Fire Brigades Union

Fire Brigades Union

November 12, 2008 06:30 ET

Fire Brigades Union: Firefighter Deaths Increasing-and They Ought to be Reducing, Says Union Leader

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM--(Marketwire - Nov. 12, 2008) -

EMBARGO: DELIVERY TIME - 11.30 A.M. WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 12 2008

The past five years have seen the worst figures for twenty years for all operational deaths among firefighters, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said today.

Yet "We have better fire engines, we have better equipment, including personal protective equipment. We have a better understanding of many of the risks we face. In theory at least we have better operational procedures. We should therefore have seen a decline in serious and fatal accidents and we should have been able to maintain that."

Mr. Wrack was speaking to firefighters lobbying Parliament on firefighter safety. On Monday the union released research showing that eight firefighters died on duty in 2007 alone, the worst year since 1985. There has been a sharp increase in firefighter deaths in the last five years.

- In the five years since 2003, at least 22 firefighters have died while on duty, significantly more than in the previous five years.

- And more firefighters are being killed while actually attending fires. From February 1996 until October 2002 there were no recorded fire deaths in the UK. However in the last five years (2003-2007), at least 13 firefighters have been killed at fires.

Mr. Wrack argued that these official figures may be an underestimate. He said:

"Firstly, there are problems in relation to record keeping. The official records are a patchwork. The research looked back over thirty years. We can conclude that there is under-recording of the number of deaths. There has been little or no analysis of trends."

In addition, he said, "neither heart attacks (even those when attending fires) nor Road Traffic Accidents (even those while in an appliance on the way to an incident) are classified as reportable." Some firefighters have died from heart attacks at an incident or on their way back from an incident.

He said that to fail to record deaths in accidents involving fire engines en route to fires could not be accepted. "To suggest that this also applies to firefighters, who may indeed be trained to ignore normal traffic regulations in certain circumstances, is to ignore a crucial area of workplace safety. We have seen at least 29 deaths from RTAs during the period we have looked at - one per year."

Mr. Wrack's full speech is attached.


Text of speech by Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack to firefighters lobbying Parliament about firefighter safety

In 1991 I was a firefighter in East London and a divisional official of the FBU. I was called upon to investigate a double fatality. I knew most of the many people involved in that tragedy and I saw the effect on many of them over the following months and years. I also saw some of what it did to families.

There is no greater challenge to us as a union than how we deal with such tragedies - and we have had to deal with far too many of them in recent years.

Indeed a key aim of this lobby and this campaign is to win justice for the families of those lost. Nothing can replace loved ones lost in such circumstances. Our job is to provide advice, support and assistance at such times. Our job is also to ensure that the facts come out. I have spoken to a number of families in such circumstances and know that this desire for finding out what happened and why is absolutely essential.

I want to pay tribute to the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty and would like to mention the two who are here today: Dave Faust and Robert Wornham. Both have shown a steady determination to ensure that the lessons of those two tragedies are learned so that hopefully no other families' sons or daughters will be killed in the same circumstances again. Dave Faust said to me recently that he had known little or nothing about the fire service in the past. Listening to him in recent days demonstrates that he has a very clear grasp of the key issues facing our service today. I hope that all those in a position to ensure that lessons are learned and applied will listen and act.

Recent tragedies - our feeling - conference

Firefighters have a proud tradition of paying respects to colleagues in such circumstances. Most of you will at some time have attended the funeral of a colleague.

At one of the funerals after those terrible events in Warwickshire the minister conducting the service commented on this. He remarked at the numbers who had come - from all parts of the UK to pay tribute. He remarked that it was a sign of real solidarity among firefighters.

And there is real solidarity. It is based on team working, on shared experiences and on shared risk. This team-work is behind the best traditions of the fire service and it is at the heart of the values of the Fire Brigades Union.

In the past few years we have seen and attended far too many funerals. The tragedy at Atherstone-on-Stour made many sit up in alarm. This was the worst loss of life since seven firefighters lost their lives at the fire at Sher Brothers in Kilbirnie Street in Glasgow in 1972 - 35 years earlier. And, of course the Warwickshire tragedy followed on a series of other alarming fatal incidents.

As a result of that our union's conference in May this year asked for research to be carried out. The report you have today is a result of that and on behalf of FBU members throughout the UK I want to thank Paul Hampton of LRD for producing it.

