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Tagged: / Posted: 14 March 2009

This post is somewhat long. However, it is necessarily so. The destruction of journalism seems to have been under way for some time. The book prompted me to write what I believe are the parallels which are in the early but not insignificant stages for the fire service. Perhaps an investigative opportunity.

 The recent (or perhaps not so recent) Fire Service strike for increase in pay was concluded with many Fire Service personnel very unhappy with the outcome. To all intents and purposes the Fire Service personnel lost the dispute in a very significant fashion. But then not very often do such disputes conclude with a happy ending. Sadly the long-term effects on what occurred will not be realised or appreciated for many years yet. Unfortunately when those effects take place, everyone (and I do mean everyone) will find themselves to be the loser. I am not wishing to be the prophet of doom, however I have voiced this previously but have never actually put pen to paper/or finger to keyboard, until now.

The scenario of the Fire Service of the years leading up to the dispute of 2002/3 was of the majority of Firemen (/Fire-fighter whichever term you prefer.) joining the service in their twenties and serving for around 25-30 years, then retiring. During this service there was always a wizened or wise-ned “old hand” to guide, inform and generally educate the younger, normally eager (Not to mention often gung-ho) youngsters. Knowledge and Practical Experience over brute force and ignorance. The methodology of dealing with fires/ road accidents cannot be learned from a book. At least not in the true sense of the word.

 Every fire is different,- The element of risk-(what you do if lives can be saved is OR SHOULD BE riskier than what is done if lives are not at risk.) The fire loading- i.e. the potential fuel available to the flames and the likelihood of said fire reaching that fuel. Weather- fire spread in a downpour is going to be minimal compared to gusting winds after a dry spell. These are the more obvious facets of the technical side of fire fighting. It is possible to go into incredible depth- to include- Flashover, back-draft, lean gas explosions, dust explosions and spontaneous combustion of drying goods. But I shall leave the list at that for now.

The reason for my concern is that during my time as a fireman, I noted with some serious horror the results of a crew of minimal experience being let loose on a fire. I say minimal, I am referring to crews with 5 years or less experience. Today this is starting to look like a crew of “old hands”. Give it a few years and they will indeed be “relatively” the wise-ened old firemen. Sadly youngsters/ those lacking experience, often lack the knowledge and skill to fight fires efficiently. By efficiently, I mean the rapid suppression and containment of the fire, salvaging all lives goods and property possible and using minimal water in order to extinguish the fire.

I have experienced young crew trying to extinguish “steam” with a large quantity of water. This led to the collapse of a ceiling which should never have been wet enough to collapse. I have seen large jets (large quantities of water) being used when the fireman was standing with their head in the smoke whilst had they gotten to their knees they would have seen that the “fire” they could barely see was in fact a mirror. This perhaps will give you a flavour of what I mean by “experienced.” If you have been in a job which benefits from experience and the old hand can guide, educate and pass on knowledge, you will appreciate the significance of what I say.

The Knee-Jerk Response Units:

Now to the “nightmare” I see for the future. The government in their infinite (note the sarcasm here!) wisdom, have decided that there should be Rapid Response Units- these would be better referred to as Knee-jerk Response Units. Massive funds were put into huge lorries which were to be deployed for acts of terrorism, in particular- dirty bombs. Sadly they do not fit the bill, any more than they fit the majority of Fire Stations. Nor, for that matter the majority of London Streets.

Whilst I’m in the nightmare scenario mode, let us picture the scene- A dirty bomb goes off in the centre of London- Will it be a Sunday morning or a rush hour? Will it be busy or quiet? Traffic or not? Mayhem or calm? The dirtiness will not be apparent, but the sight of lots of rescue workers in space suits will give hint to the possibility. Then with the tube network shut down in the vicinity. This would be done as a precaution. The world and his aunt will be trying to flee the area if able to do so. Will they sit calmly in traffic OR get away anyway possible? Now try and drive a huge lorry THROUGH this mayhem with equipment which is most suitable for a decontamination on an open runway but so unbelievably unsuitable for a London street scene. But according to Jenny Jones (member of the Fire Authority at one time), this lorry will arrive AND BE OPERATIONAL from the suburbs, where they are stationed, within 20 minutes. Bless the naivety of the politician. So, do nothing? You ask. NO! equip the stations with gas tight suits and have portable tents available at strategic locations. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. At least not a basket which cannot move along the aisle of the supermarket.

