At midday today, in a deserted central London, I laid a wreath at the National Firefighters’ Memorial by St Paul’s Cathedral. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was a solemn, humble affair. But to me and the dozen or so firefighters who joined me, it was an important moment.
Today is Firefighters’ Memorial Day, a day when we remember the firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. We held our first Memorial Day in 2017, joining forces with the Firefighters’ Memorial Trust. The year before we launched our own Firefighters’ 100 Lottery to raise funds for injured firefighters and bereaved families as well as other fire service related causes.
According to the figures compiled by the Trust, some 2,300 firefighters have died at work – a number which does not include the potentially thousands of others who have died from cancer and other diseases linked to firefighting, or those who take their own life after experiencing trauma through their jobs.
Reading through the list of names recorded on the Fire Brigades Union website, the sheer scale of that number begins to sink in. Each one of them turned up to work to keep their community safe and never returned home.
At a time when we hear daily news of near-incomprehensible numbers of casualties, it is often only upon seeing the names and faces of all those who have succumbed to the virus on each evening’s news that the reality of our present crisis becomes comprehensible.
All too often amongst the names are workers on the frontline – the long-undervalued nurses, doctors, carers, cleaners, and drivers that are pulling this country through the pandemic. Each day, they knowingly put their lives in danger for the safety of others.
I am thankful that, while a number of firefighters have taken ill with coronavirus, no UK firefighter has lost their life to the disease. But, tragically, this virus has claimed the lives of a number of our comrades in other countries.
There is a saying in the fire and rescue service, which usually goes: “When all others were running out, they were running in.” Firefighters knowingly run into danger, entering extremely hazardous environments, extinguishing fires, and rescuing those trapped inside. They are highly trained to understand how best to keep themselves, their colleagues, and those they rescue, safe. But, sometimes that is not enough and, still too often, firefighters’ lives are sacrificed through their service.
Each time a firefighter dies at work, the Fire Brigades Union works to understand what led to their death and what could have been done to prevent it. While we remember and honour their sacrifice, we must never accept their loss as inevitable. It is our duty as trade unionists to learn from every firefighter death and to fight for the improvements to operational practices that could save lives into the future.
That job has been immeasurably harder over the last decade. Brutal cuts to fire funding have left fire and rescue services running on empty. After a decade of austerity, we have 11,000 fewer firefighters. As a result, fire engines are arriving at fires and other incidents without enough firefighters to tackle an operation. This is not only dangerous for the public, but potentially deadly for firefighters too.
Right now, our colleagues in the health and care sectors are feeling similar consequences of government policy. While they are doing incredible work to combat this pandemic, they have done so with one hand tied behind their back, and without proper protection.
As with the deaths of firefighters, lessons must also be learned from the loss of each and every worker during this pandemic. And we must not allow the politicians who have dedicated their lives to driving down workplace safety standards to co-opt our grief, and normalise the deaths of our colleagues. The dead deserve so much more than that.
It is difficult amid this crisis, in which death and tragedy are at every corner, to give another sombre Memorial Day the attention it deserves. But we must. As the representatives of tens of thousands of firefighters across the UK, we were determined, despite strict social distancing measures being in place, to remember our fallen brothers and sisters.
Today was a reminder for all of the dangers firefighters face going about their work, work which ultimately cost 2,300 their lives, each and every one a tragedy. And we will never know how many more lives would have been lost had we not campaigned for better and safer working practices.
Memorial statues and plaques, like that at St Paul’s or, indeed, the FBU’s own red plaque scheme, are important marks of respect. But more important still is to honour each of those who came before us by doing all we can to prevent the deaths that have yet to come.
Today, we do not just remember their sacrifice; we reaffirm our commitment to fight for the safety of all firefighters, together in a union.