Exclusive:Scottish fire service cuts branded ‘madness’ as deliberate blazes hit decade high

Concerns that savings will further impact fire prevention work

The number of deliberate fires being started across Scotland is at its highest level in a decade, prompting warnings that lives and property will be put at risk amid the ongoing budgetary pressures facing the nation’s fire and rescue service.

A spate of high-profile blazes in recent weeks has brought the issue into sharp focus, with a major fire at the former Station Hotel in Ayr making headlines alongside incidents in Kirkcaldy, Glasgow, and Paisley.

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The spate of fires has prompted scrutiny at Holyrood of the resources available to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), and invited questions about the impact of cuts on the service’s ability to respond.

Official data compiled by the SFRS shows that the number of deliberate fires across Scotland stood at 16,366 in 2021/22, the latest year for which figures are available. Not only is that a sharp increase on the 14,463 recorded in 2020/21, it is also the highest total recorded since a decade previously. The number of deliberate fires targeting buildings other than dwellings is also on the rise, with 432 incidents recorded in 2021/22 compared to the previous year. The number of deliberate secondary blazes targeting derelict buildings was up from 151 to 242.

John McKenzie, regional secretary for Scotland at the Fire Brigades Union (FBUS), said the figures illustrated a growing problem at a time when the SFRS faced yet another drain on its resources. “These statistics expose the madness of continuing with the cuts agenda we have seen over the last decade and more,” he said. “At a time when we are seeing the number of deliberately set fires on the increase, the number of firefighters is going to be cut, yet again.

“It will therefore come as no surprise to firefighters across the country that we are seeing a rise in the number of incidents of deliberate fireraising coinciding with year on year savage cuts to the budget of the SFRS and the job losses that go with it. “

When those Scottish figures are scrutinised at a UK level, another worrying anomaly emerges. Data compiled by the National Fire Chiefs Council shows that while there was a similar, albeit smaller annual increase of 9.5 per cent in the number of deliberate fires attended by fire rescue services in the 12 months to 2021/22, the latest total is otherwise the lowest recorded since 2014/15.

The question of why the picture in Scotland is so different has no straightforward answer, but such fires are a drain on SFRS resources. Even though around half of such incidents are low level, involving refuse and rubbish being set alight, it still costs an average of £2,000 to respond to them. Beyond such relatively minor incidents, the threats posed by deliberate fires extend way beyond damage. The SFRS’s own statistics show there were 77 deaths across Scotland as a result of deliberate fires in the ten years to 2021/22.

Cathy Barlow, deputy head of prevention and protection at SFRS, said: “Deliberately setting fires is not only reckless, but it can damage communities and endanger lives. Whilst not all incidents are a result of anti-social behaviour, our staff work extremely hard to engage with the public to prevent these types of incidents because they are a needless drain on our resources.

Ms Barlow pointed out that SFRS reaches out to communities through its prevention work to warn of the dangers of fire setting, work that includes school visits, charity events and educational programmes for young people. However, it is becoming harder to maintain such routines.

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Cost increases driven by inflation have taken their toll of late. A submission by the SFRS to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee last month as part of its pre-budget scrutiny work noted that in order to manage those cost increases, the service has spent less on smoke detectors as part of its prevention activities, and less on learning and development.

As far as those tasked with looking after rank-and-file firefighters are concerned, such crucial initiatives risk being hampered further by financial pressures, with the cuts made by the service falling not just on operational and control room firefighters. “They have impacted on fire prevention roles, community engagement, and the essential work we do with community planning partners,” said Mr McKenzie, who called for an end to what he called “the deliberate and concerted underfunding” of the SFRS.

The dire state of public finances means that the service faces making savings of between £14 million and £26m next year, according to its chief officer, Ross Haggart, with the figure rising to between £37m and £48m by 2026/27. Only a few weeks ago, he spelled out exactly what such cuts would mean in practice when he appeared before Holyrood’s criminal justice committee. Even if the “conservative” figure of £14m was realised, it would result in 18 fewer appliances on the streets of Scotland, given the service’s inability to crew because of a cut in firefighter numbers.

He warned MSPs: “If we were to have to reduce our firefighter numbers to the extent our modelling suggests, we do not believe this could be achieved without impacting upon the safety of the communities we are here to serve."

However, addressing concerns around the impact of SFRS budget cuts on public safety, First Minister Humza Yousaf told Holyrood last week that his government was providing the service with more than £368m this year, an increase of £14.4m compared to last year. “We are also continuing to invest in firefighters up and down the country,” he told the chamber. “As of March 2022, there were 11.3 firefighters per 10,000 of the population. That’s in stark contrast to the 6.1 in England and 8.4 in Wales.”

Either way, it seems that unless a tranche of funding is offered up so as to prevent the kind of savings identified by Mr Haggart, his service will have to wield the axe, and difficult choices will lie ahead. The service’s data shows that there are certain flashpoints for deliberate fireraising incidents. When the number of deliberate house fires is assessed in terms of their rate per 100,000 dwellings, for example, Inverclyde ranks worst.

Yet if the SFRS cuts package comes to pass, the area is unlikely to be spared. Indeed, it is feared that the area could lose at least ten firefighters and a high reach appliance, prompting the formation of a local campaign, and warnings that there could be tragic consequences as a result. A motion passed by Inverclyde Council last week warned that the cuts at Greenock community fire station would result in increased response times and an increased risk to life.

The fear is that without more money and crews on the ground, it is only a matter of time before that grim death total from deliberate fires rises further. As Mr McKenzie put it: “More cuts mean more fires, and more fires means more risk to people's lives and property.”



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