Scotland’s fire service is in “crisis” and blighted by low morale, underinvestment and budget cuts, according to a new report.
Set to be released on Tuesday at the Scottish Parliament, the report by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the situation is impacting severely on firefighters’ ability to respond effectively to serious and life-threatening incidents.
Entitled Firestorm, the report assessed the challenges faced by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
It identified serious concerns with the situation in the fire service, with firefighters raising issues around response times, poor training, poor equipment and health concerns about fire contaminants.
One firefighter told the union that the SFRS had done “almost nothing” to combat the physical effects they experience as a result of fires.
The firefighter said: “The SFRS has done almost nothing (on contaminants) apart from provide wipes on appliances – that’s it.
“Patting yourself down with wipes after being exposed to a fire for hours just doesn’t cut it.”
The report’s release comes after the union claimed a major fire that caused extensive damage to six homes in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire, was exacerbated by cuts to fire and rescue services.
At the time of the incident, East Kilbride’s second appliance was unavailable as it was being used to transport staff to training near Edinburgh.
Additionally, the report also pointed to the condition of buildings in the SFRS estate, with 14 having issues with crumbly reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac).
The report claims there has been “some” investment in equipment but compared with other parts of the UK, it says in Scotland this has been slow and partial.
One firefighter who was interviewed as part of the report said there was no personal issue respirators or adequate welfare facilities for larger incidents at their station.
Additionally, firefighters felt the training provided was inconsistent and inadequate, with trainees coming into fire stations (where they work on shifts known as watches) without having experience of “hot fire” training, which replicates the heat, smoke logging and conditions experienced in a variety of different fire settings.
Watch commanders also told the union they do not feel they have adequate or up to date qualifications to train their firefighters, with one reporting their breathing apparatus instructor certificate was 10 years old.
In a survey accompanying the report, around 93% of respondents told the FBU they did not believe the SFRS was “adequately resourced enough to deal with the increase in climate-related incidents such as wildfires and flooding”.
Recent incidents such as the Cannich wildfire near Inverness saw retained firefighters – who do not work for the fire service full time – working 14-hour shifts in difficult terrain and “blistering heat” to battle the fire.
The report also called for the pension age of firefighters to be lowered from 60 to 55 as some workers feel they are unable to work in the physically and mentally challenging operational role until they are 60.
It also called upon the service to look at redeploying firefighters who still wish to work within the service into support roles such as fire safety or in control rooms, rather than recruiting civilians into the roles.
John McKenzie, Scottish secretary of the FBU, said: “We cannot go on like this, our members and the public have had enough.
“If the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is to meet the challenges of our times we need immediate and radical change and this report sets out what that should look like.
“Over the last decade we have been failed by political leaders who have tried to ignore this crisis. They cannot ignore us now.
“It is now up to the Scottish Government, the SFRS management and all political parties to respond positively to this report, reverse the cuts and help build a fire and rescue service that aspires to be world-leading.”
The FBU is currently consulting members over taking strike action in opposition to the cuts the union said have been imposed by the Scottish Government.
A projected, five-year, flat cash budget, in place until 2027, has already removed 10 whole-time fire engines and 150 retained appliances are regularly unavailable due to significant recruitment and retention issues, the union said.
The SFRS announced that it will need to save a minimum of £14m next year which could result in the loss of a further 339 firefighters and 18 fire engines, with more to come.
Scotland has lost 1,200 frontline firefighters since 2012, the union has previously claimed.
Ross Haggart, the chief officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We note the publication of the FBU report and specifically of concerns highlighted of behaviours which fall beneath our high standards.
“We have a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of bullying, harassment and discrimination and the safety and wellbeing of our staff is paramount.”
Haggart added: “We have been clear that we must modernise as a service to ensure we are best placed to meet the changing risk and demand we face across Scotland, while also addressing our ongoing financial challenges.
“Any permanent changes now or in the future will only be made following full engagement and consultation with all our stakeholders, including the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
“We will take time to give full and proper consideration to the contents of this report and continue to work with all representative bodies, including the FBU, on potential impacts of any future savings and identify potential areas for improvement.”
The Scottish Conservatives said the report exposed the reality of what years of “deeply damaging cuts by the SNP” had done to Scotland’s fire service.
Sharon Dowey, the party’s deputy justice spokesperson, said: “Stations have lost vital appliances and 1,200 jobs have been cut since the SNP’s centralisation a decade ago.
“If further cuts are imposed, then close to 800 more firefighters could be lost from duty. That is a completely intolerable situation and one which would only put lives at risk in our communities.
“Brave and hardworking firefighters are doing their job with one hand tied behind their back and are beyond breaking point.
“SNP ministers must finally step up and deliver the funding our fire service needs, before the catastrophic consequences of not doing so are keenly felt.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Firefighters play a vital role in protecting our communities and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has continued to deliver the high standard of services required to keep Scotland safe.
“That is why, despite difficult financial circumstances due to UK Government austerity, we are providing SFRS with more than £368m this year, an increase of £14.4m on 2022-23.
“Whilst the allocation of resources, along with the recruitment and retention of firefighters, is an operational matter for SFRS, we are maintaining front-line services, with a higher number of firefighters in Scotland than other parts of the UK.
“Ministers will continue engaging with the FBU to discuss their concerns.”
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