Record keeping

This report highlights some alarming facts.

Firstly, there are problems in relation to record keeping. The official records are a patchwork. The research looked back over thirty years. We can conclude that there is under-recording of the number of deaths. There has been little or no analysis of trends. This must raise significant concern as to whether the lessons of these terrible incidents are really being learned.

There have been different approaches taken between different parts of the UK. In Scotland, for example, there are no official records of retained firefighters killed on duty yet our research has identified that retained firefighters have died on duty during the period studied.

There have also been differences of approach between individual Fire Services.

It has also emerged that as a result of this incomplete recording system, there are firefighters who have died who have not received adequate recognition. Paying tribute to those lost does little enough to alleviate the loss - but failing to properly pay tribute is simply not acceptable.

So, as a result of this report we will work with others to improve the records. We will work with the Firefighters Memorial Charitable Trust to ensure that any gaps in their records are addressed.

We will seek discussion within the Fire and Rescue Service, and with the governments and assemblies responsible, to improve the record keeping across the UK. We seek agreement for a broad definition so that local fire services record as much information as possible. There are examples from the United States which could be a starting point for these discussions.

We need such a broad definition so that trends can be monitored and concerns addressed. We have various cases of firefighters who have died at or following operational incidents. Some of these deaths have been identified as resulting from a heart attack. The service needs to monitor any such trends as there are clear implications for firefighter safety and welfare.

Road Traffic Accidents

In relation to record keeping, the report also identifies another, wider problem. The Health and Safety Executive is given the task under legislation for keeping records of work related accidents, including fatal ones. However, neither heart attacks (even those when attending fires) nor Road Traffic Accidents (even those while in an appliance on the way to an incident) are classified as reportable. We believe this is unacceptable. In relation to Road Traffic Accidents we believe the current position is indefensible. It seems to suggest that nothing can be done to avoid such tragedies and we cannot accept that.

This is clearly a wider issue here as well - of concern to many beyond the fire service. Thousands of working people are required by their employment to drive vehicles on the roads or to travel as passengers. To suggest that fatal accidents in such circumstances are not work related must lead to a significant underestimation of workplace accidents and fatalities in the UK.

To suggest that this also applies to firefighters, who may indeed be trained to ignore normal traffic regulations in certain circumstances, is to ignore a crucial area of workplace safety. We have seen at least 29 deaths from RTAs during the period we have looked at - one per year. That is unacceptable and we will be calling for the HSE to amend its practice in this respect.

Operational deaths and deaths at fires

You will see from the report some worrying trends in terms of operational deaths. The past five years have seen the worst figures for twenty years for all operational deaths.

We have seen improvements in our service over the past 30 years. We have better fire engines; we have better equipment, including personal protective equipment. We have a better understanding of many of the risks we face. In theory at least we have better operational procedures. We should therefore have seen a decline in serious and fatal accidents and we should have been able to maintain that. We need to be asking therefore, why we have seen this increase in the past five years. We cannot afford to wait for another five years to see if this is confirmed by statisticians as a trend. We need to act now.

The total numbers of these fatal accidents appears at first sight to be small. However, we need to remember that the workforce itself is small. There are currently approximately 58,000 firefighters (wholetime and retained). In truth, we know that many are now engaged in more than one contract so the true figures are lower than that.

The most recent statistics from the HSE - just published - show a fatal accident rate for all workers of 0.8 per 100,000 employees. Using the HSE official figures for the fire service (which ignore at least three other deaths at incidents) the latest figures show a fatal accident rate in the service of 8.5 per 100,000 employees.

That is more than ten times the average for all workers in the UK today.

While workplace fatalities have experienced a general, if slow decline, we are concerned that the fire service is going in the opposite direction.

Deaths at fires

The single most alarming fact identified in our report relates to deaths at fires.

For a period of almost seven years - between February 1996 and October 2002 - there were no deaths at fires recorded. Yet in the five years from 2003 to 2007 we have seen 13 firefighters killed at fires - the worst five year period in the entire thirty years studied. And it would have still been the worst five year period even without the terrible tragedy at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007.

If we recall that 30 years has been the approximate length of a firefighter's career, we can state quite clearly that we have experienced in the past five years the worst fatality rate in an entire generation.

