We must provide fire service personnel with the mental health support they need
We rely on fire and rescue personnel to save and protect us from danger. It’s time for them to rely on us to give them the help and support they need, says Emma Dent Coad MP.
I am always ready to speak out on behalf of members of the fire service. As a Councillor in Kensington and Chelsea I supported a cross-party campaign against the cuts proposed by the previous Mayor of London in 2012/13.
I visited our fire stations, and spoke to their teams. I analysed breakdowns of response times and fire deaths statistics. I saw that, though fire deaths were thankfully diminishing, that reflected a new method of calculation whereby only those who died on the scene were counted – and not those who died subsequently in hospital.
In submissions to the then Mayor, we demanded that certain stations were not closed, and staff budgets were not cut. Most of our demands fell on deaf ears, though we worked hard to save North Kensington fire station, whose teams were first on the scene at the Grenfell Tower fire.
Following that work I was appointed by the current Mayor of London to the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. During my time there we monitored pilots on co-responding, whereby firefighters were called out to medical emergencies – especially cardiac arrest – when an ambulance was not available. This was unpopular among firefighters, and not just because there was no increase in pay for the increased responsibilities. They were concerned about a lack of sufficient training to deal with some of the issues they were unprepared to deal with.
Some told me they were emotionally unprepared for what they had to deal with, such as attempted or successful suicide. One told me of an incident where for 40 minutes, while waiting for an ambulance, they had to carry out resuscitation on a child who had clearly died.
Some who attended the Grenfell Tower fire have been so badly affected they may never return to active duty. And I hear that teams who came from fire stations near the fire are getting a higher standard of care than others. Many call centre staff spoke for hours to people trapped by the fire, and many are not getting the support they desperately need either.
Some of the scenes they saw or experienced, and the choices they had to make, are with them every day. And despite this, the psychological help these brave men and women so clearly need, is very uneven.
Some have received talking therapy from counsellors with the fire service, while others have received Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy) which I’m told has been helpful. However, this is usually only available from the Firefighters’ Charity and not for everyone.
Why must we rely on charities for the care they so desperately need and deserve?
Cuts to frontline staff mean that even after a disaster like Grenfell, there is no compassionate leave. Nearly 20% of staff have been lost across the country since 2010, while incidents have decreased by just 12%, so fewer staff are attending more incidents each.
Pay restraint and a squeeze on pensions means that many firefighters have to work second jobs on their days off, just to pay their household bills.
The mental health charity MIND tells us that repeated exposure to traumatic events, impact of physical injuries, workload and financial pressures are increasingly affecting the fire and rescue service personnel.
For the first time, the most common cause of absence in the London Fire Brigade is stress, anxiety and depression.
It is not enough to expect each service across the country individually to tackle this growing problem with no additional financial support. That’s why I’m asking the Minister to review funding so we can fulfil our duty of care to all fire service personnel.
We may need firefighters to act like superheroes when facing disaster, but they are human too.
We rely on fire and rescue personnel to save and protect us from danger.
It’s time for them to rely on us to give them the help and support they need.
Emma Dent Coad is Labour MP for Kensington.