Defending frontline fire services

Jim Quinn calls for investment in firefighters and outlines the benefits for the public.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is the professional voice of firefighters in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Members include almost all of the 2,000 uniformed firefighters in Northern Ireland, ranging from the newest recruit to the Chief Fire Officer.

In this financial year, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) is facing a funding cut of 5.5 per cent or £4 million of real money. We have also faced significant cuts to our budget that has seen a reduction from £81.6 million to under £70 million in just four years. Further cuts of the magnitude proposed will impact on firefighter and public safety as there is no longer any fat to cut.
Firefighters in Northern Ireland know only too well what the impact of funding cuts will be because we’ve seen what has happened to our colleagues in the rest of the UK over the last five years. Since 2010, firefighters in England, Scotland and Wales have lost nearly 7,000 jobs – over 11 per cent or one-in-nine of all firefighters. They lost over 1,700 frontline firefighter jobs just last year.

They have seen 39 fire stations closed and other closures are planned.
The NIFRS faces unique pressures because, as a standalone service, we therefore cannot easily call upon assistance from neighbouring brigades for specialist appliances, nor can we call upon additional firefighters as our colleagues do in Great Britain. This increases costs for specialist appliances and equipment that could otherwise be shared for resilience purposes or during periods of high demand, such as for forest fires or flooding incidents.

The way our funding is allocated also means funding must be spent in the same year that it is drawn down. This minimises the ability to invest to save – or indeed have a viable strategic long-term financial plan. This contrasts with fire and rescue services in England, which can carry over and use reserves over a longer period, making more efficient use of their resources.

Commercial organisations should be particularly concerned with the proposed budget cuts. The NIFRS is a labour-intensive body and cuts will ultimately involve a reduction in the number of firefighters, fire engines and fire stations.
Fewer firefighters taking longer to reach incidents means that fires will be more developed, thus posing a greater risk to the public and with the attendant increase in fire loss costs to the economy. Savings made from budget cuts could easily be outstripped by the resultant increase from damage to commercial premises and businesses – a false economy in the medium to longer term.

Firefighters’ work has changed enormously over the last decade. The total number of fires is down by almost a half. Building fires are down by a quarter. Total fire deaths are down by a third.

Firefighters have been active agents in bringing about the progress made in successful fire prevention and protection, although there is still a long way to go. However, while incidents may have decreased, rescues from fires and other emergencies have actually increased – showing that intervention by firefighters remains key to protecting people and property.

Firefighters have also faced more diverse challenges in recent times, such as dealing with increased flooding incidents and other life-threatening incidents. There is also an ongoing debate around other workstreams that firefighters could carry out, including assisting with emergency medical responses.

The FBU sees investment, not cuts, as the only real alternative way forward. The NIFRS is currently one the best performing fire and rescue services in the UK. It provides a value-for-money frontline emergency service for the public and business community in Northern Ireland. To start dismantling our vital service will ultimately hit the safety of our communities and the economy on which everyone depends.

Jim Quinn is Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.

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