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That means the Fire Brigade “may not be able to fight all fires” in the future and the public is “less safe”, said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), speaking exclusively to the Daily Express.
Some 11,680 jobs have gone since 2010, a loss of 185 roles in the last year alone. Over the same period, official Government figures show response times to primary fires – any fire involving fatalities, casualties or rescues – rose on average by 28 seconds, along with the response times for other fires.
As for the extreme dangers caused by the growing number of floods caused by climate change, Mr Wrack told the Express that firefighters will have no choice but to “muddle through” because the service was stretched to the limit.
“In an emergency, every second counts,” he said. “The fact that we have lost 20 percent of our workforce means we are getting to fires slower than we were 10 years ago and that means that people are less safe, as are people’s properties. Being less safe means that you are more likely to be injured or killed in a fire.”
The former firefighter also said a “huge disparity” exists between services around the country in their ability to respond to high-rise blazes such as Grenfell Tower in west London, even though many buildings still carry dangerous cladding.
“The scale of the response from the London Fire Brigade to that fire could not be achieved in any other fire service in the country,” he warned.
His stark message comes amid growing concern that the fire service will struggle to cope with the increasing number of wildfires and floods caused by climate change while carrying out thousands of fire safety checks made mandatory by the Fire Safety Bill passed in light of the Grenfell disaster.
Dawn Docx, then deputy chief fire officer for Greater Manchester, warned two years ago that the public should lower expectations that the service could fight large wildfires, as it was stretched to the brink.
Flooding has also been a burden on firefighters. Record rainfall in July saw flash flooding across large parts of Britain and areas of west London received a month’s worth of downpours in a single day.
The London Fire Brigade answered more than 1,000 calls for help on July 12 as crews scrambled to free people trapped in their homes and their cars.
One of those came from mum-of-two Aliah Altak, 46 – trapped inside her basement flat in Kilburn, west London, with her daughter, Tara, 25. “We thought we were going to die stuck in the house,” she said.
It took just 15 minutes for Aliah’s home to flood with waist-high water after sewage and rainwater poured from her toilets, sinks, taps and showers.
The water pressure was so strong, she couldn’t open her front or back doors, but the Fire Brigade had received so many emergency callouts it took 30 minutes to reach her.
“They couldn’t open the doors so they dropped the top part of my window in my bedroom and pulled us out from there,” she said.
The firefighters had so many people to rescue that they couldn’t stop to help drain the water away.
Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at Reading University, monitors our summer rainfalls and winter storm floods and says firefighters are looking at a huge increase in such call-outs.
“We know that as we move towards a changing climate, these types of floods will worsen, which will naturally put pressure on those who are helping us when these things happen,” she said.
‘We also have more people in the way – living in floodplains or places vulnerable to flooding, and our cities are packed with people.”
Professor Cloke insists the public must be better educated on the need to react quickly to extreme weathers to lessen the pressure on the overwhelmed fire service.
“People can’t understand what floods will do because they often haven’t experienced them before but if they had they would understand they’re dangerous,” she said.
“Water even halfway up a car tyre can move the whole car, and your life is in danger. Communicating that to people who haven’t been flooded before is difficult.”
On Christmas Eve last year, tragedy was narrowly averted after fire crews rescued an elderly couple from their car on the outskirts of Norwich after it became submerged in freezing water.
The vehicle had been trapped for two hours in a notorious local flooding hotspot under a railway bridge in Dussindale after the driver attempted to drive through the water.
Footage shared online showed the incredible bravery of responding fire crews who waded through water up to their armpits to free the vulnerable pair.
Witness Matt Emerson, 44, had no idea anyone was trapped until fire crews arrived at 10.44 am, and a fireman charged into the water.
“I was blown away by their professionalism and how seriously they took it,” he said.
“They had no protective gear on and it was snowing at the time so the water was ice cold, absolutely freezing, and he went in there without a thought.”
The fireman pulled out a woman believed to be in her seventies after smashing a car window.
“She let out a horrible scream of relief and fear as she came out,” Matt said. “They had to push her under the water to get her out.
“It was harrowing. I had two boys and told them to get away from the window as I thought they were going to pull out two corpses.”
A second fireman rescued the back seat passenger, an elderly man, and both were taken to hospital for treatment.
Kriston Fox, 44, also witnessed the rescue while walking with one of his sons and said: “If the fire brigade hadn’t turned up, those people would have died.
“It will happen again.”
Matt Wrack said the cuts to the fire service were now so great “they pose a threat to the ability to respond to large scale incidents – particularly if more than one were to occur at the same time”.
He continued: “After years of huge government cuts and staffing falls there is a real threat that fire and rescue services may not be able to deal with every incident and fight all fires.”
Ryan Binks is a firefighter for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and was among one of the crews that battled the June 2018 Saddleworth Moor fires – some of
the UK’s largest wildfires on record – as they raged for three weeks across seven square miles.
Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Derbyshire fire services all attended, but fire chiefs were forced to call in the Army and 100 soldiers helped extinguish the fire.
Greater Manchester Police treated the fire as arson but the area was hit by more wildfires in 2019 and 2020 after intense heatwaves caused “tinder-dry” conditions.
Mr Binks says his service has invested in more equipment and training for its staff, yet the service has lost 615 firefighters, some 36 per cent of its workforce, since 2010.
“When these types of resource-intensive incidents occur, they impact on the service’s response to normal day-to-day service delivery, hence the need for mutual support from other fire services,” he said.
“I’ve worked at this station for 20 years. Wildfires in the past were limited to a day, possibly two, but now it’s so dry and the moorland isn’t managed how it used to be.
“These fires are more frequent and use more resources. In the last five years, I’ve attended four significant wildfires.”
Matt Wrack is now calling for “more joined-up thinking” from the Government.
He said: “Fire service was always described as a national service delivered locally.
“It’s now a fragmented service, particularly in England, and they respond in different ways.
“It means people are not getting a consistent standard of service.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Firefighters work tirelessly every day to protect our communities and the Government has consistently given them the resources they need to keep people safe.
“In the last year, nearly 3,000 new firefighters have been recruited across the country and the Government has invested £2.3billion to support their lifesaving work.”
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