Despite being the primary responders to flooding across the UK, firefighters have seen their numbers cut by almost 11,000 since the major floods of 2011 with the services they work having their budgets slashed by millions. Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, says the winter floods have yet again exposed the gaps in the UK’s preparedness for severe weather events.
The nation was once again brought to its knees by major flooding in the wettest February since records began. Firefighters and control staff led the response, as homes were evacuated, flood defences were overcome, and rivers burst their banks.
Three storms, Dennis, Ciara, and Jorge, delivered the second bout of major flooding this winter, as what the Environment Agency said was “a once in 60 years weather event” submerged swathes of the country under water.
31 flood warnings and 159 flood alerts were in place across the UK. From Yorkshire to South Wales and Hereford to Yorkshire, fire and rescue personnel were out there protecting homes, rescuing people and animals, and safeguarding businesses.
Firefighters are the primary emergency services personnel responsible for responding to flooding events. They also assist with flood prevention through the erecting of defences, as well as providing advice to the public and securing homes.
But despite playing such a key role, there is often a look of surprise when people find out fire and rescue services have no legal duty to respond to flooding incidents in England, like they do in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
In England this means fire and rescue services not only struggle to secure long term funding for flood response work, but that across all the different brigades planning and coordination is weakened.
Since the major floods of 2011, there are 10,970 fewer across the UK, and 1,531 fewer than the 2015 floods. These job cuts not only make the job of fire and rescue services that much harder with far fewer staff to do the job, but also demonstrate a palpable failure to take flooding, and climate change, seriously.
When it comes to money, the picture is no better: funding for fire and rescue services has been cut by 141.5 million since 2013.
The result of all this is that our members on the ground tell us they are more and more stretched. The truth is that non-flooded related emergencies don’t go away when the rain comes, and with a distinct lack of funding and huge cuts to firefighter numbers there are serious concerns about the extent to which services can continue to meet all their responsibilities.
During the most recent flooding, a critical incident was declared by the fire and rescue service in South Wales, with the area becoming one of the worst-flooded parts of the country. Major roads were closed and the Rivers Taff and Wye burst their banks. Entire cars were submerged in certain areas, leaving residents stranded on their vehicles, while homes and businesses were left underwater.
The Joint Fire Control, which takes 999 calls across South and Mid and West Wales, handled an unprecedented 1,300 calls over the weekend of Storm Dennis. One of our members in the control room told us they were taking a ‘hammering; call after call’, and even though it was just about as busy as the grassfire season, resources were much more limited.
Over in Humberside the lack of resources for dealing with flooding was even more apparent with the local brigade having to call in five pumps (fire engines) from other brigades. One of our officials on the ground remarked that it was only because the severity of the flooding reduced the number of fires and road traffic collisions that the extra resources were able to be found.
In Hereford and Worcester, crews pumped out homes after the River Severn burst its banks and in the midst of Storm Dennis, were called to rescue residents from a flooded care home. Over the course of several hours, firefighters from three stations responded to aid the evacuation of 24 elderly residents and eight staff.
Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service carried out these operations, amongst others, with just three boats after two were returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). During the course of the flooding the service had to draft in better boats from the army.
And in Shropshire, as the emergency control room was handling more than 300 calls in 24hrs, the lack of resources was posing a direct threat to our members’ safety; firefighters coming onto shift had to change into dirty personal protective equipment (PPE), exposing them to contaminants from pollutants, and potentially diseases such as leptospirosis, the common disease that can be caught from rats. Elsewhere, firefighters reported fears that they did not have access to the inoculations needed to shield them from some of these risks.
These are just a few examples of what fire and rescue personnel face when flood defences fail.
This winter, huge gaps were yet again exposed in the UK’s preparedness for extreme weather events. In England, it demonstrated just how far behind the curve the Westminster government is as it continues to drag its heels on giving fire and rescue services in England a statutory duty to deal with flooding.
Across the UK, years’ worth of funding cuts and the slashing of firefighter numbers continue to cause great strain, even when the rain isn’t falling. As climate change threatens to bring more and more severe weather events, governments in Westminster and beyond need to wake up to the folly of underinvesting in the services that they need to be there when the waters rise.