Fire brigades can be run in better - and cheaper - ways
by John Blundell
Firemen are heroes. They wear bright uniforms; they drive big red vehicles with sparkling silver Klaxons; and they exhibit great courage, as on September 11 when 356 of them died at the World Trade Centre. The whole world felt for them and their families. We still do. We always will.
So, why do we harbour doubts about yielding to the 40 per cent pay demands of their trade union? And are there alternatives to how we currently supply and pay for fire suppression?
The Roman Emperor Diocletian struggled to pay his firemen until he allowed them to negotiate their fees on arrival at a conflagration. It was quickly noted that the incidence of fires at the homes of the wealthy rose. Caveat emptor.
William the Conqueror was so exasperated by his fire-prone Saxon vassals that he insisted all fires had to be extinguished by 6pm. It was a couvrefeu, hence curfew, and easy to enforce, as smoke is hard to hide.
Fire fighting evolved after the Great Fire of London as insurance or assurance companies found it useful to have their own brigades. You can still see surviving plaques on buildings bearing company names. The great caricature is that of the firemen of insurance company
A waiting, doing nothing, until the team from company B arrives too late to save the property. The reality was a very subtle process by which the first team to get there was rewarded regardless and there was an agreed salvage system.
In 1861, an enormous fire in Tooley Street in London caused Â£2 million of damage. The Fire Brigades Act of 1865 was the result. But it was not until 1938 that fire brigades were made mandatory in local authority areas, and this was more as a defence issue than out of admiration for the mixed qualities of municipal fire services. So they were not so much nationalised as municipalised.
Why our doubts? Being a fireman has its moments but they are few and far between and the daily demands are no towering infernos. If not sleeping, playing cards, eating or polishing their gear, those out on duty are mostly rescuing cats or flushing out blocked drains. And about half of them are never out, but rather in, filling in the paperwork.
No formal qualification is needed to join the force and whenever jobs are advertised, anything from 40 to 200 people apply per opening. One might normally expect to see their relative wages falling not rising! They enjoy restrictive practices and dismal performance redolent of the old "Spanish customs" of the print unions. To say they are hostile to change is a huge understatement.
For 50 years, Whitehall has regarded the fire service as second only to the prison service as ripe for reform but political will is frozen by the combination of an aggressive union and a vision that, although they are rascals, they can be flash heroes.
All but one per cent are white an