Firefighting, in more ways than one

Since 2014, the number of fire and rescue support staff in England has decreased by 16%

There are many people in the fire service who play a vital but hidden role in saving lives. As the enquiry into the Grenfell fire – the UK’s worst in recent years plays out on the news – we’re taking a look at this under-appreciated group of workers, many of them UNISON members.

Did you know that when firefighters arrive at a blaze one of the first things they do is find a water hydrant to fix their hose to? Hundreds of thousands of these hydrants are hidden in the ground below us, but if the nearest one has a fault, precious moments are lost as firefighters locate another.

Ian Smith is a UNISON member who has responsibility for the maintenance of some 33,000 hydrants in west Wales. “Most of the water problems happen when a fire is in its infancy and it’s growing. There’s a demand for water from several points.”

Ian was in the navy for ten years before he saw an advert for a hydrant technician and went for the job. That was in 1992 and he’s been part of the fire service ever since. Last year he was promoted and he now manages a team of technicians whose job is to inspect the hydrants, ensuring they are fit for use if a fire breaks out nearby.

The team keep a database of vital information – the state of the hydrant, the names of the nearby buildings or shops – which they meticulously maintain so that when a firefighting crew is on their way to a fire, they can quickly get the latest information, and tackle the blaze as quickly as possible.

Sign for a fire hydrant

Where Ian works in Wales, the number of fire and rescue support staff has stayed fairly constant, but in England the number has dropped.

Since 2014, the number of fire and rescue support staff in England has decreased by 16%, from 7,235 to 6,083 in 2017. Cities have been more affected by the cuts than rural areas; metropolitan fire services lost 35% of their support staff (909 people),  and non-metropolitan fire services lost just 5% (243 people).

So, what are the kinds of jobs that are lost when fire and rescue support staff are cut?

It could be the kind of role that David O’Mara does. As a breathing apparatus technician, David ensures that the kit that keeps firefighters alive is kept in working order. He looks after breathing apparatus, air cylinders, gas tight suits, life jackets, automatic distress units and oxygen regulators which are used for resuscitation.

“The biggest issues facing the fire and rescue staff are pay and understaffing,” says David. “We believe they cut far too quick and we now have staff shortages in all departments including HR, fire safety, IT and in our jobs at the protective equipment group.”

Fire support staff do not only support firefighters in various vital ways, they also play a critical role in something that is almost as hidden as the water hydrants. They prevent fires from happening in the first place.

In Wales, Ian describes various jobs that focus on fire-reduction, from arson-prevention to community outreach activities that ensure people are as safe as they can be.

“We’ve got a whole range of community safety activities that are undertaken; we have community safety officers who go into schools all the time giving the fire safety message to the children, that’s quite successful in our areas.

“I think it’s superb because my own children have been through it and they learnt so much just from those visits that they used to get in schools.”

Tony Phillips works for the London Fire Brigade and provides admin support to a fire safety inspection team. He and his colleagues ensure fire safety audits take place at the right time and maintain a database of buildings that pose a risk of fire, amongst other things.

Tony Phillips, photo by Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos

For Tony, the lack of resources that is leading to job losses is a big problem: “Emergency services need sufficient resources to deal with the worst-case scenarios, not just the average.”

“There have been cuts to front-line services which has understandably attracted the most attention, but non-operational services have been cut back, leading to a drastic reduction in the numbers of fire safety inspecting officers and the loss of experienced staff.

“Grenfell has highlighted the need for tighter fire safety legislation, planning and building control, but without sufficient staff, even the best legislation is unenforceable.”