All hands to the pump

Powerful images of firefighter crews rescuing flood victims late last year after storms Desmond, Frank and Eva hit our shores will stay with us for a long time. There are firefighters up to their shoulders in water and worse. Others are carrying people out of their water-sodden homes from hard to reach top floor windows. Some are plunged waist deep into icy water to rescue stranded adults and children, carrying evacuees to safety, to dry land, to council-run shelters. It will be a Christmas to remember for those poor individuals, and for the firefighters who rescued them.

Firefighters in the North of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland worked round the clock in the grimmest conditions imaginable to save pregnant women, children and vulnerable elderly people in care homes. The fire and rescue service in Scotland was properly acknowledged as the lead agency during the flood rescues, with firefighters from all over the country getting involved.

In Greater Manchester firefighters rescued almost 1,000 people in a single day after torrential downpours hit. In one part of Manchester where care home residents were too frail to be evacuated, firefighters had to move them to the top floor of the residential home to safety. In Wigan, a firefighter boat crew rescued people, one after the other, from 20 different houses.

Oxfordshire firefighters, meanwhile, headed north to help colleagues there, deploying a much needed high volume pump unit. Fire and rescue services may be funded from budgets drawn up locally, but when emergencies such as this hit, it is not just a case of all hands to the pump, it’s all the pumps to wherever they are needed. HVPs are national resources, based all around the country, making them national assets that strengthen our national resilience during floods, in spite of the government’s insistence that fire and rescue is purely a local service.


Quite rightly the fire and rescue service is now the recognised prime responder to flooding incidents, although some firefighters expressed understandable irritation that news reports referred to “rescue teams” or “the army” while it was clearly firefighters who were leading rescue operations.

During an interview on Radio 4’s The World at One just after Christmas Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, told the journalist he found it concerning that David Cameron found himself unable to utter the word “firefighter” when speaking of the recent flood rescues. It must have been perplexing for listeners that the prime minister was unable to thank the fire and rescue service specifically. Cynics suggested he would find it harder to implement more fire and rescue service cuts whilst simultaneously giving thanks to its staff, those same workers who are employed by a service that is effectively being dismantled.

Firefighter crews have always rescued people during flood incidents, and they willingly do this work even though there is no statutory duty in England, in other words any formal expectation, for them to do so.

Some 70% of England’s fire and rescue services were involved in rescues in the aftermath of the floods of 2013-14, attending 7,000 incidents and performing more than 2,000 rescues, with more than 1,000 firefighters mobilised. The most recent floods saw 16 fire and rescue services, including Merseyside, Northumberland, West Midlands, Shropshire and North Yorkshire, provide resources in some form or another, from HVPs to rescue boats and specialist teams, to four fire and rescue services in the affected areas.


The union is demanding the introduction of a statutory duty for firefighters in England and Wales for flood response, as their colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland currently have. 

It is well recognised within the service and among the public that firefighters will always respond and help in any emergency or natural disaster, and some believe there is therefore no need for a statutory duty.

The point is that there is a better chance of flood rescue being adequately funded if there is a formal requirement in place. Roles and responsibilities would be clarified and it would assist in making the case for properly funded support for this essential area of fire service work.

Acknowledgement of the vast contribution of firefighters to this critical rescue work makes it more difficult for the “Fires are down” mantra that government uses to justify cuts to carry any real weight. But it is going to be a hard battle to win if leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling’s ill-informed response to a recent Labour parliamentary question on it are anything to go by: “The idea we need to pass a law to tell the emergency services to respond to emergencies would be a waste of parliament’s time.” The union has explained that the process would be very simple – an order can be issued by government under the existing Fire and Rescue Services Act. There is no need for new legislation.


Firefighters in Cumbria, the undisputed worst affected flood area in England, are demanding flood rescue funding and have set up a petition to urge government to make flood rescue a statutory duty. Dave Burn, chair of the FBU in Cumbria, said: “We need funding for this, enough to buy the requisite amount of equipment and also to train our firefighters to respond. We don’t have a local response vehicle that would allow us to assist Yorkshire if they need it. They and other services came and helped us out during the floods, but we don’t have the facility to return that sort of favour.”

The petition for statutory duty had just over three and a half thousand signatures at the time of going to press, and has gained support from several MPs. It needs 10,000 signatures to warrant a government response and 100,000 to be considered for debate in parliament.

Please sign it now at:  

Use this link to lobby your MP:

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