By Andrew Knowles
As one of the firefighters involved in strike action this coming Thursday I, along with every one of my colleagues, am crystal clear about why we are withdrawing our labour and leaving our communities with a vastly reduced fire and rescue service.
The closer we come to the strike, the more I have to remind myself of the severity of the cuts and what is at stake if we do not fight against them.
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service plan to cut its operational firefighting capabilities by 25%. These are the biggest ever cuts in the history of the service in Essex and quite possibly the UK as well. That means one in four fire engines will either no longer be available or will be removed completely from service.
The justification for the attacks is two-fold: swingeing funding cuts from central government as part of the austerity program and a reduction in the number of fires firefighters tackle. This reasoning takes no account of the other work firefighters do. Rescues from road traffic accidents, flooding, and vital fire prevention work are all part of the daily tasks firefighters nowadays undertake. Last year 105 rescues were performed by Britain’s firefighters every day.
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service is already struggling to cope with its current workload and have failed to meet the current response times by which fire engines have to arrive on the scene of life threatening incidents. As a result fire chiefs are planning to lower the standard so we can reach our "targets". We will look as though we are a high achieving organisation but in reality lives will be put at risk.
There have been cuts in the budget from central government that the service has no control over. But it can prioritise the remaining funds to protect the critical frontline services the public expect from a modern fire and rescue service.
If you are trapped in your car after an accident, injured and confused, how long do those extra minutes feel? What comfort is an IT system that costs the tax payer hundreds of thousands of pounds when you’re watching smoke pouring from the windows of your house destroying your life’s work? Five minutes seems like a life time, so how long will 10 or 15 minutes feel? How many computers or offices would you give for one fire engine?
Fires still happen. And when they do they are as devastating and destructive as they always have been. The only way to effectively tackle them is quick intervention by a well-funded, well trained, professional, competent fire and rescue service.
It is hard for any firefighter to take strike action. We do this job because we want to protect and serve the public. However, if these cuts go through unopposed, those same communities will have a reduced emergency fire service forever.
So now I question myself again. If the only way to fight these attacks is go on strike, how can I not?
Andrew Knowles is a firefighter in Essex
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