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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Fire and Rescue Services

One of the greatest honours in my life has been to serve as a trustee of the Firefighters National Memorials at St Paul's Cathedral and in the National Arboretum. We have a major national commemoration of fallen firefighters every September, and very sadly in most years we are joined by the families of firefighters who have given their lives for others in the British Isles during the past year. I have also had the honour of serving twice as Master of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters; and thus, over nearly three decades, I have gained a close knowledge of the Service and of some of the fine people within it.

Like all sections of the public sector, Fire and Rescue Services have been subject to several rounds of cuts driven by the government's obsession with austerity. Simultaneously there has been a major restructuring of the service in response to the changing pattern of the demands falling on the Service. Happily the demise of open fires and the reduction of the use of gas for domestic cooking have led to a dramatic decline in the frequency of house fires, Half a century ago there were frequent house fires all over the country. They still occur, but with such a dramatic decline in their incidence that each of them figures on the national news. Nevertheless, there have been two serious fires in care homes within very recent weeks; perhaps evidence that cost-cutting in those establishments has been a contributory factor, in that with reduced staff the discovery of an incident may be delayed for long enough to enable the fire to develop to the stage where lives can be lost. It is also a sad fact of life in a socially-riven country that fires are sometimes started deliberately in the hope that the evidence of other crimes might be destroyed.

Thus firefighting capability has to be available all over the country, to provide a rapid response in the relatively rare life-threatening situations that arise. Part-time Retained Firefighters and trained and tested volunteers can help to reduce the cost of full nationwide coverage, but there is an unavoidable necessity to have the relevant equipment accessible in every part of the country. Risky experiments are taking place as to what is the absolute minimum of equipment [including pumping-power] that is needed on any economy-mini fire appliance in each locality; and all such experiments rely on the reasonable proximity of much more powerful resources. Infrequently but unavoidably, very large fires occur, usually on industrial and logistical premises: this requires that there needs to be a very considerable concentration of equipment and personnel that can be called up [from various bases, perhaps in several countries and cities] within a half hour. The cutting has reached the point where any more significant surgery to the service will undermine its firefighting capability.

Meanwhile, calls for rescue services continue to expand; requiring the countrywide availability of trained personnel with the necessary skills and equipment. Nasty, messy jobs need to be done, with the greatest sensitivity.

Cheeseparing bureaucrats and bean counters see firefighters apparently doing nothing necessary as they check their equipment and their manuals and run exercises,. Such luminaries suggest [for example] that they should double-up as ambulance crew - who would, of course, be out on calls when fire and rescue incidents also demand their attendance. Lives could thus be endangered by the unavailability of either fire crews or paramedics. This is another incidence of the government-driven impoverishment of national life.

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