Firefighters 'treated horrifically' as extreme weather incidents jeopardise mental health

Firefighters at the scene of a blaze in the village of Wennington, east London. Credit: PA

By Digital Producer Yohannes Lowe

Firefighter's mental health is at risk of deteriorating from responding to extreme weather events, a union official has said, as he warned of a possible exodus of staff if pay and conditions are not urgently improved. Riccardo la Torre, the national officer at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said cuts to firefighter numbers and stagnant pay has made dealing with major incidents much more difficult, and has helped create the conditions for a potential strike. London Fire Brigade (LFB) had its busiest day since WWII on Tuesday, with the service taking 2,670 calls as temperatures climbed above 40C for the first time ever amid tinder-dry conditions. As well as across the capital, major incidents were also declared in South Yorkshire and Leicestershire, with scientists warning that climate change is increasing fire danger in the UK.

The scene after a blaze in Barnsley, South Yorkshire amid scorching temperatures. Credit: PA

Mr la Torre says not enough is being done to guarantee safe conditions for firefighters responding to such emergencies, despite wildfires posing serious risks to mental and physical health.

"Many firefighters were not able to get their calls through or get enough rest, hydration or food during shifts," he told ITV News, adding that some crews were exposed to contaminants and carcinogens (substance, organism or agent capable of causing cancer) while on-duty.

"There was a risk of collapse and heat exhaustion - we have a lot of injured firefighters out there at the moment."

"The effect on firefighters and control staff is severe," he added.

"We know there is already a risk on mental health in the profession but responding to stressful and risky situations - like the ones we saw yesterday - increases the risk." "They are seeing families lose homes and get injured - this is only going to increase the effect on firefighters."

Firefighters attend a fire on Dartford Marshes in Kent. Credit: PA

Between 2009 and 2021, firefighters’ real pay has been cut by 12%, or nearly £4,000, according to the FBU.

The union said the 2% pay rise offer in June was "insulting" to its members whose living standards are being squeezed amid 40-year high inflation and surging food and energy prices.

Mr la Torre said that, after consultation, members have rejected the offer, with the union now "exploring all avenues", including "the need to prepare for strike action".

"Firefighters have been treated horrifically and were offered an insulting 2% pay offer – a real terms cut," he said.

"Unless we urgently do something about pay and conditions, firefighters could be forced to leave the sector.".

Dave Walton, who works for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, revealed how both himself and his partner, a 999 fire control supervisor, said "what the hell just happened?" when they got home from an unprecedented day at work on Tuesday.

While praising the efforts of fire and rescue service staff across the country, he said that they "can't work miracles", as he urged for "huge lessons" to be learnt for future events.

"Today was a game changer. 999 calls were stacked and bouncing," he wrote on Twitter.

"I’ve never known so many major incidents declared at a whole fire and rescue service level at once. I lost count at one point."

UK fire services are strained under the immense weight of having to deal with unprecedented weather events - such as extreme flooding and wildfires - with a workforce which has been cut by 11,500 since 2010.

On Tuesday, the UK recorded a new provisional high temperature of 40.3C in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, outstripping the previous record set in Cambridge in 2019 of 38.7C.

Amid the scorching temperatures, wildfires surged across the UK, igniting houses and burning vegetation, including in Wennington, east London, where around 100 firefighters were tackling a blaze in the village.

The LFB said two of the 16 firefighters who suffered heat-related injuries were taken to hospital, with the brigade's assistant commissioner saying the events showed "how we are increasingly being challenged by new extremes of weather".

A Home Office spokesperson has said that firefighter pay in England is the responsibility of the National Joint Council, which consists of representatives from both the employers’ and employees’ side. “Firefighters work tirelessly to protect our communities and it is essential they are paid fairly for the important work they undertake. At the same time, any decision on pay must be justifiable to the taxpayer,” the spokesperson said.

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