It’s the beginning of one of the hottest September weeks on record and Jon Singleton and his firefighters on the Soho red watch are feeling the heat. We’re racing through the alley-like streets of Westminster on a blue light call — nothing out-of-the-ordinary, just a fire alarm at the Churchill War Rooms, according to the note sent through back at the station — but there’s always a particular sense of urgency when it’s a job inside the government security zone, and the protesters and roadworks are hardly helping.
“The other day, it took us 10 minutes to get to a kid who’d been hit by a bus due to roadworks,” Singleton, 50, station commander for the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) Soho outpost on Shaftesbury Avenue, tells me as he slows down to let a man wearing AirPods cross the street in front of us. Working in central London has always posed a challenge for emergency service workers like him and his team of firefighters, but noise cancelling headphone-wearers and traffic at gridlock have become increasingly common causes for delays in recent years. With national staff numbers at their lowest in over a decade and incident numbers up by 25,000 in the year to March, it’s no wonder fire service response times in England are at their highest in 10 years.
Singleton and his team race into the War Rooms dressed in their heavy-duty PPE as a crowd of evacuated tourists watch eagerly from the sidelines in St James’ Park. Engines always attract a certain level of attention, so Singleton and his team are used to being on show by now — but that doesn’t make them any less focused. It’s a false alarm in this instance, likely set off by some dust or burnt toast, but as firefighters they’ve been trained to come to work ready for anything: suspected terror incidents; chemical accidents; body recovery; road traffic collisions; the next Grenfell.
“People think we just squirt water and climb ladders — but it’s so much more than that these days,” Singleton, a father-of-two who joined the LFB in 2018 after decades as a firefighter, tells me later as a call comes in about a man threatening to have a bomb strapped to his back in Kensington (it turns out to be a member of the public experiencing a severe mental health crisis). “We never used to, but we carry two ballistic vests per truck now so if 30 people are hit by a lorry here in Whitehall, we can mobilise and help. We didn’t have that a year ago... Every day is different in this job and it’s brilliant — but it’s definitely got more demanding. There’s a lot more to do.”
Indeed there is. My shift accompanying Singleton and his fellow red watchers comes just days before the hottest weekend of the year so far and any preconceptions I had about burly men sitting around in stations waiting for a 999 call are quickly dashed. Yes, there are sofas and snooker tables in the mess, but the team I meet — two out of 15 of them women — are constantly busy, conducting home fire safety visits when they’re not responding to 999 calls and unable to make it through a full PT session without being interrupted by a passer-by alerting them to a fire in a nearby bin.
Firefighter Mark McLean tells me bin fires are a daily occurrence for the LFB, lifting the lid to show me the cause of the problem: a discarded gas cannister alongside hundreds of semi-smoking cigarette butts. But most of the time that’s one of the lesser of their concerns. We meet just days before the hottest week of the year and by the time I arrive for our 10-and-a-half-hour shift, four LFB trucks are already out responding to a residential fire in Islington, likely caused by an electrical appliance. Just days later, the brigade finds itself tackling three flat fires in three days as temperatures hit a 2023 record-breaking 33.5C across the capital.
The most serious of those fires, a fifth-floor blaze at a property in Whitechapel, sees around 100 firefighters and 15 of the brigade’s fleet of 142 fire engines sent to respond — a significant number of them, when national staff numbers are at their lowest in more than a decade due to Covid, burnout, staffing pressures and below-inflation wage rises (a qualified firefighter earns £43,000 while a firefighter in training earns just £33,000). Before a seven per cent national pay rise was agreed in March this year (backdated to July 2022), many London firefighters spoke of having to turn to foodbanks to make ends meet. “Second jobs have become an essential,” Tommy Lewis, 47, a firefighter in Bexley told me at the end of last year.
Today, Singleton and his Soho colleagues are upbeat, cracking jokes about the station’s in-house “dance studio” (gym) and a high proportion of their peers being so-called failed athletes (the LFB counts several former Lionesses and a current Harlequins Women player among its workforce). The majority of them have second jobs — gardening, window cleaning, taxi driving (useful when you’re racing around the maze that is central London under blue lights) — and none of them pretend they came into this line of work for the money, though firefighter and father-of-five Wayne Green, 48, does say the financial aspect of the job has become more challenging since having a family and the current economic crisis.
