Millions will have watched with sympathy and alarm as devastating floods hit large parts of the UK over the last few weeks. Our screens have been filled with footage of 'rescue workers' working tirelessly for days on end to keep communities safe and reduce damage to property. However, what's rarely acknowledged is that most of these rescue workers are actually firefighters.
The role of the modern firefighter is more diverse than it ever has been. Firefighters don't only extinguish fires and rescue people from burning buildings; they also rescue those whose communities are engulfed by water. Firefighters attend serious road accidents and play a massive role in the event of a large-scale emergency such as a terrorist attack. And, of course, firefighters help keep property safe by making sure fire safety standards are being met by building owners, visit the homes of vulnerable people to install smoke alarms and go into schools to teach children about the dangers of fire.
The role of the modern firefighter is more diverse now than ever. As a result, it's not just fire safety that is threatened by the government's unprecedented cuts to fire authority budgets. The Fire Brigades Union has estimated between 6,000 and 10,000 firefighter jobs will be cut between 2011 and 2015. That means as many as one in five firefighters.
Cuts do not just affect individual fire and rescue services. Serious events like flooding require resources from many fire and rescue services to work together. Yet when local fire and rescue authorities decide to close fire stations, cut jobs or shut down specialist teams, they rarely take any account of the wider impact such cuts might have if a major event like a flood happens elsewhere in the country. The government completely fails to scrutinise such cuts or the impact they have on our ability as a nation to respond to major incidents whether they be floods, fire or terrorist attack.
Fire and rescue service response to flooding is a particular concern. Despite an expectation that fire and rescue services will attend, there is no legal requirement to do so in England and Wales and fire and rescue service funding does not include additional money for flood rescue work. Firefighters of course dedicate their professional lives to keeping people safe, and do not shirk from the chance to help save lives and property. But in order to best prepare for future storms - and such extreme weather events are expected to increase in coming years - a clear requirement should be set out by government and appropriate funding must be provided.
As ever, politicians - including the prime minister - are full of praise for 'rescue workers' and the emergency services for the role they played. It is easy to bask in the reflected glory of their work. But words are cheap. Stopping the cuts to our fire and rescue service might demonstrate that all the praise actually means something.