The Pension and the Future:

The current thinking in the fire service is that the pension is dead. It is possible to opt out of paying into the pension. The pension is the only thing presently keeping the fabric of the Fire Service together. Personnel with 5-10 years to go will suffer their remaining years. Just in order to get the pension. Those that have joined recently have little incentive to pay into a pension, especially as it is likely that the 30 years service will soon be (probably is already) 35 or 40 years service. (I retired with a torn inter-vertebral disc in my forties, imagine a 60 year old fire-fighter!) Not that many will remain.

The fire service is an attractive job and well paid for a youngster, so the young will join, do a few years and then move on to more attractive employment. It has to be said that a couple of years as a fire-fighter will enhance the majority of C.V’s. So I predict that within 5-10 years this is the picture of the fire service. This is where “you lose” comes into it. The efficiency of fire fighting will go first. What should have been £500 worth of insurance claim, small waste paper basket fire swiftly dealt with, minimal decorating required to make good- will now be a room destroyed by fire, smoke and water. Leading to claims more like £5,000.

 If you think I exaggerate, picture the roof of your house being damaged by fire, but a crew uses minimal water and the ceiling becomes little more than damp, which can be dried out and repainted. The roof will have to be repaired and partly replaced, but is otherwise intact. Now picture the scenario with the ceiling in every upstairs room collapsing in dirty, soaking rubble on all your possessions, clothing, paperwork, electrical equipment and computer equipment. The roof will STILL have to be repaired. Compare the difference in the insurance claim. As we are aware, insurance companies are not benevolent institutions, they exist to make money. So in order to achieve this they will increase premiums. So we all pay. Don’t insure- then hope you don’t have a fire etc. Pray you get a competent fire crew if you do. Hours of fun-NOT!

The latest weapon/initiative. Which has been bubbling under for some time now and will be a definite push to anyone unhappy with the future of remaining in the Fire Service, is the proposed change of working hours. At present the shifts consist of 2 days 0900-1800 then 2 nights 1800-0900 then THREE days off, NOT 4. If you have just been on duty for 9 hours it scarcely fulfils the criteria to describe a day off. These have been the shifts for many years. They are so attractive that many shift-based workers have adopted the pattern, albeit at times in a slightly altered format.

Now the employers wish to change the shift pattern to 2 x 12 hour day shifts then 2 x 12 hour night shifts. This really is the ultimate of fantasy of Mr Brian Coleman- who fails to realise the fact he is about to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The existing shift pattern means you are on duty 2 days then 2 nights, but you are free of an evening after the day shift and you have a day free before doing a 15 hour night. Many Firemen commute silly distances in order to afford somewhere to live. This change of shift pattern, if we assume 08:00-20:00, means that commuting IN will have to start an hour earlier. (no big problem.) but then finishing at 20:00 and then getting home. No evening free! Think of the disruption to childcare arrangements. Is it worth continuing to work as a single parent? Will you ever see your young children on this shift pattern? Leave before the child awakes, get home after bed time and repeat!

With no pension to act as handcuffs to keep you in the fire service, the average length of service will undoubtedly plummet. This will undoubtedly exacerbate the scenario of the disappearance of the “old hand” and any experience based knowledge. This is the future of the fire service. It is not good, it is far from unique.

The book “Flat Earth News” shows what occurs in the arena of journalism. The scariest part of this, is that the armed forces have illustrated the cost of the wrong equipment in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully this WAS reported and made available to the public domain.

In 5-10 years time will there be a news service which will report or even notice the denigration of the Fire Service? Will the PR section of the Fire Service find a way of hiding the increasing deaths of Fire-fighters on duty, AND the numbers of members of the public who will undoubtedly, in my mind pay the price of saving pennies from the costs of local government? Will the politicians accept their part in this denigration? I doubt it. Will they still have fat cat salaries? Does a bear…………………in the woods?

From a Fireman (retired and unbelievably happy to have managed to have dug the tunnel and reached the wire .)

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