Still, Green does it because he loves the camaraderie, the variety, the rewarding moments — the things that keep most of them in the job, when so many others are burning out. One of Singleton’s team is currently off work with PTSD and latest figures show staffing levels across England fell by more than 20 per cent from 44,000 in 2010 to just 35,000 last year due to recruitment pressures and budgetary constraints. According to data, 16 of London’s 142 engines were on average unavailable in July due to staff shortages, with response times in England now up to an average of nine minutes and 12 seconds per call, the highest in a decade.
We carry two ballistic vests now so if 30 people are hit by a lorry here in Whitehall, we can mobilise and help
Rising incident numbers — largely due to climate change, the cost-of-living crisis and the broadening of the LFB’s remit to include more detailed training on things like home fire safety visits and responding to terror incidents — have hardly helped to ease these pressures on remaining crews. Latest figures show the number of fire incidents responded to across England rocketed by more than 25,000 over the financial year ending in March 2023 — the highest total number since 2019, with the hot, dry summer of 2022 playing a key part.
The problem is only likely to worsen as temperatures skyrocket. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently warned that the capital faces the “incredibly worrying” prospect of days that hit 45C in the foreseeable future and forecasters are predicting a “mini heatwave” over the coming weeks, with temperatures of at least 25C into mid-October. “We didn’t have wildfires back [in London] back in 2018,” Singleton tells me. “We’re going to get them every year now.”
Wildfires might be more of a problem in rural-fringing boroughs like Kingston than here in Soho, but Singleton and his crew aren’t short of new challenges either. We spend our day across Westminster’s two stations — Soho and Paddington — the busiest borough in London thanks to the high-profile heritage buildings that come into their remit: among them Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street. “People here know they’re not going to have a quiet night,” says Singleton.
Our first call of the day to Churchill War Rooms quickly proves his point. We rush to Whitehall, where it turns out to be what it is most of the time when they attend a call within the government security zone: a false alarm. “We do this all day, all night,” station officer Tim Martin tells me once the incident has been dealt with.
His borough clocks up an average of 8,000 mobilisations a year — that’s 22 a day — compared to just 700 in outer boroughs like Barnet, but these days that can be anything from fires caused by hoarding due to the cost-of-living crisis to e-bike fires, something London crews now attend every two days thanks to a rise in Deliveroo-type riders and rental bikes. It’s only September and there have already been more e-bike and e-scooter battery fires this year than in the whole of 2022, with the London Assembly raising “serious concerns” over the regulation of such vehicles after a man suffered life-changing injuries trying to tackle an e-bike fire earlier this month.
Over breakfast back in the mess I chat to Singleton and his colleagues about everything from personal fire safety (don’t buy dodgy eBay chargers or charge your phone all night) to the realities of the job: long hours; equipment that adds 50kg to their bodyweight; never knowing what happened to people they save from danger (the one time they ever did was when a motorcyclist they helped popped up on Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E).
It’s not always glamorous, Singleton tells me over his poached eggs and beans. “It’s whatever is going to cause distress to the public,” whether that’s a pigeon stuck in some netting or a woman with her toe stuck in a bath tap — one of the stranger calls he and his team recently attended.
Of course, there are the calls that are memorable in a bad way, too. Staff here regularly reference events like the 7/7 bombings, Westminster Bridge attack and Grenfell fire, as though there is some kind of unwritten timeline they all have etched into their brains. There are memorials on the walls to those who’ve died in service, the most recent being firefighters Adam Mere and Billy Faust who died after tackling a basement fire in Bethnal Green in 2004.
We didn’t have wildfires back [in London] back in 2018... We’re going to get them every year now
“For people in most jobs, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t go home at the end of the day... But sometimes the worst-case scenario does happen [in this job] — as we’ve seen over the years,” says Will Thompson, 35, station officer for Paddington. “Of course we make sure we put everything in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but it is a danger of the job. That’s what makes it that bit different.”
