Cuts have hit fire services all over the country. Now, a serving firefighter has told The Canary that more lives may soon be put at risk. And he says more firefighters, many of whom are already living below the poverty line, may well leave the profession.
More lives at risk
The tragedy that hit Grenfell Tower has once again highlighted the crucial role of the fire services in keeping the public safe. And many have praised their outstanding performance in tackling the blaze.
But Dominic Sivell, a firefighter and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Branch Representative for Retford Fire Station in Nottinghamshire, has warned that more lives will be put at risk. He told The Canary:
Personally, I can’t see how we can sustain a professional fire service unless austerity is… stopped.
He explained that severe cuts have left fire stations stretched to adequately deal with fires already. But now, there are even more cuts, more work, and no real terms change in wages on the horizon. He told The Canary:
Employers want firefighters to take on an extra five work streams. EMR (Emergency Medical Response), MTFA (Marauding Terrorism and Fire Arms), Environmental Challenges, Youth and other Social Engagement, Inspections and Enforcement.
Starving Fire and Rescue Services
But the average take-home pay – after tax, National Insurance and pension contribution – for firefighters is currently around £20,300 per year outside the capital for a fully competent firefighter. This is already below the minimum income recommended [pdf p37] for a family of four. And Sivell says that many firefighters are now leaving the pension scheme to save around £350 per month, just under 15% of their gross income.
Furthermore, according to Sivell, there have been severe cuts over the last 10 years in Nottinghamshire alone. And by 2020, a total of £9m will have been cut from Notts Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS). Already, 218 posts have been lost while others have been downgraded to a lower skill level involving less equipment. There have been two station closures and a reduction in the number of fire trucks. And as trucks can be employed for other uses such as medical emergencies or rescues, there may not be capacity to attend fires.
That’s why Sivell explains that any contractual change to include extra work streams should be properly funded.
It doesn’t pay the bills
Because of this prolonged wage stagnation, expansion of duties, increase in pension contributions and extension of the retirement age to 60, firefighters are now leaving the service for better pay. Sivell says:
Love of the job alone does not pay the bills… We are also constantly battling against cuts to conditions of service. If the country wants a civilised society, then it needs to pay the people who maintain it a decent reward.
The FBU has told employers that its members won’t carry out any extra work streams until their employers review their pay. And local MP John Mann has supported the FBU’s concerns, starting a petition to oppose cuts to the fire service in Nottinghamshire.
But in honesty, Sivell believes they expect no more than the standard 1% increase. They’ll receive a final decision in July.
Crucial services suffering
Cuts to fire services have reportedly affected performance, including delays in response times. And those cuts meant that the same firefighters working on Grenfell Tower had no choice but to work the 12 hours or more they did, rather than the recommended four hours.
The situation is as stark across the country. With 10,000 firefighter jobs axed, budgets have been reduced by 30%, with another 20% reduction expected by 2020. And with the rise in response time to primary fires (the most serious kind), deaths as a result of fire have risen.
It’s a looming national crisis. And it appears that Nottinghamshire Combined Fire Authority and the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) are making proposals to get rid of even more posts, putting firefighters at selected stations on detrimental, locally agreed conditions of service. Sivell says:
Over the last 10 years, Notts Fire and Rescue have had a lot of cuts but now the proposals are about putting firefighters on contracts that are getting into the Sports Direct area of employment. This is terrible from a public service.
Will this spell disaster?
The Canary approached the Chief Fire Officer for comment on the details of this report. A spokesperson for NFRS said:
The National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (NJC) is the body responsible for determining firefighters’ pay and conditions and these are set nationally. Negotiations around pay are ongoing between the Fire Brigades Union and the NJC.
As of 1 July 2016, the starting salary for a trainee firefighter is £22,237 [gross]; this rises to £23,162 [gross] when a firefighter is in development and £29,638 [gross] once they are deemed competent in role (usually after two years).
There has been no noticeable impact on staff turnover in Nottinghamshire due to firefighters’ salary, pension and conditions of service.
After seven years of Tory rule, we are witnessing some extreme effects of austerity. Caught far too late. The effects of cuts on the fire service have already appeared to be fatal while potentially driving excellent skilled staff away. Now, further starvation of our public services will ultimately spell disaster.
– Sign the petition and demand an increase in pay for firefighters.
– Donate to the Grenfell Tower Appeal.
– Join Justice for Grenfell outside the Department for Communities and Local Government at 6pm on 16 June.
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