Ten London fire stations which between them have stood for 855 years, protecting and rescuing generations of Londoners from Zeppelin raids, train crashes, terrorist attacks, the Luftwaffe and countless major fires, closed today. They survived the Blitz, but not Boris Johnson’s balance sheet.
The mayor is shedding 588 frontline firefighter posts and 16 fire engines, too, in a brutal assault on the operational capacity of the London Fire Brigade. He has instructed brigade managers to save £45million over two years.
For someone trapped in a fire, time is of the essence. Fire can take hold and kill in moments. Yet these cuts will result in increased response times for four million Londoners. Half of London’s council wards will now find themselves outside the brigade’s own target response times.
Some people will in future wait a few seconds longer for a fire engine to arrive; others, a few minutes. But it’s that extra wait that might prove the difference between life and death.
In recent weeks, we have seen two incidents – one in Plumstead, the other in Silvertown – where members of the public trapped in a fire were rescued with seconds to spare by firefighters from the condemned stations. Had the cuts already taken effect, those people would not be here today to tell the tale.
“But the number of fires in London has reduced,” cries Mr Johnson, by way of a defence. Be that as it may, fire cover should never be arranged according to the principle of supply and demand; it should be organised according to risk. It’s about having sufficient resources in place locally to ensure that, on those occasions when a fire does break out, the brigade can respond quickly and effectively.
The logic of the ‘supply and demand’ argument would see fire cover withdrawn from Heathrow airport on the grounds that no major fire has occurred there.
And it is a logical fallacy to argue that a reduction in the number of fires means that those who are unfortunate enough in the future to be trapped in a blaze can afford to wait longer for an engine to arrive. Fire and smoke haven’t changed their behaviour since the beginning of time.
London has a growing and ever-diversifying population, with pockets of deep poverty, thousands of homes of multiple occupancy and regeneration projects aplenty. There is also the constant threat from terrorism. The capital deserves a well-resourced, properly-funded fire service. It does not deserve a mayor who sacrifices public safety on the altar of crude economic ideology.
The experience in London dovetails with the national picture. Across the United Kingdom, scores of fire stations are facing closure. Since the general election in 2010, 1,500 frontline firefighter posts have been lost, with a further 6,000 set to disappear by 2015. Response times have worsened significantly over the last decade.
Despite the opposition of 94% of Londoners who took part in a public consultation process, as well as that of the London Assembly and the London fire authority, Boris Johnson forced his cuts through. Blood will be on his hands when – because it will be when and not if – someone dies because a fire engine did not arrive in time.
And the promise of his boss, the prime minister, that the fire and rescue service would be protected from frontline cuts, made during an eve-of-election PR visit to Carlisle fire station, is ringing increasingly hollow.
Firefighters should not be forced to rally on the steps of the Town Hall to defend their service and profession from savage and life-threatening cutbacks.
Throw into the mix the growing threat of privatisation of large chunks of the service and the ongoing attacks to firefighters’ pensions, and it is easy to see why an ill-wind blows ever-stronger in fire brigades up and down the country.