Catching up with the union that fights for the rights of those who fight fires.
The day before I met Gary Spindler and Brent Thorley, huge plumes of smoke were visible across Bristol after an oil tank caught fire at a Dundry scrapyard. Avon Fire and Rescue Service (AFRS) called on support from Devon and Somerset to tackle the blaze. Forty fire-fighters, a mix of full-time and retained, managed to put it out within four hours.
Major incidents like these make the men, both fire-fighters and Fire Brigade Union (FBU) regional secretaries, nervous. “If another incident of that nature happened at the same time we’d be really, really short of the resources needed to tackle it. You can’t be in two places at once,” says Thorley.
AFRS is at a tipping point. Rounds of austerity measures since 2010 have seen the service lose 200 out of 680 fire-fighter posts, with three fire station closures. More cuts are expected in the new year.
Nationwide, aggressive funding cuts – of 30% in AFRS’s case – coupled with continued deregulation and changing duties placed on fire-fighters, are seriously affecting the fire service’s ability to do its job.
“We’re still a true emergency service, but we’re losing the ability to respond to any emergency at any time,” says Spindler. “But they say – you’re saving less lives now, so we need less of you. So, response time goes up, number of fire-fighters goes down, someone could die.”
The FBU, in a recent document about the cuts, argues that the model being used to justify cuts is not only wrong but a ‘deliberate failure to recognise the role of risk in fire cover’. The government, it says, is using supply and demand principles to steer policy.
Yate fire station is no longer run round the clock based on reasoning that fewer fires equal less need for fire-fighters. Fire engines and specialist appliances sit empty and unmanned in stations across the region.
Slowest response time in decades
The impact that cuts are having are now being seen. Recent figures from the government show that, across the country, we now have the slowest response times in 20 years and with it fire deaths last year were up by 10% (excluding Grenfell).
It’s not just the FBU ringing the alarm bell. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers has highlighted the consequences that slower response times have. Greenstreet Berman, a risk consultancy, has suggested that by 2020 slower response times will have led to up to 400 additional deaths.
In Spindler’s opinion this demonstrates a blatant disregard for public safety. “With the continued attack on public sector workers by the Tory government, I can only come to that conclusion,” he says.
The FBU is putting up a fight. Celebrating its centenary this year and with 85% of the fire service full union members, the high and engaged membership has a long history of campaigning.
A recent victory in Cheshire saw the FBU put a halt to plans to downgrade cover at two stations. Another campaign in the West Midlands, currently in the courts, has seen the union challenge proposed changes to employment contracts and is looking set for success.
Spindler and Thorley both joined the fire service in their early twenties and are still passionate about the job and proud to wear the uniform. According to Spindler, the FBU is “just trying to provide best service while stuck in a political game of tennis”. It’s the union’s job to improve working conditions for its members and to ensure the safety of the public.