Austerity kills – and kills by fire

Grenfell is high on the news agenda as families, survivors and firefighters struggle for justice, writes Felicity Dowling. Firefighters conducted themselves with dignity at the Inquiry. It seems incongruous though, that firefighters are first to be interrogated at the Inquiry when the people identified in the residents’ pre-fire complaints are not the focus of first enquiries.  Firefighters – who put their lives on the line – being interrogated so relentlessly, seems so unfair when those who either ignored the rules or ripped up the regulations have so far avoided centre stage.

But even while the Grenfell tragedy remains high in our minds, even whilst we want to learn from all the factors that led to the disaster, still further cuts are under way to fire services, to fire fighting machines, to the numbers of firefighters and to firefighters’ pay and conditions.

In Cheshire Fire Service it took a campaign in May to save just some fire stations; in the West Midlands a dispute has just gone into talks. On Merseyside a raft of cuts is under way and Labour councillors on the fire authority are allowing a procedure where some firefighters are paid £1000 to sign a document agreeing to scab if the FBU calls a strike. The whole movement has to support councillors in opposing obnoxious neo- liberal cuts, and reactionary policies. The FBU on Merseyside held a packed trade union and labour movement meeting about this on Friday 29th June, and are leading a fight back.

Night-time fire cover, from the local fire station, is being removed from the city centre of Liverpool, yet recently a huge blaze destroyed a whole modern multi-story car park near the Echo Arena. The city centre includes two universities with labs working on radioactive materials, dangerous chemicals and bio-hazards, and doing world class research. Students’ accommodation in high-rise blocks, and students’ libraries are open overnight. Then there is the tourist and night-time economy, clubs, pubs and hotels.

A huge hospital, the Royal, is in the area, on many floors, and with really poor maintenance because everyone thought the new PFI Hospital that was being built by Carillion would be ready by now. The half-built New Royal may be fire safe, or may not. Questions from a campaigner with Merseyside Pensioners’ Association can get no definitive answer to this crucial question. The initial responsibility for the safety of the building we believe lies with the owners. The Cumbria Infirmary, built under PFI at terrible cost, is not fire safe, indeed the fire danger was so great there was talk of closing it. Fire watch staff and other measures keep it going. So we have real grounds to be concerned about the half-finished building so close to other medical facilities and to the University of Liverpool Buildings.

Then there are thousands of babies a year born in the Liverpool Women’s Hospital, also in the city centre area. There are traditional working class communities in the city centre and newer aspirational ‘luxury’ accommodation. The Conference centre and Liverpool One shopping centre are all part of this area, yet – utterly unacceptably -fire cover is reduced: the number of fire engines has been reduced as has the number of fire fighters, so response times are slower and fires are able to take hold before the brigade can intervene.  A Fire engine with four firefighters is significantly less effective than one with five firefighters. Fire deaths, which had been falling, are now rising again. Jeremy Corbyn raised this in Parliament.

Labour councillors must understand the dangers of decisions to make cuts like this. Further, they must understand and take courage from the knowledge that the public and Labour’s membership would vociferously support them in opposition to such cuts. At union meetings, in Labour Party meetings, and in local community meetings, this issue must be raised.

The crisis in the fire service is brutally demonstrated in the Saddleworth Moor Fires.  A Second set of fires near Bolton has now broken out, and firefighters from across the county are being drafted in. Already depleted fire services have to be diverted from house fires, and workplace fires, in order to contain the wild fires. People may well die.

Stories of arsonists being to blame may be convenient or may be true. Arsonists have always been with us. Firefighters have worked for years with youngsters trying to help young people understand fire. Has this work been cut? Has it been downgraded and delivered by people with less standing in the eyes of the youth? An active firefighter has huge authority with young people.

This might be something different. There could be many motives. We do not yet know. The change is that now the public services can no longer respond effectively. The Fire and Rescue service is a core and crucial service for 21st century life. Response to fire, flood, road accidents and civil emergencies all depend on this service. If it is working well, often there will be little call on it, but it must be there for safety of the population. The service is so badly run, and equipped, that firefighters at Saddleworth Moor have had to ask for public donations of basic supplies, even of drinking water and sun block.

Why has this very basic public service been so badly damaged?

First blame must lie with Government austerity policies. However, the fire and rescue service is controlled at a level above directly-elected councils. Councillors are nominated from different authorities to sit on a combined fire authority. The scale and significance of fire cuts is difficult to grasp and there is no effective scrutiny. The NHS has a small army of anti-cuts experts working away challenging the health cuts but fire service cuts are as yet not so closely monitored. Sadly, councillors charged with this task seem happy to raise their hands for cuts again and again (it would be good to hear from those who have resisted fire cuts). Austerity policies are fundamentally wrong, not just for the hurt inflicted on working class communities, but for the damage to the infrastructure of a modern industrial and urban society.

There are various wings in pro-austerity thinking. Some believe that public services per se are unnecessary and should be removed. Others see public services only as an opportunity to leech off government funding provided for public services, to use that funding purely for profit. Some believe that the market produces better outcomes when involved in public services. There is little evidence of this being true. Some believe the cuts have been justified and that services are safe. They are all very wrong.

Others opportunists in capitalist economics follow ‘disaster capitalism’ ideas. They see the huge profits made in the breakdown of services experienced in early post-USSR Russia, and are content to see disasters happen if it gives them the opportunity to make profit from any reconstruction.

We need a fully funded, fully staffed fire and emergency service. We need a government structure capable of responding quickly and effectively to public emergencies like fire and flood. Effective disaster response is always democratic. Economically-poor Cuba survives natural disasters because of a grass roots democratic emergency system, frequently described as the most effective model. The UK, one of the richest counties in the world, cannot rescue people from a blazing block or get water and sunscreen to people fighting wild fires.

Government, nationally and locally, is failing to provide these services for ideological and profit motives. A better world is possible


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