A year on from the Grenfell disaster, firefighters across the country feel undervalued and overstretched by cutbacks. Etan Smallman talks to them about the daily pressures
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In the days after the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, the same scenes played out across the capital. “Every fire station in London had fridges full of cakes for weeks and weeks, because members of the public would come in and they just wanted to thank everybody”, recalls Leoni Munslow, a firefighter in Tooting, in the south of the city. “Even being on the bus or at an incident, people will come over and shake your hand.”
The public’s gratitude was echoed by politicians, with Theresa May paying tribute to their “incredible bravery, working in truly appalling conditions”.
The London Fire Brigade has since faced more scrutiny for its handling of the disaster, with the ongoing independent public inquiry hearing last week about how Grenfell residents were being advised by firefighters to stay in their flats until it was too late for many to escape.
But nobody would doubt the courage of those who attended the fire. And as Britain prepares to mark the tragedy’s first anniversary on Thursday, many firefighters who have to face life-threatening risks worry about how quickly a nation’s focus on fire safety can dissipate – and feel ministers’ plaudits ring hollow.
“It’s frustrating to be told what a fantastic job we’re doing with one hand and then have politicians cheering as they guarantee us another pay freeze,” Munslow tells i. She is referring to when Conservative MPs rejoiced in the House of Commons just two weeks after the tower block fire, when they blocked a Labour bid to raise salaries.
“They say what a great job we do after big incidents like Grenfell and the terrorist attacks but won’t give us more than a one per cent pay rise. There are firefighters that are really struggling, nationally. They’re struggling to pay rent and feed their families on a full-time job – we work 48 hours a week.”
The 31-year-old says many of her colleagues spend four hours a day commuting into the city because they cannot afford to live anywhere near where they work. More than half of London firefighters live outside the capital.
Fire and rescue workers have always been able to work second jobs on their days off. “But I don’t think you should be forced to take on second employment to be able to live,” Munslow says as we chat before she starts her 13.5-hour shift. “People are coming in tired. It’s like doing a nine-to-five job during the week and then having a second job over the weekend.”
David Badillo, a firefighter who attended Grenfell, declined an invitation from the Prime Minister to a Downing Street reception to honour emergency workers in October last year, saying he would be “working my second job to pay my rent”.
Badillo, whose other role is as a labourer for £80 a day, told the Daily Mirror: “I have to do this due to eight years of pay cuts. So when you’re giving out your meaningless praise for our emergency services, remember I hold you in complete contempt.”
We tend to assume firefighters spends most of their day, well, fighting fires. But they are called out to everything from car accidents to floods and anything that requires cutting equipment or a ladder.
It means Munslow’s work days tend to lurch from the traumatic to the farcical. One minute she can be attending to flames that have destroyed a home or a life. The next, she can be called to emergencies she classifies euphemistically as “weird and wonderful things”.
“I’m trying to think how to phrase this appropriately,” she says hesitantly. “Erm… people getting parts of their body trapped in certain places.”
Wouldn’t they go to A&E? “Yeah, but then we get called to the hospital, because we have ring cutters. Quite often, people present at a fire station. They turn up outside the door.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked. Remember the Bristolian amateur gymnast who got stuck in a window last year, trying to retrieve a poo that she had thrown out of her Tinder date’s toilet window because of her embarrassment that it “would not flush”? It was Avon Fire and Rescue service to the rescue.
Calls concerning felines in foliage are a rarity, contrary to popular belief. “They get hungry and come down,” Munslow says, adding there is a reason why “no one ever sees dead cats up trees”.
However, the fire service does not apply the same philosophy to objects that refuse to be dislodged from embarrassed humans. “No, we don’t just leave people, saying, ‘If it goes on, it will come off’,” Munslow says. “Normally, by the time they declare that they’re trapped, they’ve been there for quite a long time. That is a thing I didn’t expect to be a part of the job! On Valentine’s Day, it’s all you can hear on the radio. It’s crazy.”
