EITHERsee the last 27 years as a firefighter, I have fought plenty of wildfires and other extreme weather events, and I have seen at first hand how these incidents have become more frequent and extreme. At my former station in Herne Bay, on the north Kent coast, we had specialist equipment for fighting wildfires, and we would travel for thousands to tackle flames raging across land.
None of it compared to what I experienced in this week’s heatwave.
The record-breaking, sweltering temperatures were incredibly difficult to work in. Callouts to fires were relentless, and our time between incidents, to recover, rehydrate and take measures to prevent ourselves from falling ill, was very short.
While temperatures were at boiling point, we were at breaking point. We were so overstretched that at a fire where 40 trees were alight, I was one of a crew of only six firefighters available to tackle it. We could not spare anyone else due to two huge incidents up at Dartford that needed our people and resources.
My fire service, Kent fire and rescue service, was just one of 14 fire services across the country to declare a major incident on Tuesday 19 July, when temperatures reached record highs across the UK. It is no coincidence that all these fire services have had their firefighter numbers slashed, and funding cut by central government, since 2010.
Across the board, 11,500 frontline firefighter jobs have been cut in the UK fire and rescue service over the last decade. In Kent, our firefighter numbers have been slashed by 27% in that time. We are expected to do more with less; and it’s putting not only the public but also firefighters at risk.
We were lucky in my fire service that no firefighters were seriously hurt, but some had to be treated for heat-related injuries. In other fire services, several of our brothers and sisters were injured while attending wildfires and other incidents caused by the scorching temperatures. Some even required hospitalization.
It is clear that we are facing an epic climate emergency – and it is clear that this is an emergency that the UK fire and rescue service is not prepared for.
The blame lies squarely at the government’s door. These events were not unprecedented. Firefighters and the Fire Brigades Union have consistently warned about the growing number and scale of incidents linked to the climate crisis, and the pressure it is putting on our service. We have persistently called for investment and a reversal in the cuts to firefighter numbers so we are ready to protect our communities. Our warnings have failed on deaf ears.
This very same government has showered us with praise for our response to this week’s emergencies, but praise does not ease how burnt-out we are. Praise does not guarantee public safety.
If anything has been shown by this heatwave, it is how valuable our fire service and firefighters are. Yet it is clear that despite their praise, the government does not value us. We have still not heard a peep from a single government minister about properly resourcing the service for future climate disasters. Their thanks for our life-saving work is a paltry 2% pay offer, which is in reality a further cut in real wages. It is nothing more than an insult.
This week must be a wake-up call for the government. Delaying investment in the fire service is like waiting for rain to put out a wildfire. It is ineffective and dangerous. They cannot wait until another climate catastrophe before funding the frontline.