The Fire Brigades Union has described the reduction in the number of firefighters in Northern Ireland as “the worst in the UK”.
The union are speaking out against “severe cuts” across the UK since 2010, but the “bigger reductions” in firefighter numbers in Northern Ireland has come in for particular criticism.
The union’s executive council member for Northern Ireland, Jim Quinn, highlighted a “10% reduction” in numbers since 2010 “due to lack of recruitment”.
He also repeated a warning he made in an interview with the News Letter, one year after the fire at Primark in Belfast city centre.
Mr Quinn warned that, should an incident on that scale happen again, the fire service may not be able to respond “as quickly”.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBUU) say there are 82 fewer firefighters than last year, and 204 fewer firefighters than in 2010.
In a statement, the FBU said: “This year’s 4% reduction in firefighter numbers in Northern Ireland is the worst in the UK. England and Scotland have seen 1% and 3% increases in posts respectively, while Wales has had numbers reduced by 1%.
Nationally, nearly 11,500 have been cut since 2010. That’s means there are 19% fewer UK firefighters since the Tories took office.”
Jim Quinn, FBU executive council member for Northern Ireland, said: “These numbers lay it out clear – Northern Ireland has already sustained massive reductions to firefighter numbers. It beggars belief that huge cuts could be on the horizon.
“Wildfires in the Mournes this year brought the very real threat from climate change to the fore, while last year’s Primark fire demonstrated the vital need to mobilise quickly for a large-scale fire. With firefighter numbers dwindling, our ability to properly respond to these incidents is under threat.”
He continued: “Why is it that Northern Ireland is seeing bigger reductions in firefighter numbers than the rest of the UK? Lives here matter no less than they do in England, Scotland or Wales. It’s a disgrace.”
An FBU spokesperson said the union is campaigning against £3.26M in fire cuts in Northern Ireland, following years of budget reductions from £81.6M in 2011/12 to £74.1M in 2019/20.
The spokesperson continued: “Fire cover in provincial towns has been slashed, while operational capabilities in Belfast could be significantly downgraded. Plans to plug crewing gaps with fire safety officers are impacting on vital fire safety inspections.
“NIFRS responded to 2% more incidents this year including non-fire incidents, while fires shot up by 8%. Firefighters rescued nearly 1,700 people across the region last year, 12% more than the previous year.”
In a statement issued to the News Letter last week, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service’s interim chief fire and rescue officer Michael Graham said: “NIFRS completely rejects that any measures it is currently implementing does not allow the organisation to operate within safe staffing levels and totally refutes any suggestion that we do not put the safety of the public and our firefighters first. The interim measures recently introduced have been risk assessed and NIFRS will continue to provide a safe and effective service across all of Northern Ireland.”
“The introduction of these temporary measures will not only help us manage our budget in the short-term but they will help us assess any impact and inform any longer-term change. These changes have been brought about after detailed consideration and will allow NIFRS to continue to provide a safe and effective service. These changes are about using the resources available to us in the most efficient and effective way.”