Robust recruitment drive urged as report reveals shortfall in fire crews reaches epidemic levels across the UK

The fire service needs to recruit at least 3,000 firefighters to work the retained duty system, says a new report from the Fire Brigades Union. The report says there are acute shortages across the UK, leaving many areas with a depleted fire service.

The union says a recruitment drive and improved service are firmly in line with Government commitments – and those of other political parties - to plough more money into frontline public services. The report – Off the Run - warns that without long-term investment the firefighter shortage will get worse.

The FBU says its 14,000 members who work the retained duty system are seriously over-stretched at a time when 999 calls have hit record levels and there are record numbers of fires. “Retained” firefighters work for other employers, but are on-call using a pager system to respond to 999 calls outside major urban areas.

The current response is to try and make do with inadequate resources, trading on the goodwill of an already over-stretched workforce and their main employers. This creates problems with retention and recruitment to a genuinely community-based service provided in most areas of the UK.

The union calls for an end to a culture which sees retained firefighters simply as a way of providing a fire service on the cheap. This culture leads to recruitment and retention problems and a poor perception within the fire service itself.

A range of measures

Consider incentives for employers to release staff to work as firefighters including tax or business rate rebates;

Persuading public sector employers to encourage their workforce to become firefighters working the retained duty system;

Recruitment underpinned by equal treatment, equal pay and equal rights;

An end to the culture that firefighters working the retained duty system are there to provide a fire service on the cheap;

Ending the current practice of using surplus money from retained budgets (because of lack of recruitment) for other purposes.

The union says current attempts at recruitment are hamstrung by pressure to do it at no extra cost, making the exercise limited and self-defeating. It has led to pressure to provide a slower and reduced response to 999 calls, raising serious public and health and safety concerns.

FBU General Secretary Andy Gilchrist said: “The shortage is acute and getting worse. In many areas a considerable number of fire engines are unavailable every day because of firefighter shortages.

“We need a national campaign to raise awareness and properly funded recruitment campaigns. The current low-key piecemeal approach is half-hearted and simply not working.

“These firefighters, who live and work in the communities they serve, are being stretched to the limit. They are a significant part of the fire service and they need to be valued far more highly than they are now.

“They do the same job as wholetime fire crews but are viewed within the service as the poor relations. That attitude has to change, it is part of the problem.

“It is only in the last few years that they have had any paid holidays. The provision of proper pension rights and sick leave would also enhance recruitment.

“We are making do with inadequate resources and trading on the goodwill of an over-stretched workforce and their main employers. We need to look at providing incentives to employers to release staff and build better links with business and the self employed.

“Once we get them in the fire service needs to value them more than they do now. They are a unique link between communities and public services and that also needs to be valued and built on.”


National media contact: Duncan Milligan 07736 818100

Firefighters who work the retained duty system

The “retained” duty system is unique to the fire service and provides an effective and flexible workforce in every almost every brigade (the exceptions are Merseyside and London, both areas of predominantly high fire risk).

Firefighters working the retained duty system are a major part of the fire service in areas considered to be at lower risk from fires. The system of working is so unique that there is a limited understanding as to how it operates.

“Retained” firefighters work on an on-call basis on a pager system for up to 120 hours a week (5 days on, 2 days off) and are employed on the basis that they have other jobs. They are typically paid a £2,500 a year “retainer” plus fees for emergency call outs of between £7.56 and £14.70, depending on qualifications.

There are an estimated 18,259 firefighters working the retained duty system compared to 38,845 wholetimers. Almost one-in three operational firefighters is “retained” and they are responsible for operating nearly two-thirds of all appliances covering areas where the fire risk is lower.

Across the UK there are 1,078 retained stations, 525 wholetime stations and another 161 stations which have both wholetime and retained (contrary to inaccurate claims constantly made by Government that wholetime and retained don’t work together). In Scotland there are another 132 Volunteer stations in areas which make up 40% of the landmass but account for 5% of the population.

Working or living within 5 minutes travelling distance from their station, they respond to pager alerts to 999 calls. The public cannot tell the difference between a retained firefighter and a wholetime firefighter.

They attend all major incidents including, for example, the Windsor Castle fire and the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster.

The report dismisses the following suggestions raised by other groups:

Cutting the number of firefighters attending incidents to less than four. Much of the equipment such as breathing apparatus and specialist ladders, for example, can only be used with a minimum of four firefighters;

Limiting the number of firefighters attending incidents to 5, which again raises health and safety concerns;

Slower response times would mean a worse service;

Sending out a smaller “check up” unit to see if there is a fire would significantly slow down the full response and put firefighters and the public in danger;

Locating empty appliances in lay-bys or car parks (rather than in stations) - to place them closer to where retained crews live - would open them up to vandalism;

Increased use of volunteers: the union is battling to improve their health and safety and working conditions in the areas which have volunteers. If more firefighters cannot be recruited to work the retained duty system then the union is sceptical that it would be any easier to recruit and make more widespread use of a Voluntary Service;

Raising or abolishing the retirement age of 55 will not provide a proper solution.

The full document is available at:

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