The morning of 14 June is one that no firefighter in Britain will ever forget, with the images we all saw showing the horrific events unfolding being unprecedented. Watching our brothers and sisters going into that building time after time to rescue people in desperate situations made us proud, but also concerned that there would still be a huge loss of life despite their efforts and, tragically, this was the case. In over 20 years working in the fire and rescue service, I have never seen a fire pose such a huge threat to life.
The Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) watched the developments with a mixture of horror, anger and pride. This appalling tragedy is already the worst fire disaster of recent times in Britain – and the full death toll is not yet known. It is appalling to think that a fire on this scale and with this loss of life can take place in the richest borough in the capital city of one of the richest nations in the world. A key task for the FBU now is to identify how this was able to happen.
The firefighters’ bravery and professionalism, including those that took the calls in the operational fire control rooms, has rightfully been recognised by most. What also must be recognised is that these women and men are also trade unionists – trade unionists who have previously been demonised as militant and anti-establishment for standing up for fair pay, fair pensions, workers’ rights and against cuts to their profession. The night of Grenfell will have been the toughest shift of their lives with the memory running deep for a long time.
The Grenfell disaster may be at the heart of the political debate today, but it has been the FBU which has consistently raised concerns on public service cuts that impact on fire safety, fire protection and fire resources for many years.
Grenfell has to be – must be – a moment for a major change of direction. The war on public safety has to end. The relentless attack on public services and those who deliver them has to end and the best tribute we can pay to those who lost their lives is to fight for justice and ensure a disaster like this never happens again. The FBU stands in solidarity with the tenants and residents of Grenfell and we will work with them to uncover why this terrible fire occurred and what could have been done to prevent it.
The FBU has already started to pull together the key facts and issues surrounding this incident. As in all such cases, the FBU will make a thorough investigation as to what happened and why. Our investigation will address all factors which will have impacted on this incident. This includes the issue of the building itself (including any alteration made to it), fire safety issues and the operational planning and response.
It will not have been lost on anyone that, within days of the Grenfell disaster, government ministers were re-emphasising their determination to stick to their 1% pay policy. Pay restraint has left firefighters more than £2,000pa worse off. What was even more galling was the cheered reaction from the Tories after they had won the vote to block a pay rise for firefighter’s only days after praising them for their bravery during Grenfell.
Questions have been asked if the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) could respond adequately to an incident on the scale of Grenfell. At its height, there were 250 firefighters and 40 fire engines.
Since 2013, Scotland has seen over 700 frontline firefighters’ jobs lost and five out of the eight emergency fire control rooms have closed which has disproportionately impacted on women. The year on year cuts to the fire budget is now impacting on the frontline, despite assurances from the Scottish government. Staffing levels have depleted so much that there can be no guarantee that frontline appliances and operational control rooms are adequately maintained and crewed at all times.
It’s vital that fire appliances respond quickly and in numbers to incidents. This is known as the ‘speed of response’ and the ‘weight of response’. This would have been critical for an incident such as Grenfell. There is grave concern that the continuing austerity driven cuts are having a detrimental effect on 999 response times and the vital lifesaving service firefighters provide.
The risks in our communities are always changing and the job of a firefighter changes with them. It’s vital to nationally assess these risks to ensure the fire & rescue service remains suitably resourced with enough firefighters who have the skills, equipment, and infrastructure to deal with them.
The continuation of budget cuts to the SFRS is unsustainable. The SFRS needs long-term, strategic investment to recruit firefighters and ensure the safety of the public.
The FBU’s priority has always been firefighter and public safety. We have a long history of campaigning on these issues and will continue to do so. These campaigns also include the strengthening up of fire, building and housing regulations. The fire statistics for fire deaths for 2015-2016 have increased from previous years. In the last decade, Scotland has had a higher rate than England and Wales for fires, fatalities and casualties. The increase in these fire statistics at a time where fire budgets and firefighter numbers are being cut is concerning.
It is time to end the continued cuts to the SFRS. Year on year budget cuts are impacting on the frontline and staff morale is at rock bottom. If we want a world class fire and rescue service, then the onslaught of cuts must cease immediately and investment provided. Cuts really do cost lives.
Denise Christie is the regional treasurer of the Fire Brigades’ Union in Scotland.