Time to stem the tide of flood misery


In the weeks before the havoc wrought by Storm Angus in November flooding had already hit the news. The House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) select committee, which scrutinises the work of the government department with the same name, called for substantial funding for fire and rescue services to tackle flooding. The MPs also backed the long awaited and much demanded measure of giving fire and rescue services a statutory duty to carry out flood rescue in England. This duty already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with a statutory duty for Wales imminent.

On 10 November, the government announced it was putting the army on standby for winter flooding, while two Cumbria firefighters were interviewed on ITV’s This Morning, having made it to the Daily Mirror Pride of Britain awards shortlist for a lifesaving flood rescue they carried out from a sinking car last winter.

Flooding is a devastating, ongoing seasonal nightmare for rural and other communities. There is urgent need for investment if the tide of human misery it causes, alongside the massive strain it puts on under-resourced fire and rescue services, is to be stemmed.

Last winter, more than 60,000 homes in Cumbria and Lancashire were severely damaged by devastating deluges, with thousands of families evacuated from flood wrecked dwellings with no electricity.

An estimated five million people in England alone are now at risk of flooding. There have already been flood related deaths in autumn, as we plunge into another potentially difficult, stormy wet winter.

The Labour Party made a statutory duty for flooding a manifesto commitment ahead of the 2015 election. The union has been calling for such a duty for more than nine years.

PRIMARY RESPONDER

The fire and rescue service was the primary emergency responder throughout the 2015-16 winter floods, providing 70% of the boats used and undertaking 3,000 rescues, even though there is no statutory requirement for the service to make such provision.

The fire and rescue service makes the largest contri­bution to the national flood response capability. A statutory duty would secure the necessary funding and workforce to ensure that rescue work is done properly. It would ensure an effective, adequate, reliable flood response to keep the public safe.

The government has announced that 1,200 members of the armed forces have been put on 24-hour standby to assist with flooding this winter, a move cautiously welcomed by the Chief Fire Officers Association but not by the FBU.

General secretary Matt Wrack said: “They say they are making soldiers ‘available’, but we need to ask what this actually means. Is it that they are available when they are not in Afghanistan?

“What are the guarantees that they will be there during flood rescues? We are concerned that troops have been deployed to floods without adequate training, resources or PPE.

“It is wholly inappropriate for soldiers to be mobilised in this way, just so that the government can be seen to be ‘doing something’ about tackling the flood risk.”

The EFRA committee MPs’ recommendations say that the government must consult on the methods and funding of the statutory duty by the end of this year (2016).

The EFRA paper’s emergency response section states: “We are concerned that continued pressure on resources would jeopardise the fire and rescue service’s ability to deliver a high standard of service in future.

“We recommend that the government places a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service in England and Wales to provide an emergency response to flood events.” The paper also notes that “many witnesses to flood rescues praised firefighters for their bravery and commitment”.

APPALLING CONDITIONS

Quite right too, given the appalling conditions many firefighters found themselves working in over the Christmas period last year.

Dave Burn, brigade chair for Cumbria, recalls carrying out some challenging flood rescues with just two dry suits between 11 firefighters.

He said: “I swam to work in a padded tunic and running pants one day because my fire kit had floated away.

“We pitched our ladders into fast-flowing water to rescue people from their homes. I was crouched by one window holding a ladder for 20 minutes while colleagues rescued an elderly lady from a top window.

“I was in the water for two hours because there were no fresh crews to take over, so we worked 13-hour shifts solidly.

“I was so cold afterwards someone had to hold my cup so I could drink my tea, as my hands were shaking so badly.”

The fire station, meanwhile, was under eight feet of water.

A statutory duty would not put an end to these conditions immediately but would strengthen our campaign to improve planning and resources for this modern challenge to our service. But nothing is likely to be put in place in time for this winter.

So it looks, once more, as if firefighters will step in and do the job without the proper resources or equipment, with the result that safety and efficiency is compromised.

And most firefighters in this climate would say: “So – what’s new?”

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