The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has called for fire and rescue service funding to be included in budget measures to improve flood preparedness, as analysis reveals almost 11,000 firefighter jobs have been cut in the UK since the major floods of 2011.
The findings come after the government last week voted down an independent inquiry into the floods and news that the Chancellor will double flood funding in today’s budget. The FBU says that few lessons have been learned from previous floods, as understaffed and under-resourced services face looming demands from severe weather events.
FBU research shows there are 10,970 fewer firefighters in the UK than at the time of the 2011 floods, and 1,531 fewer than the 2015 floods.
This is despite climate scientists and the environment agency warning of an increased risk of flooding due to climate change - 31 flood warnings and 159 flood alerts remain in place across the UK.
As well as fewer staff able to attend emergencies, firefighters are reporting a lack of resources including dry suits and the equipment needed to decontaminate them after use in polluted waters.
Control rooms describe being overwhelmed with calls and fire and rescue crews in some of the worst areas report a lack of boats needed to perform rescue operations.
These pressures are all revealed in testimonies from firefighters on the ground in the areas most severely hit by storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge.
Firefighters are the primary emergency services personnel responding to flooding events, but do not have a statutory duty to do so in England, unlike in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, hampering their ability to secure flood-response funding.
The FBU is calling for the statutory duty to be extended to England, in line with the rest of the UK and much of the world, as recommended by the Pitt review after the 2007 floods.
Firefighters not only respond to flooding events but assist with flood prevention through the erecting of defences, as well as providing advice to the public and the securing of homes.
Evidence gathered by the FBU shows how central fire and rescue services have become when severe weather events hit:
• South Wales control staff handled more than 1,300 calls over the weekend of Storm Dennis, with more than 350 emergency calls for the Pontypridd, Nantgarw and Aberdare areas alone;
• Firefighters in Hereford and Worcester rescued 185 people and evacuated 204, including 24 residents and eight staff at a care home in Whitchurch during Storm Dennis, an operation which took several hours.
• Hereford and Worcester now have just three boats to respond to some of the worst flooding in the country, after two were returned to DEFRA and five to a search-and-rescue charity covering the entire River Severn area. The service also had to draft in better boats from the army.
• Across the affected areas firefighters have been knocking on doors, providing advice and in Hereford have been helping people get to and from work.
• Shropshire control staff handled more than 300 calls in 24 hours during Storm Dennis and mobilised two-thirds of their fire engines. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) issues meant some firefighters could not access dry suits. Crew members report being concerned about microbes in the flood water with suits not able to be adequately decontaminated.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:
“Firefighters and control staff have done everything they can to keep residents, homes and businesses safe, but we have fewer of them than during any major flooding event in the last decade.
“Firefighters are reporting a lack of resources including boats, vehicles and appropriate specialist protective equipment, meaning some are potentially being exposed to hazardous chemicals.
“The fire and rescue services are proud to protect the public from flood events but it’s about time they had the staff and resources necessary to do it. The government needs to understand that you cannot keep people safe on the cheap.
“Across the UK, England is the only country where there is no clear statutory duty for the fire and rescue service to plan for and respond to floods, which means they find it much more difficult to access additional funding, training or resources for dealing with floods. It is a way for central government to avoid its obligations to communities and seriously impacts long-term planning and resourcing.
“Any debate about flooding is incomplete if it doesn’t talk about the services responding when floods hit. It’s disappointing that we won’t see an independent inquiry into these floods. We’re in a climate crisis – and the Chancellor needs to properly fund our response.”