Yorkshire isn’t ready for two national emergencies at once

The one thing this pandemic has shown us is how much we rely on our emergency services – not just the NHS, but all those who are keeping us safe during these Covid times. So, news that one of our key emergency services – the fire service – has shed more than a thousand workers should cause alarm.

In a campaign launched today called #FundTheFrontline, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned fire services that without additional crews, the public will face a “roll of the dice” every time a major incident occurs.

With 11,237 fewer firefighters than in 2010 (that’s a 19 percent drop in numbers), the #FundTheFrontline campaign demands immediate funding of at least 5,000 new firefighters. The FBU is asking firefighters and members of the public to write to their MPs and demand urgent investment in the government’s one-year spending review.

Yorkshire is particularly vulnerable. Firefighters are major frontline responders to 11 of the 12 risks in the UK government’s national risk register and in this region that also means flooding. Lots of it.

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West Yorkshire has lost 609 firefighters, a 35 percent cut. Calder Valley has seen six major floods in five year. The brigade has also responded to persistent wildfires, including a 3,700-acre wildfire on Marsden Moor last year. Leeds, the biggest city in the county, has 13 buildings deemed unsafe due to major fire safety defects.

South Yorkshire has lost 293 firefighters, a 31 percent cut. The county faced some of the worst flooding in UK history last summer and a major 10-day long wildfire in Hatfield Moors.

During the first wave of the pandemic, firefighters played a crucial role including moving dead bodies, driving ambulances and delivering personal protective equipment (PPE). The peak of Covid-19 response operations earlier this year occurred in the slight lull that came after the fire service had been stretched by mass flooding in February, and before they were called out to wildfires over the summer.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

“A decade of devastating cuts means that we can only effectively handle one of these crises at a time. The brutal reality is that, if and when mass-flooding or another major emergency hits this winter, it could impact firefighters’ ability to aid the pandemic response, or respond to another major incident.

“Increasingly, each time one of these major emergencies breaks out, the public face a roll of the dice, hoping that more than one won’t come at once – and it’s only a matter of time until we lose that gamble.

“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak need to recognise the scale of risk faced by the public and fund the frontline firefighters who keep people safe. We need at least 5,000 new firefighters immediately to repair some of the damage austerity has done to our service and prepare for the risks of today and tomorrow”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union

As we face a second wave of the pandemic in Yorkshire, there is real concern we will be hit with the double whammy of dealing with the virus and dealing with catastrophic flooding. The FBU has already admitted that if the pandemic had broken out during mass flooding earlier this year they might not have been able to support the emergency response.

It also has implications for doing what firefighters have signed up for – fighting fires. The staffing shortage has caused many fire and rescue services to send out fire engines with just three firefighters on board, fewer than the minimum five required to safely perform a rescue or tackle a fire.

Surges in flooding and assisting other agencies drove a 6 percent increase in the number of incidents the fire service attended from 2018/19 to 2019/20 across the UK.  We all know that flooding is just around the corner. People in Yorkshire, and further afield, need the reassurance that the fire and rescue service can tackle the risks – not just today, but also tomorrow.

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