Firefighting doesn’t require firefighting problems but instead sustained and strategic investment

Denise Christie says our fire and rescue service requires the Scottish Government to make a decision turn.

The COVID-19 pandemic very quickly forced us to find new ways our movement can continue to campaign and organise, away from the traditional means we have been used to for many years. The FBU has very effective democratic structures in place, but those predominantly rely on in-person branch meetings to engage with members. That structure was sharply restricted due to the social distancing measures to support the response to COVID-19. A series of measures had to be put in place to address the various urgent challenges the FBU faced. Many of our campaigns have now migrated to online and social media campaigns that target both employers and governments.

The FBU in Scotland has always found it challenging to organise our members who live and work within our remote and rural communities and islands. We are a relatively small, lay official union with limited capacity to consistently and fully engage with our members in these communities but the COVID-19 pandemic has opened doors to new ways of organising. Previously, we would be holding branch and area meetings that would take a whole week out of your time to visit. Now, with online meetings via various platforms, accessibility to these members is so much easier and attendance by FBU reps has increased greatly. We should combine online and in-person methods in the future as the pandemic abates.

On 1 April 2013, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) came into existence, replacing the eight previous fire brigades with a single service. However, overall funding in cash terms fell steeply by 11% in the first five years, before some increases in recent years. Overall funding is still 5% lower in 2019-20 in money terms, compared 2012-13. At the time of writing this, the Scottish Government’s draft budget for 2021-22 has seen an increase of £8.7m to the SFRS resource budget. An increase to any budget is always welcomed. But it does not negate the fact that this has taken place against the backdrop of many years of cuts. A reversal to this trend must continue to be a priority for the Scottish government.

To address existing SFRS policy priorities and any proposed changes, then we need to look at how these should be funded. The FBU believes at the present time, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, floods and wildfires, terrorist attacks and other hazards firefighters tackle, there is an exceptionally strong case for sustained investment in the fire and rescue service in Scotland.

In the last decade, firefighters and control staff have suffered a real term pay cut of over £4,000. There is an opportunity to repair this damage and better protect Scotland’s communities. Firefighters are prepared to expand their roles, as long as this is clearly defined and without strings. It is also imperative that funding for any future proposed pay offer is supported by continued additional Scottish Government investment and must not be funded from cuts to the current SFRS budget.

Since the SFRS’s creation, there has been a significant decline in the number of firefighters – almost 10%. Moreover, the cuts to all staff amount to more than one thousand employees. The picture painted by these figures is bleak and points toward the dire need for investment in the SFRS now.

The Scottish Government must commit to investment in the SFRS with the following; i) moratorium on cuts, reduced crewing levels on pumping appliances, and fire station closures; ii) fund the initial employment of more firefighters to complement the existing professional workforce, with a review to examine further recruitment; and iii) ensure that risks and resilience are assessed nationally, to ensure adequate resource planning and response and to guarantee national fire standards are maintained and improved.

Firefighters have been and will continue to be key – along with other workers – in getting us through this pandemic. They deserve a SFRS that is well resourced and hence values them accordingly.

The FBU previously noted that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would have consequences for FBU members’ work and living standards. Current and retired FBU members and their families could be affected by uncertainty over their immigration status and access to health and travel plans, whether they currently live in the UK or within the EU. The Westminster government wants to use Brexit to deregulate further, including attacking working time, health and safety and other minimum safeguards. Other concerns include the impact on cross-EU firefighter cooperation, including on disaster planning, joint rescue work and training exercises. The FBU has gained a great deal of intelligence and advice from European sister unions, including the EPSU firefighters’ network, the Scandinavian study programme and from individual unions tackling firefighter cancers, pensions and other matters.

In the previous Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the FBU was aware that the issue is emotive and politically divisive. The union, therefore, considered that for us to express support for or against Scottish independence would be inappropriate, as this could alienate a significant number of our members and also be potentially damage the relationships our union has with parties and individuals from across the whole political spectrum. Therefore, the FBU concluded that we would remain neutral on this issue and not indicate support for or against Scottish independence. There have been no further debates at our conference on whether the FBU supports another independence referendum or if the position on independence itself has changed.

Denise Christie is the FBU Scotland regional secretary