Heatwave: thousands of UK firefighters have lost jobs - despite threat of wildfires caused by climate change

This week’s unprecedented heatwave stretched many of Britain’s fire crews to the limit as wildfires ripped through communities, forcing multiple fire and rescue services to declare major incidents. But with climate scientists warning of more frequent heatwaves in future, Britain now has thousands fewer firefighters than it did a decade ago, analysis reveals.

Britain has lost at least 9,000 firefighter jobs in the past decade, raising concerns that emergency crews are not prepared for the effects of climate change despite being at the forefront of the crisis.

Some 8,000 fewer people are working as firefighters in England than they were in 2011, official figures show, while Scotland and Wales have also lost hundreds of posts.

The analysis comes after the UK reached record-breaking temperatures earlier this week, triggering a number of wildfires across the country.

The severe weather resulted in the London Fire Brigade declaring its busiest day since World War Two as it tackled multiple blazes across the city.

The UK reached record-breaking temperatures earlier this week causing wildfires across the country.

Two firefighters were admitted to hospital and 16 injured while battling a wildfire blaze in east London, leading one firefighter to tell LBC they were “completely understaffed”. The figures show that the Greater London Fire and Rescue Service has lost more firefighter jobs than any other service in the country with more than 1,000 roles cut over the past 20 years.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said their staff have been “under attack” from government cuts and said politicians and Fire Chiefs have been warned of the risks posed by climate change.

Environment charity, The Climate Coalition, said it is “imperative” that the government invests in measures to adapt to climate change such as ensuring public services are well resourced to deal with the effects.

Thousands of firefighter jobs lost

Across England’s fire and rescue services, the number of people working as firefighters has fallen by 21% in nearly 20 years - a loss of more than 9,000 posts. The headcount plunged from 44,594 in 2002 to 35,279 in 2021, Home Office figures show.

In full-time equivalent terms, firefighter numbers fell by 26% in the same timeframe, from 42,374 in 2002 to 31,547.

West Yorkshire has seen the greatest percentage fall in full-time equivalent firefighters since 2002, of 46%, followed by Merseyside with 45% and Tyne and Wear with 42%.

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Scotland has lost hundreds of firefighters in recent years, data sourced from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) shows. From 2011/12 to 2020/21, firefighter headcounts dropped by 10%, from 7,211 to 6,510. In full-time equivalent terms, firefighter jobs fell by nearly 900, or 12%.

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Wales has also lost hundreds of firefighters. Headcount figures from StatsWales show a 11% drop in firefighter headcounts between 2006/07 and 2020/21, representing almost 400 firefighters. Around 250 of these jobs were lost in the past decade.

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Data for Northern Ireland was unavailable.

‘Warned year after year of the risks of climate change’

Matt Wrack, general secretary at the FBU, said government ministers had been warned year after year of the risks posed by climate change yet had continued to cut firefighter jobs.

“Firefighters are at the forefront of the climate emergency,” he said.

“The demands of the job are increasing but our resources have been under attack by government cuts for over a decade.

“We have warned of the growing threat for years but our concerns have fallen on deaf ears. The brutal truth is that government ministers and Chief Fire Officers have ignored the warning signs which have been obvious for all to see.

“The fire and rescue service should plan for foreseeable risk. The stark reality is that frontline firefighters and local communities have been let down by a combined failure of Chief Fire Officers and politicians to face up to the scale of the challenge. It is simply untrue to say they have not been warned year after year of the risks posed by climate change.”

‘Government needs to step up and do their bit to protect us’

Climate change has caused the UK to record its hottest ever day this week with temperatures reaching 40.3C at Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

To cope with the changing climate, the government must invest in its public services, like fire and rescue, according to Bronwen Smith-Thomas, head of campaigns and politics at campaign group The Climate Coalition.

She said: “While most tried to stay cool, fires across the UK raged through homes and green spaces, bravely tackled by our fire services. Yet, while the number of days with record hot temperatures has increased in the last 20 years, the number of fire and rescue staff has fallen by 20% since 2010.

“Science tells us that heatwaves will become more commonplace without action to tackle climate change and protect nature in the immediate years.

“This is an imperative for the government to act, alongside investing in the measures to adapt to changing conditions such as ensuring public services are well resourced, our travel networks are resistant to high heat and freezing cold, and insulating our buildings to protect people from extreme weather.

“The government needs to step up and do their bit to protect us, and give generations to come the future they deserve.”

‘Extreme events’

Fire and rescue is a devolved issue in the UK.

Commenting on NationalWorld’s findings, the Home Office said it was extremely challenging to predict the long-term likelihood of wildfires.

A spokesperson said: “The government is committed to ensuring fire services have the resources they need to keep us safe, including from wildfires, and, overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive £2.5 billion in 2022/23.”

The Scottish Government added that the safety of communities remains their priority.

The spokesperson said: “When we fundamentally reformed the fire and rescue service in 2013 with the creation of a single national service, one of the key objectives was to ensure more equal access to specialist capabilities and support across Scotland.

“The national SFRS has the flexibility to deploy its resources anywhere in the country and can therefore respond more effectively to extreme events such as widespread flooding and wildfires.”

The Welsh Government said officials are currently working with fire and rescue services to ensure climate change and the challenges to address it form a key element in their new National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services, which is being developed.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The Welsh fire and rescue services work closely with partners to reduce the risk from wildfires. The effectiveness of this proactive work was evident this week as incidences of wildfires have thankfully remained low.”

The National Fire Chiefs Council was approached for comment.