Dangerous understaffing left Surrey short of fire engines during wildfires

Firefighters in Surrey have warned that it is ‘only a matter of time until lives are lost’ after a shortage of firefighters left Surrey Fire and Rescue Service with just one fire engine to cover the entire county, as wildfires tore across the county.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has called it a “stark warning” that understaffing can put residents and firefighters at risk.

Up to six fire engines were unavailable in Surrey at any one time over the weekend because of a lack of firefighter crews. The brigade did not meet its minimum safe fire engine availability threshold on Friday or Saturday, leaving dangerously low levels of fire cover for most of the weekend. Figures for Sunday are not currently available.

The service is required to have a minimum of 20 fire engines available during the day and 16 at night. In periods of high demand, such as during a major incident, a minimum of 25-30 fire engines is required during the day and 23 at night.

However, the service had to fight wildfires with as few as 16 fire engines available for the whole county during the daytime and just 13 at night.

Crews from London, Hampshire, West Sussex, and Berkshire had to be brought in to aid the wildfire response or respond to other emergency incidents occurring simultaneously in Surrey.

As few as one fire engine was available to cover other incidents across the county over the weekend, while most crews were fighting wildfires. Several fire engines sat idly in Surrey fire stations as there were no firefighters available to crew them.

Firefighters battling the wildfires reported dangerous conditions without proper welfare measures, working long hours with insufficient numbers of personnel. Crews worked for extended periods in beating heat without food, relief or toilet facilities.

“Terrifyingly close call”

Early on Monday, it took 25 minutes for the first fire engine to reach a bungalow fire with a person reported inside.

Reports of a resident trapped inside turned out to be incorrect, but the FBU has called the fire “a terrifyingly close call” where “someone easily could have died” due to understaffing.

Four fire engines were cut from Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in April, while changes to shift systems has slashed the availability of firefighters. The brigade plans to cut another three fire engines in October.

The county had already cut 175 firefighters and control staff since 2010, a 31% reduction in emergency response personnel.

Surrey firefighters launched a six-month industrial action campaign against the cuts in December 2019 but paused the action due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, they have been aiding the coronavirus response locally, while still responding to fires and other emergencies.

In May, the FBU wrote to all four governments in the UK calling for a moratorium on cuts to fire and rescue services, saying that planned cuts, such as those in Surrey, do not account for the resources needed to maintain fire cover during major incidents like wildfires.

Graham Whitfield, Surrey firefighter and FBU brigade secretary, said:

“Firefighters and residents have been left exposed in recent days, with reckless understaffing posing a serious risk to life.

“Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has failed to provide a safe number of fire engines while crews battle one of the biggest protracted incidents we’ve ever seen.

“At times we had just one fire engine covering the whole county whilst all others were deployed to tackle the wildfire. In one case, it took 25 minutes for a fire engine to reach a fire with a person reported inside. Thankfully, there was no one trapped, but had that report been correct, someone easily could have died.

“We have warned again and again that cuts to our service would put people’s lives in danger, and we are sadly being proven right. Another three fire engines are due to be cut in October, which will leave Surrey firefighters even more short-staffed.“

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

“The situation in Surrey should be a stark warning to brigades and politicians across the country of the consequences of fire cuts.

“A decade of austerity has devastated services. Major prolonged incidents like wildfires are only going to become more likely with climate change, but brigades simply don’t have the resources needed to respond effectively.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that nobody was seriously hurt in Surrey over the weekend. If plans for more cuts go ahead in October, it’s only a matter of time until lives are lost in a situation like this.”

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