P opens BOSS, an operation database. “What do we reckon then, gents?” It’s become a daily ritual – guess how many pumps (the frontline workhorse fire engine of the brigade) are off the run. The guesses come thick and fast, mostly between 25 and 40, although J, ever the optimist, plumps for 20. “33”, P informs us. It’s a shocking shortfall, but about average for recent months. And that’s just the pumps off the run, let alone pump ladders, aerials or any other specialist appliance.
The brigade is chronically, woefully short staffed. At every change of watch, Resource Management Centre play a giant game of firefighter Tetris. Taking pumps off the run to free up personnel and sending them all over London to plug gaps elsewhere. Sending a firefighter driver from one station to another, and a non-driver the other way, to cover a skills gap and keep a machine on the run – leaving the truck at the first station understaffed and off the run until the non-driver arrives. Frantically ringing up off-duty firefighters offering overtime for the next shift.
The reasons are various. Self-isolation and covid are a big one. Some firefighters are vaccine hesitant, meaning the impact of the rule change on 16 August about double jabbed people not needing to self-isolate has been patchy. F mentions one two-appliance station where a firefighter had a positive test and only three firefighters from that station were in the next day, with the rest on leave, sick or self-isolating. A minimum of nine riders is needed to keep the trucks on the run.
B partly blames the large number of firefighters still detached to drive ambulances, an arrangement the commissioner is apparently looking to further extend. He says of course he was fully supportive when Covid hit, as one of the many extra duties the brigade took on to support the battle against the virus. But as “normality” has begun to return, his patience is wearing thin, given our own staffing shortages. O is suspicious of what he sees as a plan to permanently prop up the ambulance service, “co-responding” by stealth. Co-responding with the ambulance service has been trialled and pushed in various ways over recent years. Many on station are ambivalent about it.
The big underlying reason for staff shortages is a decade of cuts, underfunding, recruitment freezes, station closures and a failure to replace retiring staff, coupled with expanding responsibilities and shrinking pay. We have over 11,000 fewer firefighters than in 2010. T tells me that it wasn’t too many years back that it was rare to have fewer than six firefighters to an appliance; now, for pumps, four is standard.
Having recently been through a wave of station cuts when Boris Johnson was mayor and knowing another £15 million in cuts is in the pipeline, the universal feeling that our just-about-functioning through the summer, with so many engines off the run, will be used as a justification for cutting those engines. If we scrape through the summer without them, do we really need them?
Of course, as with “spare” capacity in any responsive organisation, some of the time we don’t need it – but when do we need it, we really bloody need it. When floods occupied the attention of half the brigade a few weeks ago, the rest was left to cover routine shouts on their grounds – we were sent all over the city, from Hampstead in north London to Deptford in south east. We could have done with a few of those pumps then. The benefit for most firefighters is the massive amount of overtime currently available, paid for by LAS as part of our agreement with them. Without firefighters taking up this overtime, the brigade would be crippled.
J has mixed feelings about taking it, with a strong sense that doing so only covers up the shortages. Most of the others agree, but there’s been no collective stance taken, so there’s no sense in individually turning it down. J and P discuss overtime bans – why didn’t the union agitate for one and stop the brigade being able to paper over the staffing crisis? P reckons it would have been a hard sell to firefighters who have suffered ten years of real terms pay cuts – overtime can easily be worth several hundred quid a month. I venture that no fire appliance cuts have yet been announced – without a concrete industrial hook, given the severe restrictions anti-union laws force upon us, would legal action have been possible?
In any case, one thing is clear to all of us – whatever problems we have now, there’s more down the track. We need to make sure we’re up to the fight.