Firefighter numbers increase for first time in decades

More than fifty new firefighter posts have been created across West Yorkshire to help meet demand on the service.

Dave Walton

For the first time since the 1970s, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service is now recruiting to increase its firefighter headcount. This £1.5m investment is a direct result of the increase in the council tax precept last year.

The service, like all public sector bodies, has experienced significant cuts to its budget since 2010, when austerity measures began. As a result, firefighter numbers have reduced over last 12 years from 1,490 to 900. This was through not replacing firefighters as they retired or left, rather than redundancies. Whilst this has enabled efficiency savings, it has placed significant pressure on the staffing and flexibility of service delivery.

To combat this, the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority members approved an increase in £5 council tax precept and the proposal to invest in service delivery by increasing the operational establishment by thirty-four posts.

This was by asking every household to pay £5 a year to the fire service. The investment in operational establishment directly contributes to the ambition of ‘Making West Yorkshire Safer’ and is captured in the new Community Risk Management Plan.

This sets out the work that will be achieved over next three years to make communities safer. Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton said: “Having the ability to increase our numbers like this is a great position to be in. While of course it is not going to take us back to the numbers we had over 10 years ago, it is a significant step in the right direction.

“We have suffered more than any other fire service nationally in terms of the impact of the austerity measures, as we have taken more of a hit in terms of budget cuts and the impact then on staffing numbers.

“While it is never ideal to be in such a position, it presented us with an opportunity to look at what we wanted to achieve as a service and to make us fit for the future.

“In the last 10 years alone there have been huge changes not only in prevention of fires, but also tackling them. There are new building regulations, and new fire standards because of Grenfell, and the work to encourage people to fit smoke alarms has made a significant impact in a reduction of numbers of house fires. New houses are far more insulated than before and often have hardwired systems in place. 

“These are clearly all good measures and ones we will continue to build on with our prevention and protection work. But we also face new, often unforeseen, challenges.

“The wildfires this summer in the heatwave were unprecedented for example. And flooding and water rescue numbers have increased in terms of our deployment.

“Having these new firefighters will enable us to have more boots on the ground at stations where they are most needed, which will free up crews for training for these new challenges so we can continue to keep people safe in years to come.”

He added while it has needed a cash injection to begin this process, this will quickly become cost neutral as it will enable the service to cut back on overtime and other absences. The additional thirty-four firefighter posts will take the operational establishment to 934 staff. It is anticipated they will all be assigned to a watch and station by January 2023.

The Operational Resource Pool, made up of firefighters who were available to cover any shortfall across the region, has also ceased in its current form with the twenty-two posts now distributed across stations. As a result, fifty-six operational posts will be allocated to all fourteen single pump fire stations within weeks.