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FIREFIGHTERS have a stressful and at times traumatic job and deserve effective mental health support provision, but, as a result of austerity, nearly 12,000 jobs have been cut, shift cover has been reduced and a real-terms pay cut imposed.
This Tory government’s support for mental health provisions cannot be separated from its wider disdain for the fire service. Praise for the service is meaningless unless it is accompanied by proper support and pay arrangements.
As Labour’s shadow fire minister, when I visit firefighters around England, I repeatedly hear their concerns of the mental health consequences of the Conservative government’s austerity policy agenda. That’s why it is so important that my friend and colleague Emma Dent Coad MP secured a parliamentary debate this week on mental health support for the fire services.
Mind, the mental health charity, has found that nearly nine in 10 emergency service personnel report having experienced stress and poor mental health at work and they are around twice as likely to identify problems at work as the main cause of those mental health problems as the general workforce. Mind’s research found that 85 per cent of fire and rescue personnel have experienced mental health problems at work and that 37 per cent of firefighters think that colleagues would treat them negatively if they spoke about a mental health problem at work. Research by the Fire Fighters Charity found that 41,000 shifts were lost nationally in 2017 due to mental health issues.
Nowhere is the long-lasting impact of firefighting on mental health more visible than the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower Fire which killed 72 people in June 2016. The terrible images of the blaze have been seared into our national consciousness, and we can only imagine the effect upon those who responded and risked their lives to save others. In total, 124 firefighters from London Fire Brigade have sought individual counselling directly because of what they experienced when dealing with the tower block fire.
The trauma of responding to such a horrific incident has been re-lived by firefighters at the Grenfell Inquiry. When I attended the inquiry, it was difficult to watch as a firefighter broke down in tears as they recalled the most harrowing night of their life. It’s so important that we completely reject any suggestions, which have cropped up in some elements of the media, that firefighters were in some way responsible for the blaze. Those who selflessly run into burning buildings to save others should never be blamed for a disaster which was caused by deregulated fire regulations and structural neglect of the residents and community.
The government has taken some limited steps, such as allocating £7 million to pay for mental health support through Mind’s Blue Light Programme, but any actions it takes are fundamentally undermined by its callous austerity agenda. The decimation of staffing levels since 2010 has placed considerable pressure on firefighters. Overall incidents may have decreased by 12.6 per cent between 2010 and 2018, yet firefighter staff have been cut by 20 per cent over the same period. With fewer firefighters responding to more incidents, it is hardly surprising that a 2017 BBC study found that firefighter mental illness had risen by nearly a third since 2011.
Rather than supporting the people who keep us safe, the Tories have stretched firefighters to breaking point with severe consequences for their mental wellbeing. It is vital that all our public services are properly funded so that those who work tirelessly to help others are not unnecessarily put at risk of damaging their mental health.
Karen Lee is shadow fire minister and Labour MP for Lincoln. She is a supporter of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.
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