A fire expert has hit back at claims it’s inappropriate to discuss cuts to the Fire Service in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, after he was shut down for raising it during a TV interview.
John Edwards, who was a firefighter for 12 years and chairs the West Midlands Fire Authority, was speaking on Sky News on Thursday, the day after the blaze gutted the high-rise block and killed at least 17 people, injured scores and left many more homeless.
When he mentioned that firefighters’ pay has fallen in real terms under austerity, host Colin Brazier interrupted to say: “Listen, we’ll get into the politics some other time, if you don’t mind.”
Edwards protested to Brazier that it “was not politics” to discuss firefighters’ pay while politicians were praising them for heroically working punishingly long shifts rescuing people and extinguishing the enormous blaze.
The fire has put public sector cuts into sharp focus but it has also provoked counter-accusations that people are using the tragedy to advance their own agenda.
Edwards, a Labour councillor, told HuffPost UK now was the time to raise the cuts to the Fire Service.
Britain has lost 10,000 firefighters since 2010 - a sixth - according to the Fire Brigades’ Union while London lost 10 fire stations and hundreds of firefighter jobs lost.
Edwards said: “He called it politics. Frankly, I think it’s just about recognition and appropriate reward for people.
“If it’s not appropriate to talk about firefighter pay, given what’s happen in Grenfell, then I don’t know what is.”
He added: “They always try to do this. The Government, the media. They always try to separate heroic firefighters from the pay we actually give them. It’s a bit uncomfortable for them.
“The reality is, firefighters, because of austerity, have had a real terms pay cut of 7% in seven years.”
Edwards added he had wanted to tell Sky about the Fire Service retirement age being raised to 60, before he was interrupted.
He doubted older firefighters could have endured the long, gruelling fighting the Grenfell fire, asking: “Can anybody imagine a crew of 60 year old firefighters spending six hours in that environment over that night, doing what they did? It’s crazy.”
When asked whether he felt now was the appropriate to discuss the cuts, Edwards said: “It is the time to talk about that. The Fire Service across the country has gone through massive cuts since 2010...
“Full time firefighters deliver the emergency response but also the prevention and detections, which would’ve critical in places like Grenfell Tower.”
He said he did not know enough about the Grenfell fire to say whether the cuts to the London Fire Brigade had hindered its ability to save lives.
He said it was “good” they had arrived at Grenfell six minutes after the first 999 call but said fewer firefighters inevitably meant longer response times.
He said the West Midlands brigade had lost half its Government grant since 2010 and more than a quarter of its firefighters.
“Nationally [we’ve had] an increase in fire fatalities. We’ve got response times lengthening. Those things are not coincidence in my view,” he added.