I truly hope that there is nobody in the service, or anywhere in public life, who suggests that there is nothing here to concern us.

Key issue is learning lessons - concern that this is not happening

So the report identifies some alarming trends.

The key issue for all of us is whether we as a service genuinely learn the lessons from such tragedies. That is the best memorial we can raise to our colleagues.

In every single case, these terrible incidents are examined closely, by the FBU, by the local fire service and sometimes by the HSE and the police. There are a range of detailed reports available and we can identify a number of trends, particularly from the most recent tragedies where investigation has been completed.

We are concerned, however, that there is no systematic approach to ensuring that all firefighters are made aware of the lessons to be learned or that all fire and Rescue Services make the necessary improvements. These may be to training, to equipment, to procedures, to local risk management plans.

Perhaps this is our biggest area of concern. We have been raising it for some considerable time now and we hope that ministers, policy makers and Fire Service managers will start to listen, at CLG, within the Scottish Government, Welsh assembly and in Northern Ireland.

Setting standards - who is doing it?

It comes down I believe, to the issue of the setting of standards within our service - within our profession.

The past five years has seen a process of change - called 'modernisation' - within the fire and rescue service. Some of the changes may be welcomed but many have simply not been thought through adequately and many are quite simply misjudged.

We previously had bodies within the service called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) and the Scottish CFBAC. These bodies, involving all the key organisations within the service dealt precisely with the issue of the development of professional standards. Issues of operational concern; equipment; training; procedures and wider strategic issues were all addressed.

We also had an Inspectorate to ensure that fire services met the standards set.

This is what the Inspectors report said about the CFBAC in 1999/2000:

HMI report 1999/2000:

The arrangements to bring together all the fire service stakeholders through the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) bring greater consistency to the guidance and advice developed for the fire service in England and Wales.

Yet a short time later, under 'modernisation' the proposal was made to abolish the CFBAC and SCFBAC. This is what was said in the consultation on this issue in Scotland:

Consultation on the new structure for advising minister in relation to Scottish FRS:

It has been widely acknowledged that the previous UK arrangements have not worked well as they were seen to be slow, bureaucratic and unable to deliver the required strategic guidance.

We now have new structures in place in England, in Wales and in Scotland. It is unclear how NI fits into this new modernised FRS in terms of setting standards and developing policy and guidance.

So it is worth looking at what has happened in the 'modernised' and presumably speeded-up fire service of today. In April of this year a paper was presented in England to the Ministerial Advisory body - the Practitioners' forum. It was submitted by Ken Knight, the new Chief advisor on FRS matters:

Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor: paper to Practitioners' Forum - 15th April 2008:

The environment in which the fire and rescue service operates requires appropriate guidance to ensure safe systems of work for firefighters and effective service delivery to the community. The increased need for resilience in response to major incidents, including extreme weather events and acts of terrorism, means that a single fire and rescue service may be unable to provide all the resources required to resolve the incident. National guidance provides a consistency of approach, common operational practices and facilitates interoperability between fire and rescue services. It also confirms shared good practice on matters relating to operational response, community safety and regulatory fire safety issues.

... there is an urgent need to progress matters in respect of operational
doctrine as it is recognised that a gap has emerged over the last few years and further delay is not acceptable.

The same situation exists in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland. There has been throughout that time a failure to address this gap in the development of standards, procedures and best practice in relation to operational practice for emergencies. This, by the way is not meant as a criticism of Ken Knight. He has been in post for just a year and this problem goes back at least four years. Indeed we welcome the paper which Ken Knight recently presented on this issue and we look forward to taking that debate forward.

So, let us consider these things for a moment. The Advisory Council was abolished because it was claimed to be too slow. But for the four years after it was abolished next to nothing was done to fill the gap in operational guidance to the extent that "further delay is not acceptable."

Importance of Operational Guidance/standards

Fragmentation of the service

In this profession, in this service, the setting of standards is crucial to the safety of the firefighters and to their ability to deal with emergencies professionally and thereby to increase safety to the public. So the history of firefighting involves the gradual development of better equipment and better procedures. That is how we have genuinely improved and modernised throughout our history. And it has been done most effectively when the professionals (firefighters) have been closely involved in the process. Indeed it cannot be done in any other way.

Unfortunately, as we have outlined, that has come to something of a stop throughout the UK over the past five years.

