Firefighters in South Yorkshire are operating on a “hand to mouth” existence as they struggle to tackle incidents such as flooding with increased frequency, while battling against austerity.
The floods at the end of the last year unlined the need for change in how resources are allocated to fire services, according to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), as South Yorkshire firefighters travelled to Westminster today to lobby MPs to join their campaign.
Neil Carbutt, FBU South Yorkshire Brigade Secretary, said the announcement by South Yorkshire Fire Authority last year that it had a £4m black hole in its finances meant 83 jobs in the service were at risk.
Ultimately the jobs were saved but Mr Carbutt said: “That has facilitated some other conversations around does the funding formula actually work for South Yorkshire? And no the funding formula does not work for South Yorkshire and we all recognise the problems.”
Flooding in Fishlake and elsewhere in Yorkshire at the end of last year showed the crucial role firefighters play in these disasters, however although they have the power to help in these situations, they do not have to by law.
However Mr Carbutt said the FBU was pushing for flooding to be included in fire services statutory duty, so they could get the right funding, whereas at the moment there was a shortfall.
He said: “We’ve recently had the floods in Fishlake, these have to be borne by the service and when we are facing these cuts and funding pressures, we get squeezed.
“To put it into context, if we’ve got 85 firefighters out of service that’s four fire engines less in Fishlake.”
Mr Carbutt said one of the most touching pictures during the Fishlake floods was of two Rotherham firefighters passing a Sainsbury’s bag into the upper window of a house to an elderly woman.
He said: “They had gone and bought the tea, milk, and biscuits out of their own money.”
“It’s boots on the ground, a lot of the rescues were not reported, a lot of the acts of kindness.”
Andy Strelczenie, Head of Emergency Response at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, said his role of trying to make sure the service had enough resources had “become increasingly difficult to do”.
He said: “Over the last 10 years that’s become increasingly difficult, the big expenditure is staff costs, but it becomes increasingly difficult for the funding formula and people in South Yorkshire sometimes suffer.”
And he said there was a disparity between areas where some services got more funding than others.
Mr Carbutt said in areas where people paid more council tax, and were therefore potentially better off, the local fire service got more investment, leaving more deprived areas without.
Mr Strelczenie said: “Funding for flooding is quite poor. We had a number of organisations who came up and helped us and we’ve helped West Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cumbria. But that does come at a cost, there is a financial cost and we can claw back some of the funding but we were told these are once in 50 year events and that’s just not been the case.
“We’re really proud of what our men and women do but we need to be able to continue that.
“They want to be able to provide the best service of course it has an impact on them. The floods in Doncaster proved that some of them went above and beyond but it’s not a reasonable ask and we should not be relying on that.”
Robert Taylor, South Yorkshire Fire Authority Chair, added the floods in Doncaster were “just an example of something that really stretched our abilities”.
He said: “Austerity has pushed us into a position where day to day, we’re on a hand to mouth existence.”
The FBU has now launched a campaign for fairer funding for fire services, backed by the South Yorkshire service and the Fire Authority, which would include getting better flooding funds.
And yesterday they had the support of MPs Rosie Winterton, Clive Betts, Ed Miliband, Gill Furniss, Olivia Blake and Sarah Champion, who all visited to show their support.
Mr Carbutt said: “It’s a really positive message out of this, we’re hopeful we can launch a campaign for fairer funding. We obviously want a longer term funding settlement than we’ve currently got.
“We want to see more investment in the funding of the service and the current mechanisms which decide that.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their important work.
“It is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational resources required to deliver services to local communities.
“Over the past 10 years the total number of fire incidents in England has fallen by more than a quarter and there have been major steps forward in prevention work.