For most of its history, Britain had no fire service. Laypeople might do what they could to put out blazes, but more often than not, towns full of wooden buildings simply burned down. There were no regulations or standards in force and, aside from the odd parish, no attempts were made at organising a system to fight the regular fires that reduced homes and livelihoods to cinders.
The damage inflicted by the Great Fire of London in 1666 led to the destruction of a third of London. The homes of 70,000 out of the 80,000 inhabitants of the city were destroyed. The verified death toll of six is challenged by many modern historians who highlight the thousands of poor Londoners likely burnt beyond recognition. It’s a familiar story of disregard for normal people, made invisible both in life and in death. The Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people lost their lives, reminds us that this story is far from over.
In the aftermath of both disasters, calls were made for new fire regulations to be imposed. But the rhetoric rarely translates into enough action to prevent a future tragedy from occurring—sparking the same conversations again, years later.
Heroes With Grimy Faces
It wasn’t until 1824 that the first municipal fire service was established, in Edinburgh. It was led by James Braidwood, considered one of the founding fathers of the modern fire service, who would go on to establish the London Fire Engine Establishment, recruiting sailors to the force.
Over the next century, around 1500 small municipal fire brigades would be established and run by local councils. Then the National Fire Service was formed in 1938, ensuring uniformity across the UK. In the first three weeks of the Blitz alone, the London firefighters fought 10,000 fires, and were commended for their great bravery and determination, with wartime prime minister Winston Churchill dubbing them the ‘heroes with grimy faces’.
In the post-war period, the British fire service enjoyed a prominent public reputation, and the Fire Brigades Union had considerable influence through collective bargaining arrangements. The 1947 Fire Services Act created a national framework for fire protection, subjecting the fire service to standards through an annual inspection. The Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council was established to oversee equipment, training, fire protection and other aspects of fire safety policy, and a series of legislative improvements culminated in the 1971 Fire Precautions Act and the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
The first-ever national strike undertaken by firefighters took place in 1977 and lasted nine weeks. Amid soaring inflation, reaching as high as 25 percent two years prior, firefighters had seen their real wages fall for years. The strike had widespread support from the public, who donated generously to the strike fund, while the iconic punk band the Sex Pistols held benefit concerts in support. The strike was ultimately successful and led to a pay formula that helped to increase wages for the next 25 years.
Then Thatcher was elected. The three pillars of neoliberal orthodoxy—privatisation, cuts, and deregulation—spelt disaster for the fire and building safety regime. In 1985, Thatcher’s government introduced the Building Act, sweeping away 300 pages of previously existing codes dating back to laws passed in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The act allowed private consultants to compete with local authorities to sign off schemes as compliant with regulations. These were decades-old, hard-fought wins for public safety, being systematically abandoned.
The Neoliberal Orthodoxy
Thatcher famously remarked that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. The actions of her successors give credence to these remarks. Blair’s government would continue to uphold the neoliberal orthodoxy, deregulating the fire service further while fire and rescue service funding came under attack following the 2008 financial crisis. In 2004, the Labour government passed the Fire and Rescue Services Act, which abolished national standards of fire cover, allowing local fire and rescue services to set their own fire response targets without the national coherence of universally understood guidelines, leading to a postcode lottery of fire cover.
The previous standards had addressed the number of fire appliances brought to incidents and the speed at which firefighters would attend to an incident. In 2005, Labour went a step further, scrapping fire certificates and watering down enforcement. New Labour also abolished the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council.
The cuts over successive governments meant a loss of inspectors, which, in turn, meant reduced capacity to oversee fire risk assessments. It was in this period that the Fire Brigades Union voted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, as the aims and objectives of the party no longer reflected those of the FBU. One stark example was the disparaging language applied to striking firefighters, with Labour minister Nick Raynsford describing them as ‘criminally irresponsible’.
David Cameron’s coalition government and subsequent Tory governments would further degrade the nation’s fire services. Cameron pledged to ‘kill off’ the ‘excessive health and safety albatross around the neck of British businesses,’ promising a ‘bonfire’ of red tape. Cameron would embark on what he described as a Red Tape Challenge, committing to finding savings worth double the cost of any new regulations on business. In the same period, Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London, would close ten fire stations across London, axing hundreds of firefighters’ jobs. This would lead to slower response times across the capital, with devastating results.
At the time, fire services warned that the plans would pose a risk to public safety by removing basic safety requirements and cutting back on safety inspections, but they were ignored. The bipartisan neoliberal orthodoxy would ultimately lead to the loss of one in five firefighter jobs. The consequences of this ideological commitment were made all the clearer in the aftermath of the preventable Grenfell Tower fire.
According to a new report, up to a dozen firefighters who tackled the blaze at Grenfell Tower have since been diagnosed with terminal cancer. These firefighters spent more than ten hours in their contaminated suits on the night, breathing in smoke. New research this week found firefighters are four times as likely to end up being diagnosed with cancer, with higher levels of recorded strokes, heart disease, and mental ill-health. This disaster should have been a watershed moment—a wake-up call for those who have systematically gutted a vital service of resources and paid lip service to matters of public safety.
Instead, the latest available Home Office figures, released at the end of March 2021, show that a further 221 firefighter posts in England have been cut across the country since the fire. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Fighting for the Fire Service’s Future
Between 2009 and 2021, firefighters’ salaries were cut by nearly £4,000 in real terms—equivalent to twelve percent—while central funding for local services was cut in real terms by 40 percent in the same period. In practice, this means smaller firefighter crews turning out in the event of an emergency and longer response times as stations across the country close down. Often clothed in the language of modernisation, these cuts are a step backwards, not forwards.
As the climate crisis continues, communities face an increased threat from flooding and wildfires. Instead of equipping the fire service to deal with these modern challenges, brigades have faced successive real-terms cuts to their funding from central government. Firefighters were offered an initial pay offer of two percent, followed by a revised pay offer of five percent—clearly inadequate given inflation is in the double digits.
The pay offer was particularly insulting given firefighters risked their lives during the pandemic, taking on additional duties such as driving ambulances, delivering PPE to support the most vulnerable and moving the bodies of the deceased. It was only when firefighters voted by 96 percent for strike action on a turnout of 84 percent that the Government changed its tune. Firefighters secured a twelve percent pay rise over two years in the end. But they are well aware that further battles could be on the road ahead. Collective bargaining—the greatest asset they have at their disposal and one that has secured victories past and present—is now under threat.
The government wants to impose a pay review body, similar to those used in the NHS and education, which have resulted in plummeting pay, staffing crises and widespread industrial action. This attack is only the beginning; the anti-strikes bill currently being bulldozed through parliament is the most draconian assault on working people in decades. It would essentially ban effective strikes, enabling employers to sue unions and sack workers if they refuse to provide minimum service levels.
The Minimum Service Levels Bill is a naked attempt to stop workers improving pay and conditions and defending vital public services against damaging cuts. The Fire Brigades Union is clear that it will fiercely resist this onslaught on our democratic rights. The union has urged the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to mount a campaign of mass non-cooperation and non-compliance with the bill.
Firefighters know too well that when those in power fail us, we can use our strength in numbers to change things for the better. It has only been when firefighters have taken matters into their own hands, that things have changed—for them, and for us.