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London fire engine shortages on rise again due to Omicron

04 January 2022

LONDON HAS had over one third of its fire engines unavailable as Omicron hits staffing numbers, new London Fire Brigade data shows. The capital was reduced to 50 fire engines during the day shift on Christmas Day, with only 42 available for the day shift on Christmas Eve. To set this in context, the total number of fire engines serving the capital at present is 142.

The news heralds a worsened problem after data for 10-16 December revealed that shortages were running at a maximum of 40. The new data, spanning the period 24-27 December, shows that shortages were constantly high across this period, with a majority of shifts seeing shortages of at least 40 fire engines.

The shortages also include a new 64-metre ladder appliance, bought after the Grenfell Tower disaster, being unavailable on the night of 24 December and during the day on 25 December.

These shortages come as Omicron has hit the capital and its Fire and Rescue Service. Figures for 27 December highlighted the fact that COVID had left 740 operational firefighters either having tested positive or otherwise having to self-isolate, meaning that over 15% of them were unavailable for work. This figure is up from 10% for 16 December, while a level of at least 14% unavailability was present across the period 24-27 December.

The Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) London regional secretary Jon Lambe said: “Omicron is directly affecting the level of Fire and Rescue cover Londoners receive. Over one third of fire engines being unavailable is a huge shortage that could have serious impacts.”

Lambe added: “However, Omicron should not be having an effect on this scale. The reason it’s doing so is that the London Fire Brigade has been left in a terrible state by years of Government cuts, with almost one-in-five of London’s firefighters having been cut since 2010.”

He continued: “At the start of the pandemic, our members in London helped in any way possible, volunteering to drive ambulances and working in multi-agency teams dealing with COVID-related fatalities. In some cases, our members spent weeks away from their loved ones for fear of transmitting the virus. Now the tables have turned and the London Fire Brigade itself is in real difficulty. We’re seeing the real impact of the pandemic on our own Fire and Rescue Service and it has reached a critical point. London and Londoners pay their taxes for a level of service and fire cover that they’re being denied due to Governmental cuts and mismanagement.”

Lambe concluded: “As a Trade Union we are highlighting this issue because it’s simply not right and it’s not safe.”

FBU data shows that, since 2010, London has lost almost one-in-five of its firefighters – just over 1,110 – while an operational firefighter recruitment freeze in the Fire and Rescue Service has only just been lifted.

Further, there are fears that the levels of staffing could grow even worse, with a potential “mass exodus” of hundreds of firefighters ahead of pension changes in the early part of 2022.

Toxic fire contaminants

Firefighters have been urged to protect themselves from toxic fire contaminants in response to research that found more than four times higher rates of cancer among firefighters who took part relative to the general public. It’s thought that toxic fire contaminants are playing a role in increasing firefighters’ chances of developing cancer and other diseases.

The research, conducted by the University of Central Lancashire and involving 10,000 serving firefighters, produced its results in late 2020 and, in the time since then, the FBU has developed training and guidance aimed at helping firefighters to protect themselves from fire contaminants.

Designated DECON, that training and guidance encourages firefighters to take action before, during and after every fire incident in order to help reduce their own, their co-workers’ and their families’ exposure to fire contaminants.  

DECON encourages firefighters to change simple behaviours, such as involving better cleaning practices around firefighting kit.

Firefighters are also being encouraged to fill in a University of Central Lancashire cancer and disease registry for firefighters, which is set to help push forward research in this area and save firefighters’ lives.

FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre is now urging firefighters to take up this training and guidance, as well as fill in the cancer and disease registry. He said:

“It’s shocking that research suggests firefighters are more than four times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than a member of the public. This risk is avoidable. The chances of contracting a cancer or disease as a result of firefighting don’t have to be so high. We can all work to make the profession safer for us and our families.”

He continued: “In the past, firefighters have been let down by a lack of information and a lax safety culture being allowed to prevail. DECON guidance and training helps firefighters protect themselves through simple actions like better cleaning of their gear and making sure to always wear breathing apparatus when it’s needed, while never putting it on too late. We would urge every firefighter to have a look at the guidance and contact their local FBU representatives about the training.”