The numbers can be harrowing. A total of 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell disaster of 2017 — the deadliest structural fire in Britain since 1988 — and the brigade has since introduced packs of smoke hoods (masks to give conscious members of the public 15 minutes of breathable air) to every vehicle, on the unfortunate occasion that anything on that scale should ever happen again. They’ve used the hoods several times since they were introduced after the Grenfell enquiry, leading firefighter Tom Hughes tells me as he shows me around a truck at Paddington. “We didn’t have a method of bringing casualties through a building filled with smoke before”.
Singleton remembers the sheer scale of the horrors of that night at the Grenfell Tower — all his colleagues do — but says it’s often the smaller human moments that stay with him after traumatic incidents: the call ringing in the pocket of a drunk man who’d fallen between two Tube carriages (”I could see it was his mum and you just think ‘that lady is about to get the worst phone call of her life’); the socks on the body of a nurse who went under a lorry when she was cycling. “It’s everything that me and you did this morning that’s lead up to that,” he says, choked.
Green says he’s seen all of that, too, in his three decades as a firefighter. But for him it’s the societal realities he finds the most harrowing, like the body of an 88-year-old man they discovered in a flat last Christmas, whose neighbours didn’t know him. “I found that one quite tough,” he says, showing me the call sign of the first fire station he worked at tattooed on his left thigh. “The worst thing is you never get used to [this job]. But that’s also the best thing. Why would you want to get used to that? I don’t want to get used to it. That’s what makes this job so unique.”
Trauma has and will always be a part of this job — suicide and body recovery jobs have noticeably increased since the Covid pandemic — but talking more openly about that trauma is something that is changing for the better, says Green. Singleton points to the station’s roof garden — part of a gardening competition between stations to boost wellbeing — and a counselling corner, where staff can stop by for a chat with a professional between 2pm and 6am.
Crew members receive automatic counselling calls within 24 hours after any job involving a fatality, but Green says it’s the informal conversations about mental health — chats between colleagues, feeling comfortable to talk about trauma — that have most improved in recent years.
His colleague Alan Taylor, borough commander for Westminster, says a lot of that changed after the Grenfell tragedy. “People are definitely more open to identifying that they’ve got mental health pressures now,” he says.
Diversity, too, is another element of the job that’s changing for the better. Less than 10 years ago just 2.5 per cent of LFB staff were female and roughly two thirds were ex-servicemen, but today more than 10 per cent are female and staff come from a much wider set of backgrounds that reflect the city they are serving (anyone over the age of 17, in possession of a full driving license and with good fitness levels can apply to become a firefighter).
People are definitely more open to idenitifying that they’ve got mental health pressures since Grenfell
“The way we operate is much more diverse now,” says Singleton, with recruitment taking place via everything from social media to an outreach table at London’s Pride festival every summer. They had a queue of at least 250 interested candidates at this year’s Pride stall on Shaftesbury Avenue, one of several of the LFB’s stations to employ at least two female leading firefighters.
“It wouldn’t be for everyone, but I love the thrill... I’ve never had that Monday morning feeling in this job,” says one of them, Hannah Titchener, 31, a former PE teacher and amateur footballer who joined the LFB six years ago. Her father was a firefighter and spent years discouraging her from joining because of her gender, but “it was a different place for women back then“. Since joining, she says she’s never once felt treated differently here because of her gender.
Green hopes that ‘big burly male’ stereotype will remain a thing of the past. He loves the idea that a group of young girls can look up at a fire truck and see a woman who looks like them behind the wheel. Taylor agrees, noting the increasing importance of the job’s “softer”, community-focused side that might be more traditionally associated with a female skillset. “People only used to interact with firefighters when the red doors opened, but Grenfell had a big impact on that,” he says. “It was a bit of a catalyst to really listen to the needs of the community.”
Part of that greater community focus is an emphasis on being proactive as well as reactive: conducting home fire safety visits targeted towards higher-risk individuals, and reducing the LFB’s own carbon output in a bid to lead by example. The brigade just celebrated its first carbon-neutral station in Walthamstow and is hoping to have an entirely electric fleet of fire engines in future years — an important step, if temperatures are set to keep climbing, as forecasters predict.
With last year’s rise in incident numbers put down to a 26 per cent increase in secondary fires and a 45 per cent increase in outdoor primary fires, recruitment will continue to be a priority too, then, as temperatures rise. Not all of us might be glad we’re over the worst of the heatwave, hopefully, but Singleton and his team in Westminster certainly are.