There were too few firefighters working in London on almost 100 separate occasions in the space of a year, raising fears about the services’s capacity as it faces a new wave of cuts.
The London Fire Brigade (LFB) dropped under its minimum staff level during 95 shifts between 14 June 2019 and 14 June 2020, according to new data obtained by Novara Media under the freedom of information act.
The minimum staff level for the capital’s fire service is set at 719. However, in the year leading up to the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the LFB had fewer than 700 firefighters working on eight separate occasions. During one daytime shift on August 10 2019, only 690 staff were available to the fire brigade, putting it 4% below its own minimum staffing level.
According to a Fire Brigade Union (FBU) official, the minimum staff level means the number of firefighters needed to operate all the appliances available to the service, including fire engines and other specialist equipment.
Falling below that level is, as FBU Regional Secretary for London Jon Lambe argues, “a great concern” given that all appliances will not be able to be used. “When an appliance is off the run it increases the dangers to the members of the public and….to our members,” he explained.
“The truth is, [the London Fire Brigade will talk of average attendance times, but actually there’s no such thing as an average fire,” says Lambe. “If you’re trapped in your house with your family and your house is on fire, you need a fire engine quickly. If the nearest fire engine to you is not on the run, you have to wait longer for the next nearest to arrive… Seconds matter”.
‘The dangers are blatantly obvious.’
The LFB released the new data on staff levels just two months after London mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled plans to levy a further £25m of cuts to the service over the next two years.
Publishing new budget guidance for 2021/2022 in June, Khan forecast that the Greater London Authority could lose up to £493m of council tax receipts and business rates income in a “reasonable worst-case scenario” inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Khan claimed that the LFB would face a smaller cutback than other authorities and recognised the “vital importance” of implementing Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendations – such as improving fire service equipment and training.
The FBU, however, maintain that it is “unthinkable” to cut £25m from the LFB over the next two years and vow to fight the move.
“We have just marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire and in the years since have dealt with a number of fires in buildings with similar combustible materials,” David Shek, a representative of the FBU London branch, said in a statement at the time. “The dangers of cutting the fire and rescue service right now are blatantly obvious.”
‘People will not get the service they deserve.’
London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe also raised concerns about the impact further cuts would have on the capital’s fire service, telling the BBC that he still had to improve training and equipment in line with the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s recommendations.
An independent review of the LFB commissioned by the Khan in 2016 urged that no further cuts be made to the service, warning that another round of austerity measures would hamper its efforts to keep Londoners safe.
Lambe echoed these concerns, telling Novara Media that the service desperately needed more investment, not another bout of cuts, which he explained would likely have “terrible consequences”.
“The thought of the level of cuts that are coming, it worries me… People will wait longer, people will not get the service they deserve,” he said. “For me, London’s a world-class city. It deserves a world-class fire service, it doesn’t deserve a budget fire service.”
‘It should be based on what is safe.’
Responding to questions about staffing levels and cuts, an LFB spokesperson told Novara Media that while the service was striving to make savings, falling below the minimum staffing levels had not caused any problems:
“As a result of the impact of Covid-19 on the GLA budget, we are looking at how we might achieve significant savings in the next two years. Our priority is making sure that any savings proposed do not prevent us from continuing our work to improve the fire and rescue service for London and from delivering our change programme.
“Falling below the minimum staffing levels has not had a negative impact on our response times, which are to get the first fire engine to an incident within six minutes and, where needed, a second engine within eight minutes. It is not uncommon for there to be occasions when our staffing levels fall below the minimum levels and strategic arrangements are in place to ensure we can respond to every incident.”
Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience Fiona Twycross also stepped in to defend the budget cuts, stating that the London Fire Brigade had worked “tirelessly during the pandemic to help keep Londoners safe,” adding that the service had been hitting its target response times.
“The Mayor is doing everything in his power to protect the frontline services that Londoners depend on,” she went on, “but without government support, he will be left with no choice other than to make significant cuts across the Mayoral bodies – including Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police, London Fire Brigade and the Greater London Authority”.
Firefighters, however, are more concerned about public safety than balancing the books and refuse to accept what they see as empty assurances. “From our point, whenever you talk about fire cover and what people need, it shouldn’t be based on the finances,” says Lambe, “it should be based on what is safe”.
James Walker is a freelance journalist who was written for Newsweek, Tribune and other titles.