Tag Archives: safety

Fire Warning

21 Dec

wolf in fire2

As well as the public, Firefighter’s lives will be at risk due to Government austerity cuts, writes John Maggs, Avon FBU Health & Safety Coordiator.  I am delighted to host his writing here: 

You can follow him on twitter @john_maggsfbu

As well as the public, Firefighter’s lives will be at risk due to Government austerity cuts, writes John Maggs, Avon FBU Health & Safety Coordiator.

It has just been confirmed that the citizens and workers of London are to lose 10 fire stations in less than three weeks’ time as part of a cost cutting plan.  These will by no means be the only fire stations to close or lose appliances and firefighters in the near future due to austerity measures.  All over the UK cuts are being made to emergency services.  The total cost of the fire and rescue service per year is just £44 per adult, less than £1 per week.  However, over the last three years, as part of the Government’s spending review, drastic cuts to Government funding to local authorities, including Fire & Rescue Services have been made.  David Cameron’s pre-election pledge to protect front line fire services has been broken.  The question is how will this affect the safety of, not only the public, but also the firefighters who are left?

Nine firefighters died whilst on duty between April 2007 and March 2008, the worst 12 month period since 1985, with the deaths of four firefighters in Warwickshire in 2007 being the most tragic single incident since 1972.  The trend for firefighter deaths was falling until the turn of the century, and then started to rise significantly afterwards.  This led the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to commission the Labour Research Department (LRD) to research and produce a report into the rise of firefighter fatalities.  The resulting document In the Line of Duty was published in September 2008.  This report detailed how firefighters died and how an “on duty” fatality is defined.  It also attempted to establish why the trend has increased and laid out several recommendations to improve the situation.

Since the publication of this report, there have been four more fatalities, one in Edinburgh in 2009 and two in Southampton in 2010 and one in Manchester this year.  Clearly the fatality rate of on-duty firefighters is continuing.  Any workplace death is a tragedy but an increase in avoidable deaths is criminal!

The report also touches upon the distinct possibility of firefighter deaths through work related diseases.  Very little research has been carried out in UK, but there has been research carried out in USA concluding firefighters are at much greater risk of certain cancers and other diseases than other groups due to many factors such as long term exposure to toxins (including asbestos), repeated exposure to high temperatures and even unusual sleep patterns through shift working.  How many firefighters die an early death, post retirement from work related diseases is unknown.

The document concludes that a possible reason for the increased on –duty deaths is due to the Government devolving national standards of fire cover, incident attendances, training and procedures to individual Fire Authorities who are tasked with devising their own standards through an Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP).

Another document that needs considering is the FBU’s Critical Attendance Standard (CAST) planning scenarios which lays out the minimum number of firefighters required to safely carry out a task at any given scenario. Examples are: a small outdoor fire (4 firefighters), a house fire confined to one room (10) and a high rise fire, again confined to one room (13).  It’s important to emphasise the word minimum; if any of the above escalates, extra resources will need to be at the scene as soon as possible.

Now we get down to the problem; a few years back, many Fire Authorities started to make budgetary cuts to their Services, justified, through their IRMP, by claiming  programmes of fire safety education to the public would mean less incidents to attend.  Their logic followed if there are less incidents then less resources, ie. firefighters, would be required to attend.  Although fire safety work is vitally important, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the flaw in this thinking: less fires does not mean smaller, less dangerous fires.  Even so resources attending incidents were reduced and attendance times increased.

To give a couple of examples then:  A burning vehicle will generate a lot of heat and extremely toxic smoke; there is also a danger of explosions due to a tank full of fuel  and compressed gas activated air bags and seatbelt tensioners.  CAST states a minimum of five firefighters need to be in attendance to allow two properly supervised firefighters wearing breathing apparatus to fight the fire with an adequate water supply.  With some Fire & Rescue Services cutting this to a crew of three in a mini appliance with a small water tank (or even one on a motorbike with a foam extinguisher!), the firefighters are left in a vulnerable position, possibly exposed to toxins, inadequate water supply and supervision.  If anything goes wrong, firefighters are in real danger in what should be a straight forward incident.

Moving up to a more serious fire in a high rise block, CAST says a minimum of 13 firefighters are required, but this is for a small single room fire.  Such fires have a habit of escalating due to wind driving the flames as windows fail and poor ventilation pushing temperatures up to several hundred degrees.  Add this to this the amount of water needed to be pumped up several floors, zero visibility and the danger of obstacles, especially entanglement in electrical cables collapsing onto firefighters (a real problem contributing to firefighter deaths), and the dangers rapidly increase.  If extra resources aren’t available quickly, Firefighter will be in real danger as evidence shows-  four firefighters have recently died in such scenarios.

On top of the ‘Spending Review’ (cuts!) the Fire & Rescue Service also faces recommendations made in the recently published  Chief Fire Officers Association spending review, which calls for ‘efficiency savings’ (read more cuts!), the indications are cuts will continue for many years to come.  Despite FBU’s response in their Facing Reality document, every FRS is expected to make several million pounds worth of savings.  With the biggest proportion of the budget of any Service being the wage bill it is clear how best to save money – cut jobs.  Over the next few years significant cuts will be made across the UK to the amount of front line firefighters.  Fire appliances are being withdrawn from service and stations are closing.  This means in many instances less firefighters will be sent to each incident.  Where standards are kept and the same level of response is sent, those resources will take longer to reach the incidents allowing fires to develop.  This in turn may mean further resources are required more often, which will of course take longer to arrive.  No great mathematics are required to see that this will put the firefighters already in attendance in more danger as they attempt to contain a rapidly expanding fire or search for casualties in a burning building.  It is a very real fear of mine that more firefighters and members of the public will be killed and severely injured as a direct result of austerity measures.  Even without the life risk, a fire to personal property, especially your home is devastating.  If you dial 999 you expect and deserve a rapid response, the fire service will never arrive quickly enough for you.  This is a fear shared by FBU who published It’s About Time in answer to the drop in standards.

Further, great strides have been made internationally into the science of fire behaviour in recent years.  If the knowledge is used properly, firefighting techniques can become much safer.  However, this knowledge needs to be passed onto the firefighters who need to apply it in a practical manner, or that knowledge is useless.  The only way to do this is through a robust training plan.

So what needs to be done?  First of all the Government needs to rethink their spending plan regarding the fire service, along with all the other emergency services (where the dangers are also increasing).  We need a fire service that can provide adequate resources for the job in hand with a fast response when back up is called for; that means more fire appliances adequately crewed.  We need firefighters who are given the very best equipment available which can be relied upon.  We need adequate training facilities and training time for all firefighters so they can practice the very latest techniques in order to protect themselves and the public.  We need a fit workforce capable of doing the onerous work they are often called to do.

Only when the Government, not only rethinks its ‘Spending Review’ of the emergency services, but starts putting more into its resources, can a Fire & Rescue Service be rebuilt that is suitable for protecting the public, and the firefighters providing the service. The public deserve a fire & rescue service fit for our modern times.



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