Climate complacency has left firefighters ill-prepared, says union chief

<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

A “horrible complacency” about the impact of the climate emergency on the fire service has left it under-funded and ill-prepared, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union has warned.

Matt Wrack said firefighters were at the sharp end of tackling the impact of climate change and warned that this summer’s wildfires had to act as a “wake-up call” to the UK government to engage with those on the frontline.

As he travels the country urging firefighters to vote for strike action over a proposed 2% pay increase in just over a month’s time, Wrack said the service had faced “historic cuts” under a Conservative government that had left the service less resilient.

“If the wildfires we saw this summer do not act as a wake-up call, that is quite shocking,” he said. “Climate change is a long-term threat and the fire service needs to prepare for it and plan for it. [The FBU] could play a much bigger role and we would be interested in discussing that with government, but it’s very hard to do when all they’re doing is slashing funding.”

Guardian analysis of publicly available data shows total firefighter headcount across 46 English fire authorities has fallen 20.4% since 2010, with 35,279 in 2021 compared with 44,307 in 2010, accounting for full-time and on-call firefighters.

Wrack compared the lack of preparedness to deal with climate change to earlier fire service warnings about the risk of large-scale fires because of building control deregulation resulting in the use of combustible cladding, pre-Grenfell. He added that the risk of pandemics was highlighted in the first version of the national risk register in 2008.

Wrack joins protesters on the fifth annual Silent Walk at Grenfell Tower in London
Wrack joins protesters on the fifth annual Silent Walk at Grenfell Tower in London in June. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

“I think exactly the same things could happen again and some sort of disaster could happen,” he said. “There’s a real horrible complacency that people think, well, let’s fly by the seat of our pants, and hope nothing particularly serious happens, and if it does, we’ll say, ‘well, no one could have expected this’.”

While “historic level of cuts since 2010” had angered and demoralised members, a below-inflation pay offer had brought the issue to a head and led the union’s executive committee to ballot for strike action, said Wrack.

Firefighters and firefighter control staff received a 2% annual pay offer on 27 June, but with inflation running at a near 40-year high of 9.9% the union argues staff are being asked to take a significant pay cut while facing greater dangers.

A Home Office spokesperson said pay was decided by the National Joint Council (NJC), not central government, adding: “Firefighters work tirelessly to protect our communities and it is essential they are paid fairly for the important work they undertake. At the same time, any decision on pay must be justifiable to the taxpayer.”

Wrack said the union was balloting for strike action because it had no other choice. “It has become a case of what else can we do when they ignore us on staffing levels, ignore us on PPE equipment and then they ignore us on pay as well,” he said. “It is a very difficult one, and we don’t want to do it because we know it will have an impact on safety”.

A number of strikes were postponed during the official mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II – but this autumn there could be a series of strikes including by barristers, bin collectors, teachers and nurses as well as postal and rail workers.

Speaking about the sudden re-emergence of a movement many had dismissed as moribund, Wrack is enthusiastic. “It’s a really fascinating development for someone who’s been a trade unionist since my youth,” he says. “I think people are thinking enough is enough – we’ve had 12 years now of being kicked in the teeth.”

He also argues that while the union movement is facing “powerful forces”, attempts to stir up “traditional anti-union bashing” have backfired. But with the union movement down to about 6 million members from its peak of 12 million in the early 1980s, unions have to find a way of bringing non-unionised workers with them, he argues.

“There’s a pretty unique opportunity for unions to make the case for their own members, but we also have to make a case for justice for workers more generally,” he said. “We have to show how unfair the world of work is – and show that the only way people will improve that is by getting organised and standing up for themselves.”