Emergency intervention matters

Behind these developments lies the thinking of certain politicians and policy makers within the civil service. We have seen a growing emphasis on preventative activities - at the expense of planning and preparing for operational emergencies.

The FBU fully supports measures to prevent fires and other emergencies. We have been fully involved for many years in developing this area of work. However, we do not agree that it can be done at the expense of preparing for emergency intervention.

It is at emergency incidents that firefighters face most risk; it is in such situations that they may face the risk of serious injury or death and it therefore needs to be built into planning from start to finish.

Emergency intervention also saves lives. Our figures show rescues just from fires and Road Traffic Collisions running at almost 17,000 a year (16,744). And this figure excludes many other rescues such as those from floods and other such incidents.

Thousand of people - every year - are rescued by emergency intervention on the part of firefighters.

This is a success story for the service. But it is one which nobody else seems to want to tell. Government stopped publishing these figures six years ago and it is now left to the FBU to collect them.

It appears to firefighters that this is a part of a general drive to undermine the importance of emergency intervention: to pretend that better education about how to avoid fires will reduce the importance of tackling fires. That approach is flawed and dangerous; both to firefighters and to the public.

Fragmentation

The current situation in our service is increasingly leading to the fragmentation of the fire and rescue service and of the firefighting profession in the UK.

Following one fatal incident, we have one Brigade (London) reviewing its procedures for the use of breathing apparatus and revising the tables for calculating the safe working duration of a Breathing Apparatus set i.e. a development of the professional guidance eon the safe use of this equipment. Why has this happened in London only? Surely this is an issue for the whole service - the entire profession.

Why do we have wholetime firefighters in some services given twelve or more weeks training before being sent to fire stations when in others they are sent out and sent to incidents after only four weeks?

Why are some fire services providing regular and scheduled real fire training while others cannot?

These variations cannot continue.

We hear from those in authority at government and assembly level that a key issue for our service is resilience i.e. the ability to cope with major disruptions. This could involve, as we have seen, terrorist attacks. It could involve, as we have seen, major floods or other threats from climate change.

We have seen firefighters from Wales working in Yorkshire during the floods, or firefighters from London in Scotland following the Stockline disaster. Working with each other is already a regular occurrence. Yet we see the service increasingly fragmented; including fragmented training and fragmented standards.

Listen to the voice of the professionals

There are a whole range of concerns raised in this report. These concerns are also confirmed by the issues which firefighters raise with us directly.

One of the key challenges is for government and others in authority in this service to stop trying to ignore the concerns of firefighters.

Firefighters are the professionals who deliver this service in all its aspects. The Fire Brigades Union is the voice of those professionals.

We speak on behalf of the vast majority of uniformed firefighters, at all levels within the service, from the newest trainees to very senior managers.

There is a vast wealth of technical knowledge, expertise, skill and experience among FBU members and we demand - that this professional voice and these professional concerns are listened to.

After all, it is firefighters who are out there every day in our communities engaging with young people to try to reduce arson and other anti-social behaviour.

It is firefighters who are out in our communities every day speaking to the elderly and making them safer in their homes.

It is firefighters who have provided the expert technical advice on fire safety in workplaces and public buildings.

It is firefighters who, in our training departments, have the expertise to genuinely improve this service for the benefit of the safety of the public and of firefighters.

It is firefighters who every day handle those emergency calls in our fire controls and ensure the efficient and professional dispatch of firefighters to a whole range of emergencies.

It is firefighters, who respond when fires break out. It is we who head towards the building while others must go in the opposite direction.

It is firefighters who attended those terrible floods and despite inadequate equipment and resources worked wonders to make our communities safer.

It is firefighters, who when those bombs went off, went down into those tunnels in order to try to save life.

All of these things firefighters do for the benefit of public safety.

This is what firefighters do.

This is what we do. And we are proud to do it. But in return we ask that the views of these professionals, these experts are listened to.

That way: we can see a genuine improvement in the fire and rescue service for the benefit of our communities and of those working within the service.

That way: we can ensure that the lessons of those terrible tragedies are learned and are acted upon.

That way: we can be the best and a lasting tribute to our colleagues who we have remembered today.

Contact Information

  • Fire Brigades Union
    Francis Beckett
    020 8349 9194 or 07813001372