Leo McKinstry

Coronavirus has forced militant firefighters to help the NHS

Coronavirus has forced militant firefighters to help the NHS
Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
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Even in the darkness of the pandemic, there is the occasional shaft of light. In its sweeping impact on our civic infrastructure, the coronavirus has achieved something that no recent governments have managed. It has forced a radical change in our outdated, under-occupied fire service by vastly enhancing the duties of firefighters. No longer will brigades just narrowly focused on attending fires. Instead, they will become a proper emergency service, complete with medical responsibilities.

Under an agreement reached last week between employers, fire chiefs and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), firefighters will embrace additional duties during this unprecedented emergency. These will include the delivery of essential items like food and medicine to vulnerable people, the retrieval of dead bodies in the event of mass casualties, and, above all, driving ambulances and assisting ambulance staff.

The notoriously militant FB, long opposed to any alternation in the traditional role of the fire service, now trumpets its commitment to wider co-operation. 'To get through this public health crisis,' the FBU declares, 'we must find ways to work together with other emergency services.' But that is precisely the expansive approach that the FBU has fiercely rejected for decades. Now, finally, the Covid-19 catastrophe has broken the union’s resistance. Even though the new agreement is only temporary, initially lasting two months, it will be hard to go back to the bad old days once the emergency has passed, now that the dam of demarcation has been breached.

This reform could hardly be more overdue. The rigid, pre-Covid system was an extravagant anachronism, given the accelerating drop in the incidence of fire in modern Britain, due to factors like the decline in smoking, the widespread use of fire retardant materials, the near disappearance of the electric bar heater and the chip pan, and the introduction of smoke alarms. In the last ten years alone, despite rare disasters like Grenfell Tower, the number of building fires has fallen by 32 per cent. Indeed, the fire brigades are the only major part of the public sector where demand is rapidly falling, whereas the pressure on all other services, such as the NHS, housing, the police, and social care, is growing enormously. In the ambulance service, the number of emergency calls has increased from 5.6 million in 2005 to 11.7 million today.

On a personal level, I feel vindicated by this change. Struck by the gross imbalance between the workloads on ambulance and fire crews, I have regularly argued in this magazine and other publications that the fire brigades should take on emergency medical response functions, as happens in many other countries around the world. As I pointed out in one Spectator article, the Sapeurs-Pompiers in France provide a highly efficient combined service in France, with ambulance duties making up the bulk of their work. My outlook was also heavily influenced by the 2002/3 FBU strike in England, which graphically revealed how little fire crews really have to do. Army personnel, brought in as cover, even complained in my local press that the job of a firefighter was boring because of the long periods of inaction.

A decade later in 2013 Sir Ken Knight, the former chief fire adviser, conducted a review of operations and came up with the extraordinary statistic that the average firefighter attended just 43 fires a year, less than one a week. Sir Ken wrote that, despite the dramatic fall in fires, 'no similar significant change in the make-up or the cost of the service has taken place. Fire and rescue services do now need to transform themselves to reflect the entirely different era of risk and demand'. I strongly echoed those sentiments, though I was often vilified for my opinions. Some FBU supporters showed the extent of their humanitarianism by expressing the hope that my home might be burnt down – with me inside it.

The resistance of the FBU should have been challenged years ago. Led by the hardline left-winger Matt Wrack, the union is one of the most reactionary in the labour movement, spouting the rhetoric of class war and thriving on confrontation. Its extreme spirit can be seen in the current Labour leadership contest, where it has nominated the continuity Corbynista Rebecca Long-Bailey, describing her as the candidate 'Labour needs to take on this viciously right-wing, anti-worker Tory government.' In the same vein, the union wails that 'the right-wing media poisons the minds of it readers with lies and hate', so the answer is 'to promote progressive papers such as the Morning Star.' Yet this is the antediluvian organisation that has been allowed to dictate the structure of our fire service.

The FBU has been so hostile to change because the current arrangements suit their members, just as in the 1980s when the Fleet Street unions clung so ferociously to outmoded working practices that cushioned the printers. The present set-up is not only undemanding, apart from occasional bursts of frenetic activity, but it also allows firefighters to carry out second jobs. One 2016 study of 18 brigades found that 45 per cent of full-time firefighters had additional occupations, including work as carpenters, teachers and lorry drivers. An earlier study from Scotland discovered full-time firefighters employed as limousine chauffeurs, nutritional therapists, models, ghillies, and lifeguards, while a survey from Great Manchester listed a magician, pall-bearer, florist, semi-professional footballer, TV extra and a 'proprietor of a bouncy castle business' among the second job holders.

Since the beginning of this century, every attempt at reform has been blocked. At its 2004 conference, the FBU voted to decree that 'all FBU members shall oppose, and shall not participate in any proposed first-responder or co-responder initiative.' It was the same story in 2017, when the FBU withdrew from its involvement in trials for combined operations with ambulances, despite all the evidence that the new joint method could mean quicker response times in emergencies. Understandably, the National Fire Chiefs Council said it was 'very disappointed' at the FBU’s move, particularly because the experiment 'has proved beyond any doubt to save lives.' Even in February this year, the FBU was sticking to its negative line. When the Welsh government suggested that firefighters could take on the duty of responding to medical emergencies, Wrack shrieked that firefighters 'are not doctors, paramedics, nurses or social workers – and nor should they be,' adding that, 'any suggestion they are under-occupied is ludicrous'.

But it is Wrack who is talking nonsense. In the last year alone, the number of fires attended by brigades fell to 163,039, a drop of 10 per cent compared to the previous year. Only 15 years ago, the total of fires was more than 474,000. A similar trend can be found in fire-related fatalities, which in the year to September 2019 stood at 252, compared to 323 in 2009 and 967 in 1986. This falling burden is the opposite of the strain on ambulance crews. According to my calculations from official NHS statistics, the ambulance service directly responded to no fewer than 8.6 million incidents in the year to January 2020, and carried out 5 million trips to emergency departments.

One paramedic recently described the stress, 'Demand almost always strips supply. There are more calls coming in than crews available to send out. The reality is a control room frequently playing catch-up, watching the incidents spread across the map like digital chickenpox and juggling a backlog of calls against the resources.' In contrast, when Coventry reporter Claire Harrison spent a day last month with a fire crew in Nuneaton, supposedly one of the West Midlands 'busiest stations', she had to write at the end of the 12 hour shift, 'there have been no call outs.' Yet despite this phenomenal disparity, the workforces are much the same in size. The Home Office reports that at March 2019, there were 40,400 full-time staff in the fire service, including 32,200 firefighters. In the English ambulance service, there are 21,350 qualified staff, 15,900 support workers, and 6000 clerical and administrative employees.

Firefighters are rightly admired for their courage in life situations, but the FBU has exploited public sentimentality about the brigades for too long. That stance is no longer sustainable in the current desperate climate. Matt Wrack said last month, somewhat defensively, 'we are always open to discussing the role of firefighters.' But that is exactly what his union has not been doing. At last, tragically, Covid-19 is bringing a dose of reality. As an advocate for reform, I can only hope that the change becomes permanent.

Fire Brigades Union boss Matt Wrack 
(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Fire Brigades Union boss Matt Wrack (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)