I went out with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service on Bonfire weekend in Bradford in 2017 to see through the eyes of firefighters what it’s like during the busiest week of the year.
Shamefully, not only is Bonfire Night the busiest time for calls for assistance with fires, but it’s the busiest time of the year for assaults on firefighters.
For this reason, firefighters and police officers have to work side by side so that almost every time a call is made for the fire service on the nights either side of November 5, a police escort accompanies those firefighters for their own protection.
Whilst on that night shift, alongside the more organised events, I witnessed how some thought that Bonfire Night granted them permission to set fire to anything and everything with deliberate fires in residential areas, anti-social behaviour and some really serious incidents, engineered to lure in the emergency services.
There were 15 incidents over that short period in 2017 with crews coming under sustained and deliberate attack. Bradford South MP Judith Cummins was also out with fire and police that night with her fire car coming under attack from fireworks used as missiles.
That night was an eye-opening experience but wasn’t the first time I had witnessed just how dangerous it can be on the front line for our emergency services.
The Protect the Protectors campaign was born out of an evening shift I did with the police in Halifax when a routine vehicle stop turned so ugly so quickly, that I was forced to call 999 from the police car to call for urgent back up for the lone officer I was shadowing.
It soon became clear that the campaign for greater protections for police officers needed to be rolled out to offer the same protection for all the emergency services and that bonfire night helped to shape the law changes which came into effect in November last year.
They enhanced some of the protections already in place for the police and rolled them out to protect NHS workers, paramedics, firefighters, prison officers and those involved in search and rescue operations like the RNLI.
More specifically the new law created a new offence of ‘Assaulting and Emergency Worker’ and increased the sentencing available to the judges and magistrates to hand out to those who are guilty of such an offence.
With my colleague Chris Bryant MP, we spearheaded the law changes but as opposition MPs we had to engage in tough negotiations with the Government who lent their support to the changes, but pushed back on the tough sentences we asked for in our attempts to make sure that the consequences of assaulting an emergency worker truly reflected the ‘zero tolerance’ we so often see on posters.
A year on, its with a great sense of frustration that I say that he bill has not been the deterrent we hoped it would be. The Yorkshire Post revealed last week that there were more than 900 attacks on firefighters responding to emergencies across the UK during 2018/2019, with the Yorkshire and the Humber the second worst area for assaults with 134 attacks.
Firefighters had fireworks or missiles thrown at them more than 200 times in 2018/19 with 70 physical assaults recorded. This is absolutely unacceptable and the vast majority of decent human beings will not be able to comprehend the thinking of someone who engages in this type of behaviour.
There is no doubt about it, the emergency services have been stretched since 2010. Cuts mean that Yorkshire has 1,150 firefighters less than the county had a decade ago with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service hit the hardest losing 594 firefighters over nine years. We’ve lost stations and only this week I received a letter from West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service which included proposals to lose the aerial appliance - the fire engine capable of extending upwards to provide a platform from which firefighters can tackle a blaze from above - at Halifax fire station in order to make further cost savings. Austerity is far from over.
Certainly in policing we have seen a correlation between the reduction in the numbers of officers, the inevitable increase in single crewing and a rise in assaults. The last thing our incredibly brave but stretched firefighters need is that on the busiest day of the year, with already stripped back numbers, is to face increased risk as a minority of individuals seek to do them harm.
The Protect the Protectors campaign still has work to do but represented a step change in the way we deal with those engaged in these shameful acts of violence. Quite simply, on behalf of society and decent people everywhere, it will not be tolerated. Thank you to all those working so hard to keep communities safe this week.
Holly Lynch is Labour MP for Halifax.