IN January, a crew of firefighters from South Yorkshire travelled to Westminster to ask MPs for the proper resources to do their job.
The firefighters, all members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), had worked tirelessly to respond to some of the worst flooding in the country last November.
They, along with thousands of residents and business owners, were told that the floods were a “once in a lifetime” event. Three months later Storm Ciara hit, bringing more devastating flooding to Yorkshire. This weekend, more floods are expected to come from Storm Dennis.
Mass-flooding is becoming increasingly regular. The very real impact of climate change is not solely being felt by those in the Global South – communities in the UK are being hit with devastating flooding and wildfires and it’s firefighters who are responding to keep them safe.
In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, firefighters have a statutory duty to respond to flooding. This relatively straightforward policy measure ensures fire and rescue services are prepared for flooding with proper resources, incorporating it into their risk-management planning.
But the Government has resisted giving the same responsibility to firefighters in England. Of course, as humanitarians, firefighters respond anyway, as though it were part of their core role.
But, without a statutory duty, they don’t have the proper training and equipment to do the job effectively. The FBU has backed a statutory duty since the 2007 floods. It was recommended by an independent review by Sir Michael Pitt after those seismic floods. And, in January, The Yorkshire Post said in an Editorial that Ministers were “duty-bound” to respond to our concerns.
However, the Government is complacent and dismissive of our concerns. They point to the inconsistently-applied Bellwin funding, which allows services to recover some funds when a major disaster hits.
But it’s simply not enough to offer some relief at Ministers’ discretion – we’re responding to disasters with services that are chronically underfunded and under-resourced. With major disasters becoming more and more common, surely it is time that proper attention is paid to how we deal with weather-related incidents.
Last year, the collapse of Whaley Bridge dam threatened an entire town – and firefighters were instrumental in evacuating residents and securing the town’s safety.
We’re facing these challenges after UK firefighter numbers have undergone a 20 per cent cut. In Yorkshire alone, there are 1,200 fewer firefighters than at the time of the 2007 floods. Last week, the Government announced a funding settlement that left Yorkshire fire and rescue services £16m worse off than in 2016.
Services that would once, in all but the most extreme circumstances, have been able to respond to largescale incidents independently, are now utterly reliant on neighbouring services to co-respond. What will happen when floods hit Humberside and North, South, and West Yorkshire simultaneously?
While these events seem to be occurring more frequently, the scale of flooding in the UK still isn’t properly understood. The reporting and recording of flooding is littered with inconsistencies. When one flood is recorded, it could be a single flooded basement, or an entire high street underwater.
Meanwhile, Home Office resources collect meaningless data, such as which day of the week floods occur on most (last year, it was a Monday, by the way).
From the imperfect data, we know that firefighters responded to more than 13,000 floods in 2018-19, including 310 in Yorkshire. Nine hundred and three people were rescued by firefighters last year, while around 2,000 were rescued in the years when we last saw major flooding events.
While strong flood defences are important, it’s true that they will inevitably be overcome when a surge of water is great enough. There will always be a need to respond to flooding head-on, whether it’s building temporary flood defences, evacuating vulnerable people, rescuing those in danger, or safely clearing homes and businesses. And the task of this will always fall to firefighters. But we must not be taken for granted.
Firefighters have the right to expect the best equipment, the right resources and, crucially, sufficient numbers of our colleagues to tackle these type of events safely. There is no reason England should lag behind the rest of the UK on this, nor indeed, the rest of the world.
If the Government is serious about tackling flooding and responding to the climate emergency, it will recognise the crucial role of the fire and rescue service.
Give us the tools, and we’ll do the job – but we need a clear mandate. We need a statutory duty and investment in our service.
Matt Wrack is general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.