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‘There’s criminal complacency about the attitude to fire’

Fire Brigades Union leader MATT WRACK talks to the Star about the Grenfell inquiry, the firefighters’ pay freeze and the changing role of technology

FIREFIGHTERS have been fighting more than just fires over the last 100 years. As the legendary Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which represents one of the most unionised workforces in the country, celebrates its centenary year, the Morning Star caught up with the union’s leader Matt Wrack at its annual conference in Brighton to see what he thinks the big fights of the next 100 years will be.

A lot has been achieved by the FBU since the union formed on October 1 1918. Back then firefighters didn’t get holiday or sick pay and lived on fire stations like “municipal slaves” in what was known as the continuous duty system. This meant firefighters were on duty all the time, with just one day off each week.

They would be expected to clean the chief fire officer’s toilet and even be disallowed the right to sleep with their own wives before a shift.

Today firefighters have shift systems, which allow time off for them to lead family lives, enjoy pensions that they never had the right to before and have made many important gains in pay over the last 100 years.

“I think we’ve completely transformed the sort of operational side of what we do,” Wrack says.

“We’ve fought for better equipment and training procedures, which have often been linked around particular tragedies.

“We can trace improvements in breathing apparatus to particular incidents where firefighters have died and the union has stepped in very quickly and achieved changes.

“The equipment we have today has been shaped by what previous generations of FBU members did.”

Pay has arguably been the cornerstone for the FBU over the last 100 years. The union formed primarily to fight for better pay — for pay parity with police — and its two major national strike actions of 1977 and 2002-3 were over pay.

Unsurprisingly the issue always plays an important role at conference every year.

“It’s a huge thing,” agrees Wrack. “It is staggering how long the government has got away with the pay freeze for. 

“And at some point if there’s not a breakthrough and if there’s not concessions from the other side then clearly we would have to consider all options and that includes strike action.

“I was at school during 1977 but that was a momentous strike, it was a big thing to close fire stations for nine weeks — a huge step to take.”

Wrack has seen the union through more than the past decade of its 100-year history, having been elected general secretary in 2005. 

Arguably this period has been a momentous time for the FBU, with attacks on pensions prompting the union to launch a series of strikes, and a changing fire and rescue service seeing firefighters expected to respond to terror attacks and health emergencies.

Amid a period of such great change, does he have any predictions about the battle lines for the union over the next 100 years?

“We need to think about changing technology, things like automated cars. Clearly one of the areas of growth in emergency response in the post-war period was road traffic collisions,” Wrack says.

“There’s a lot of criticism of automated cars but clearly one possibility is that they do eliminate human error and therefore we could end up with systems where road traffic collisions decline. This would obviously be socially beneficial but we would have to take account of that.

“Technology may be introduced that you could use to fight fires, such as robot technology. Generally those things are used to cut jobs, so we’d have to be alive to it and my own view is that we have to be adaptable to make sure we’ve got a fire and rescue service that’s dealing with the challenges of the 21st century, not the 20th or 19th century.”

As FBU’s annual conference was in full swing, so was the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and many delegates, not least those who helped fight a fire with the largest loss of life since the Blitz, were disgusted and appalled at claims suggesting the fire service was to blame for the tragedy. 

Many felt they had gone from being treated like heroes to villains, when on Thursday the Metropolitan Police confirmed it would be investigating the actions of London Fire Brigade (LFB) to see if health and safety laws were broken. 

Part of this investigation will include the “stay put” advice given to the block’s residents.

Wrack is in no doubt where the real blame should lie: “There’s criminal complacency about the attitude to fire and other safety risks.

“The most obvious one is fire safety departments, which have suffered proportionately the biggest sector of cuts in the fire service.

“These include fire inspection officers who do specialist training. They understand the building regulations, they understand fire risk assessments, they take inspections and audits and they’ve suffered the biggest proportion of cuts of all parts of the fire service.

“This whole question about fire safety and whether people should have been spotting things, that’s clearly an area where cuts can have an impact in terms of how much a handle the fire service has on what’s going on.

“So to me, this debate that’s going on about ‘stay put’ currently, there is a point about how we got to that position. 

“You can’t resolve the issue of ‘stay put’ on the night, you’ve got to have thought about it in advance.”

A lot has changed politically since the FBU conference in Blackpool last year, which took place ahead of the snap general election. 

Back then, in what now feels like the distant past, the question raised in the mainstream media was whether Jeremy Corbyn should stay on as Labour leader if the election went badly for the party. Now he is largely seen as a prime minister in waiting.

At this year’s conference, which saw addresses from both Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the FBU agreed that discussions would need to be held about what the union would like to see prioritised under a Labour government. 

McDonnell gave an early clue — a reversal of fire cuts and including firefighters in future funding decisions.

Wrack has some other suggestions: “In policy terms, I think the key point is what we touched on in the Grenfell debate about an oversight body, a standards body. 

“One of the big failures or attacks of the Blair government on the fire service was the abolition of the central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which was in existence since the 1947 (Fire Services) Act. 

“And that was where things like fire safety could be discussed on a sort of consensual basis.

“Obviously there were problems in that you didn’t always get your own way and it’s cumbersome but at least you could raise things. There is no mechanism like that today.

“So you take the issue of cladding fires, where is the forum where you can discuss with others in housing or the fire sector?

“The question of ‘stay put’ that you see in the press everywhere, how do we discuss that at the moment? It would really be down to individual fire services or the National Fire Chiefs Council.”

All reasonable wishes, which are unlikely to be introduced by a Tory government. But who knows, given that Corbyn has consistently proved his ability to defy the odds, by next year’s conference we’ll have Corbyn in No 10 and McDonnell in No 11.

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