre-determined attendance – the number of firefighters and fire engines that would initially be sent – for fires in high-rise blocks.
The Fire Minister, Nick Hurd MP, has repeatedly claimed that fire services are prepared for a Grenfell-type fire, said union officials. Yet only three of the 48 fire and rescues services outside of London have been contacted directly by the Home Office seeking information of their preparedness for such an incident. A further eight have been contacted by the National Fire Chiefs Council and one by the Welsh government.
Matt Wrack said: “We’re shocked at the utter complacency of the Fire Minister. Seventy two people died at Grenfell Tower, a fire for which London Fire Brigade had not planned. Yet the Minister still does not grasp the severity, or even the basic details, of the risk across the country.
“It’s no longer possible to claim that fire like Grenfell is unforeseeable. Firefighters were placed in an impossible situation that night. But two years on, the government still has not provided the planning and resources necessary to prepare firefighters for what are now completely foreseeable risks.
“It is extremely worrying that as part of their pre-determined attendances, some services only plan to send two engines to a fire in a high-rise building. That is nowhere near enough to tackle a blaze which occurs when compartmentation fails, like it did at Grenfell.
“Fire and rescue services are clearly basing their pre-determined attendances upon a situation where compartmentation works. But at Grenfell it was the failure of compartmentation that caused the fire to spread so rapidly and virtually none are prepared for such an incident.
“Even with this optimistic assumption, the levels of attendance are mostly utterly inadequate. The difference in pre-determined attendances is also deeply worrying – there is no reason why which part of the country a building is located in should determine the safety of its residents.”
“Grenfell proved the UK government’s utter complacency on fire safety. We need robust national standards to make sure that the lessons from that night are applied everywhere.”
The data reveals a postcode lottery of preparedness across the country, claim the union, demonstrating the detrimental effects of the fragmentation of the Fire and Rescue Service. With no national-level infrastructure or standards for fire, government ministers have no real national oversight of this important element of public safety, Mr Wrack stated.
The pre-determined attendance varies across the country from as few as one water-pumping fire engine up to ten. These numbers are based on the best case scenario where compartmentation has prevented the fire from spreading.
Forty fire engines were sent to Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire. The data collected by the FBU reveals that resources outside of London are so stretched that fire and rescue services would not be able to mobilise anywhere near that scale.
The government has done nothing in the two years since Grenfell to address the concerns of residents, Mr Wrack said, and has failed to launch a national review of the “stay put” policy, as previously demanded by the FBU.
There are still at least 338 residential buildings wrapped in the flammable ACM cladding which caused the fire at Grenfell to spread so quickly, while the government still has not begun assessing the risk from other flammable cladding. There is still no adequate national picture of buildings where fire compartmentation has been undermined in other ways.
Cuts to fire and rescue services have continued after Grenfell, despite calls from the FBU to halt austerity measures in the wake of the tragedy, Mr Wrack asserted adding that English fire funds from central government have been cut by another 15 per cent from 2016/17 to 2019/20.
- HC Deb, 6 March 2019, cW https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-03-01/227412
- Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, Building Safety Programme: Monthly Data Release: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/building-safety-programme-monthly-data-release-april-2019
- HC Deb, 11 April 2019, cW https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-04-08/242144/
- FBU Analysis of local government funding settlement: https://www.fbu.org.uk/publication/fire-rescue-service-matters-government-england-continue-cut-fire-and-rescue-service-0
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