Since 2010, public sector pay restraint has resulted in some five million workers struggling to survive. Many public sector staff now earn £2,000–3,000 less in real terms than in 2010. What does that mean for our frontline services?
Barry Downey, a firefighter and FBU member for nearly 30 years. Currently with Stoke on Trent & Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Authority. Married with three children.
- A mix of day and night shifts, responding to emergency calls as needed.
- Vital safety checks on protective equipment and vehicles.
- Visits to schools and to high-risk buildings in the area, and home visits to vulnerable people to discuss fire safety.
- Regular training.
“I’d previously been an electrical mechanic, but I had a friend in the fire service and always wanted to do it myself. I applied as soon as an opportunity arose. I wanted a job with variety – not a desk job.”
Nearly a hundred firefighter jobs have gone in Stafford in the past five years (nationally nearly 11,000 have been cut), with recruitment at an all-time low. The Staffordshire service has seen a 25 per cent funding cut. “My station used to have fifteen firefighters and two vehicles on each day,” says Barry. “Now there are only six firefighters and one frontline vehicle. But the risks haven’t changed.”
“The job is still the same – it’s great and very rewarding. But it’s getting to the point where it could become unmanageable due to the reduced numbers on shifts. If there’s a major incident, we’re stretched beyond capacity.” Those firefighters still in work are being asked to work ever more flexible hours.
With the pay freeze, more firefighters are taking second jobs to make ends meet. Often these are physically demanding – building work or driving, and sometimes involve night shifts. This means firefighters don’t come to work rested, and could be putting colleagues and the public at risk, says Barry, adding: “Firefighters’ pay nowhere near reflects the value of the work we do.”
The number of fires may be falling, but Barry says that’s partly thanks to the preventative work of the fire service over many years – and is not a reason to reduce resources so heavily. “If you don’t start valuing and rewarding firefighters, you’ll turn around one day and they simply won’t be there.”On top of the cuts in staff, the pay freeze means a firefighter today is earning £2,000 less in real terms than they were in 2010. And this when rents are rising and the money in your pocket stretches less and less far.