MINISTERS have been warned that lives are being put at risk by a crisis in Scotland’s fire service which has seen almost 1,000 jobs axed in the past ten years and hundreds more are expected to be cut over the next five years.
National Union of Fire Brigades in Scotland has raised serious public safety concerns, saying the single fire service has already seen a £40m cut in real terms to its budget.
The number of staff at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has fallen from 8,313 when it was split into eight regional fire stations to 7,292 in 2020/21 following a merger in 2013 into one service. The number of firefighters on the front line decreased from 1,086 to 836 people.
Around 53 people have died in fires in Scotland during the 2020/21 Covid pandemic – almost double the number of the previous year. About 44 of them were in houses. On average, 44 people die in fires over a ten-year period.
In 2020/21, the fire service tackled 25,147 fires, a 2.6% increase on the previous year, with 4,661 house fires.
The dossier, which was presented to the union minister, also shows that incident response times have already risen from seven to eight minutes in five years, with union leaders warning that “every minute counts” when it comes to dealing with emergencies.
“It created a security problem, that’s clear. The nature of the industry is such that if response times increase, the impact will be significant,” said Fire Brigades Union of Scotland secretary John McKenzie. It’s very simple, if you cut jobs, you affect the service, if you affect the fire and rescue services, you increase the risk to people’s lives, that’s it.
“For the type of incident our members respond to, a minute is the difference between getting the fire under control and not getting it under control. It’s the difference between being able to save someone’s life and not being able to save someone’s life. “The FBU file shows that in 2012/13, before the single service, the fire and rescue service’s resource budget was £290.7m, and ten years later, at the time of the last announcement, it was £294.2m £4m – just £4m more.
“The Scottish Government’s budget for the fire and rescue service has fallen significantly over the past decade,” Mr McKenzie said.
“The service is at the highest level. And we can’t get the job done right now. If the budget freeze is implemented, it will destroy services.’
It comes as firefighters have warned of possible strike action following an angry reaction to the offer of a 2% pay rise during the cost of living crisis.
The Fire Brigades Union in Scotland has confirmed mass action, including strike action, is planned after a pay offer was unanimously rejected.
At the end of May, the Scottish Government announced it would freeze funding for the police, fire service, early learning and local government for the next five years to plug a deep hole in its budgets.
Kate Forbes, Scottish finance secretary, said the cuts – estimated to be around 8% in real terms – were needed to meet significant spending increases of £7bn on health, £6bn on social care and on climate action, including an investment of 1.8 billion pounds into low carbon homes.
The FBU also raised concerns about the “apparent reduction” in fire safety visits from 71,048 in 2013/14 to 69,236 before the pandemic and 20,175 in 2020/21 during the Covid crisis.
External fire safety audits also fell from 8,206 in 2014/15 to 7,261 in 2019/20 and 3,292 in 2020/21.
The union said that if prevention and protection are a strategic priority, then firefighters must reverse these trends.
In January, the SFRS admitted there was a “significant backlog” in building maintenance, with more than a third of the country’s fire stations over 50 years old.
The SFRS said the average age of buildings was 41.5 years, with 35% of buildings over 50 years old and one percent over 70 years old.
This indicates that about 125 of the country’s 356 fire stations have been around for more than half a century.
The oldest fire stations include Kirkcaldy, Fife, which will be 84 years old in April and was modernized 32 years ago.
Mr McDonald said the union had told Justice Secretary Keith Brown and Public Safety Secretary Ash Regan that if the budget freeze remained it would “destroy the fire service in Scotland”.
“We’ve already seen over the last ten years, when you cut jobs, the response time goes up. It affects not only firefighters but the people of Scotland,” he said.
It comes as firefighters across Scotland have been called to man ambulances due to high demand and staff shortages caused by the pandemic.
They have volunteered to take on additional work to support the Scottish Ambulance Service and the wider National Service health Service during a pandemic. The FBU collective bargaining agreement allowed firefighters to perform additional duties, including serving as volunteer drivers.
The union warned Mr Brown in a letter: “Any increased firefighter response to critical incidents affects Scotland’s communities, yet statistics consistently show that it is our most deprived communities and vulnerable people who are disproportionately at risk of residential fires.
“If our industry is to achieve the desired vision set out by the Government in the Fire and Rescue System for Scotland document, it cannot be done against the backdrop of real funding cuts. Instead, our service requires continued investment to tackle the current and emerging risks facing Scotland.”
The most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland have a house fire rate 4.6 times higher than the 20% least deprived areas and just over twice the national average.
Despite the fact that Scottish government spending is £2,200 more than the UK average, Scottish ministers are facing significant deficits in their budgets. Last December, it was forecast to reach £3.5bn, partly due to miscalculations about Scotland’s ineffective tax revenue and the impact of the Covid pandemic and Brexit.
Since then, the gap has widened with rising prices and inflation caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a sharp rise in energy prices.
The Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC), the independent financial watchdog, said the devolved government’s focus on health, poverty and climate meant spending on all other areas would fall by 8% in real terms by 2027 thanks to rising inflation and rising costs.
With the proposed cuts, opposition parties said the poor state of Scotland’s finances raised fresh questions about the advisability of holding a second independence referendum next year. There is £20 million in spending plans for one.
The FBU in Scotland has rejected what is a 2% pay offer made as part of a UK-wide pay negotiation mechanism involving 49 fire and rescue services across the UK, which make their decisions based on budgets set by the UK government and devolved countries.
Mr McKenzie said the proposal was “insulting” amid inflation now above 9% and prices rising at their fastest rate in more than 40 years.
Concerns over the pay offer are echoed across the UK, where real pay for firefighters has been cut by 12%, or almost £4,000, between 2009 and 2021.
“My understanding is that there is a significant amount of funding from the UK Government that has a big impact on this but is not a free pass for the Scottish Government in terms of fire service funding,” Mr McKenzie said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The people of Scotland are well served by the officers and staff of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) working alongside partners to make communities safer.
“We have supported the SFRS with significant budget increases in recent years and the annual budget for 2022-23 is now more than £45.3m higher than in 2017-18.
“The number of firefighters per head of population is also higher in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, with March 2021 figures showing 11.8 firefighters per 10,000 population in Scotland, compared with 6.2 in England and 10 in Wales.
“Firefighter pay is negotiated through UK-wide collective bargaining, which includes SFRS as an employer. The Scottish Government is not involved in these arrangements and the allocation of resources and incident response is a matter for SFRS.’