With more than 300 flood warnings in place – 16 being severe, so posing a danger to life – across England and Wales, firefighters have been severely stretched just weeks after Fire-Service cutbacks were felt in the capital.
Fire chiefs have justified a nationwide programme of cuts, which led last month to the closure of Clerkenwell Fire Station, on the grounds that the number of fires has plummeted by 64% over the past decade.
But with floods set to persist – or even worsen – for several weeks yet, and storms predicted to rise in both frequency and intensity (if you believe the consensus on climate change), the Fire Service may be needed more than ever – albeit because of excessive water rather than fire.
So the flooding crisis has not only cast doubt on the wisdom of scaling back the service, but also raised questions about the nature of its role and the equipment it needs.
A month’s rain falling in less than an hour has become a commonplace phenomenon recently, and relentless rain and severe weather are forecast to continue, inevitably leading to more rivers overflowing their banks, additional sea flooding and damage such as the destruction of the only railway line into Cornwall and the increased incidence of surface-water floods resulting from heavy rainfall, such as on the Somerset Levels.
Cause and effect
The effects of flooding include swamped homes, injured people, streets awash with debris and water, disrupted communications, cancelled sports fixtures, impassable roads and railway lines, damaged infrastructure, shattered or blocked drainage and sewage systems and collapsing coastlines, not to mention the risk to human life from drowning.
The UK’s FRSs already have a rescue remit to release people trapped in vehicles as a result of road traffic incidents. But although not part of their statutory duties – they are entitled to charge for pumping out floodwater – firefighters have been willingly helping people affected by floods in their homes and in flooded countryside, using high-volume and specialist pumps and flood rescue teams often made up of people from individual fire services working together.
They have also been carrying out house-to-house checks, issuing warnings, evacuating homes – even an entire town in Jaywick, on England’s east coast – sending out rescue boats, freeing people from submerged vehicles, rescuing a caravan park and protecting infrastructure, all while offering welfare support to distressed people affected by the floods. The service has also given safety advice to people in the event of a flood on how to prepare, something most people do not do, and what to do and not do once a flood has started.
As the extreme weather events that the UK is currently experiencing are predicted to become more frequent in the future, an increasing number of fire crews are being trained to assist in the event of a flood and the number of emergency rescue teams in England and Wales equipped to tackle flooding has more than quadrupled, with £2.5m allocated to fund water rescue teams, mostly within the fire service, until 2017. Firefighters are also being trained in helping people trapped in swollen rivers.
Investigating the causes
Meanwhile Essex FRS has announced it will become the first FRS in the UK to investigate the causes of flooding and then work with communities to reduce the problems that cause it and drive down flood incidents.
Will other FRSs follow suit?
@ cliff harding, that is the big mistake actually. Reduction in fire calls can’t justify the reduction in staff in any way. It doesn’t make any sense that we want to use firefighting staff in every emergency situation and still want to downsize the fire departments on the pretext of reduction in fire incidents.
This is no doubt a commendable step forward by ESSEX Fire and Rescue Service. This is the right way to doing things; find out the causes of the problem and try to extinguish those causes. Their announcement should certainly inspire other fire services to follow the example and instigate investigations for finding the causes in their own communities.
“Firefighters have been willingly helping people affected by floods in their homes”. And what are we doing in turn? Instead of rewarding them, we are actually punishing them with job cuts, station closures and budget cuts for doing what is not their statutory duty? Are we not sending the message that if you do good work and make the community safer, you are going to suffer because you are no more needed?
Unpalatable it may well be for coalition Ministers at Westminster; the way forward is for government to make it a statutory duty that Fire Authorities will provide a proper response to flooding anywhere in the UK, funded from the centre. Now is the time for CEO's and Fire Authorities to call upon government to recognise and acknowledge the professionalism, skills and dedication of existing Fire and Rescue services, our communities are so proud of, and accept existing Fire Brigades play an essential role during a variety of situations particularly flooding. FA's should be suitably resourced to respond immediately minimising suffering and getting local businesses back to work without unnecessary delays.
I was involved in the floods of 2005 which swamped the most of Cumbria. It was said then that this was a once in 200year event. In 2009, areas of Cumbria were badly affected again, hardly 4 years later. Cumbria trained its regular crews in swift water techniques and still continue to cut its staff. The reasons stated are the fact that FIRE calls have reduced. As your article points out FIRES are no longer the primary incidents that the Fire Service attend. The mixture of incidents is so varied especially in a rural brigade where they attend flooding, farm incidents, RTC's, chemical incidents but to name a few, plus preparing for what could be a major incident in Sellafield. The fact is the Government and local councils have used the emergency services and an easy target for cuts and unfortunately in our present state we are now under resourced to give the service the public require and deserve.