Dodgy phone chargers bought from market stalls have replaced chip pans as one of the most frequent causes of blazes. Overloaded electric extension cables and plugs are also a menace, along with candles, barbecues and people cooking while drunk. Munslow’s key guidance is to always have a working smoke alarm.
Female firefighters are still a source of curiosity to some people. Munslow, who spends her spare time competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments, gets “double-takes all the time, especially in vans, when they’re high up, level with you – you just see the look of surprise on their face”, she says. “I’ve been asked: are you a real firefighter? I’ve been asked if I just answer the phones. I’ve had people say: ‘What, they let you drive?’”
Munslow, though, has gone one better than her boss, Dany Cotton, the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, who said in an interview last year that she never trained to drive a fire engine “because I just didn’t want the hassle. A woman fire engine driver? Just non-stop criticism and comments and cracks about my reversing. It would be unbearable”. Cotton says: “We have to change that perception of a 6ft hairy-arsed bloke who can kick a door down.”
Munslow says: “Quite often, we get to office blocks and women have come down to look at the big burly guys they’re expecting to bowl out. Then me and Katie jump off the truck and we break hearts.”
Fire and rescue staff across the country have been complaining of falling safety standards and rising response times while enduring cuts in recent years. John West, who works at Chester Fire Station, tells i: “The biggest challenge for the modern firefighter is that we used to have national standards and we haven’t now. We have to deal with tipping up somewhere understaffed.” He warns that firefighters and, by implication, the public they serve are becoming less safe.
“I don’t want to drive through a county where there’s not enough pumps available if I have a car crash. It’s a postcode lottery. It’s a mishmash of all different standards and it’s always a race to the bottom. There have been massive cuts and it has to affect the service.”
There were 346 fire-related fatalities in England last year, an increase on the previous 12 months – even if you remove the horrifying Grenfell death toll of 71. The number of fire incidents also rose for the second year running.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, which is 100 years old this year, responded by saying: “It isn’t complicated: the fire and rescue service is cut to the bone, and the result is more people dying in fires.”
He says that deaths should be on the decline, thanks to social factors such as a drop in smoking, deep-fat frying and open fires – but instead of society reaping the benefits of those wider shifts, they are being offset by government cuts.
“They’re using that as an excuse to reduce standards, which they may get away with for a while, and then something like Grenfell comes along and reminds people that fire does happen, and has utterly devastating effects.”
A Home Office statistical bulletin reveals “response times to fires have increased gradually over the past 20 years”. The average, for a serious fire in England, is eight minutes and 44 seconds, 33 seconds longer than in 2011-12.
A Government spokesman says: “Single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will see an increase in core spending power of 1.2 per cent in cash terms in 2018-19, and they can still make more savings: from procurement; collaboration; and smarter working.”
What campaigners hope to rely upon is our concern about the issue. “We need the public more than ever, that’s the problem,” says West. “It’s not a national scandal – as it should be, in our opinion.”
Fire service cuts
Between 2011 and 2017 services in England lost more than a quarter of their specialist fire-safety staff who inspect buildings to check they meet standards, a Guardian analysis found last year.
The Fire Brigades Union Scotland said last October that dozens of the nation’s fire engines were unusable as there were not enough crews to operate them, after leaked documents showed that stations would have been closed and firefighters made redundant.
Fire service chiefs in north Wales are considering how to make £1.9m of savings over 2019 and 2020. One engine in Wrexham could be axed and stations downgraded, though the worst-case loss of 52 officers has been rejected.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service is facing further cuts, having already said it would be losing a dedicated crew for operating specialist life-saving equipment at high-rise buildings in Londonderry.
The London Fire Brigade was forced to close 10 fire stations, remove 27 fire engines and cut more than 500 jobs to meet savings of £10m under London’s former Mayor Boris Johnson, enduring the most severe cuts it has ever faced. An independent review found further frontline cuts should not be made.