By Atina Dimitrova
Is Hackney burning? A recent report shows that firefighters in London have been providing better services over the last 10 years than ever before. But what do these brave people do to reduce the number of fire deaths especially in this borough…
In the year of its 150th anniversary, one of the largest firefighting organisation worldwide, the London Fire Brigade (LFB), publishes a report showing that parts of the London borough of Hackney are among the seven top wards with the biggest number of fire casualties in the capital.
The data is published by Information Management Team in the document The Assessment of Risk and shows an average of three years casualty information up to 2014-15. These results are compared to the highest levels in the three years ending 2003-04.
The report shows that the number of times the LFB had to attend a genuine emergency is low in comparison to 15 years ago. The number of fires in 2014 was below 20,000 – their lowest level ever.
In the last year’s report, the Management Team also showed that the number of fire deaths in London has been steadily falling since the late 1980s.
One of the longest serving members in the LFB, the Borough Commander for Hackney, Stephen Dudeney, reflects on what has changed in the fire services:
In the late 1980s, when I was a firefighter in Hackney, it was very busy due to the many fires. We did not do the type of fire prevention work which we do today. We were on the frontline of a battle every day. We were contributing with our hands to saving lives.
Entering his 30th year for the LFB, Dudeney comments that making fire prevention a priority in people's mind has been the firefighters' main aim over the years:
People always think they will be victims of crime, but never victims of fire.
He is more optimistic now, though, because people have more smoke detectors and they are required to have flameproof furniture.
“There are a lot less fires and casualties, because we do fire safety visits and we work with councils all across the country to make sure that the rubbish is collected,” says Dudeney.
He also finds team work significantly important: “I am just flesh and blood. Without the people and the equipment, I am nothing.”
Emphasising how crucial the team spirit is, the Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) and a firefighter in the LFB, Paul Embery, brings up the cuts in the fire services.
“The major cuts introduced by the Conservative Party really inhibit our ability to protect people,” says Embery.
He says that nationally about 9,000 firefighter jobs have been lost and 40 stations have been closed. Only in London 10 stations and 27 fire engines have been lost. Embery also mentions that the government has cut its funding to the fire services with 30%. Moreover, the highest response time in England for the last 20 years really makes Embery worried.
Among his major concerns is the lack of essential dialogue between the government and the fire services. “We are trying to provide good service, but with the challenges of huge cuts taking place in the same time,” says Embery.
I cannot say I am particularly optimistic. Although in London over the last decade there have been less fire deaths, the statistics have changed last year. The number of fire deaths has actually rose by 20%. In my view, there is a clear link between government making major cuts to the services in 2014 and the increase in the response time, respectively in the increase of injuries and deaths.
Embery comments on the statistics about Hackney: “Maybe there is a link between social deprivation and instances of fire deaths, usually because people do not have sufficient fire safety.” He says that the unextinguished cigarettes are a major problem as well.
The Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the North East Area, Allen Perez, adds to the common causes of fire the cooking- and alcohol-related activities.
Yet, Perez has a positive outlook on how the rescue services have changed. He finds working closely with the police and ambulances very beneficial. The LFB also makes sure the letting agencies provide smoke alarms and the energy suppliers give people carbon monoxide detectors. “We target the most vulnerable in the community,” says Perez.
As a key factor to their job, Perez outlines the 83,000 fire safety visits done last year during which the LFB assessed the homes and provided advice on how to make them safer.
Perez finds the reason for the call rates going down due to the LFB's excellent job. He also prides himself on working with great female members who make this operationally busy area with many main roads safer.
I am really confident and proud. The output of work has been significant. The LFB is a lot more than just an emergency response. We want the community to come to us. Behind the red doors, we welcome groups to talk to us.
There have been many Open Days in different fire stations over the year, because the LFB finds transparency essential.
For example, the rescue demonstrations during the Open Day on the 1st October in Shoreditch Fire Station were a celebration of firefighters’ boldness.
Their job has become wider. The Regional Secretary of the FBU, Embery, says that there are new issue to take into account as the greater threat of terrorism, for example.
Although parts of Hackney still have some of the highest numbers of fire deaths, the LFB’s improvements in the services help the firefighters address the problem in a better way. Potentially, as long as there are no additional cuts, the LFB will continue introducing boldly new plans to make London safer. As the Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Perez, says: “We just have to dispel the fear of change.”
Here you can listen to the interviewees' additional points:
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Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London