Fire and rescue service facing a retirement crisis

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is facing a 'retirement time bomb' with almost half of its workforce becoming eligible for retirement within the next ten years.
Scotland's fire service is facing challenges from a retirement 'time bomb' and an investment backlog. Photograph: Michael GillenScotland's fire service is facing challenges from a retirement 'time bomb' and an investment backlog. Photograph: Michael Gillen
Scotland's fire service is facing challenges from a retirement 'time bomb' and an investment backlog. Photograph: Michael Gillen

The crisis is particularly severe among senior ranks, with half of the most experienced leaders in the service expected to retire within the next two years.

Of the 34 SFRS officers in the third tier of management – deputy assistant chief officers and area managers – 11 are expected to retire next year. The chief of the fire service is already eligible for retirement but has put off his departure.

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In a major report on the state of the fire service, Audit Scotland warned this week that “the age profile and therefore retirement rates of senior officers are a significant challenge for the SFRS.”

It follows warnings of an “insurmountable” backlog of maintenance and upgrades to buildings and vehicles, with a chronic lack of capital investment requiring£400 million to remedy.

Without an injection of cash, the fire service faces closing station houses and taking fire engines off the road, Audit Scotland concluded.

Across the fire service, 48 per cent of employees are over the age of 45, a figure that will rise to 67 per cent by 2025/26 if current trends continue.

Audit Scotland’s report states that “current taxation and pension arrangements deter officers from continuing” once they are able to collect their full pension.

Firefighters who joined the SFRS after 2006 must wait until they are 60 and have built up 40 years of service to qualify for full pension benefits. However, the majority of firefighters serving today continue to operate under the previous model, which allows them to retire on a full pension from 50 if they have 30 years’ service.

That includes chief fire officer Alasdair Hay, who is 56 and has worked as a firefighter since 1983.

Audit Scotland warns that the fire service is already 3.3 per cent below its ideal operating strength, a shortfall of 101 staff. Its report found there is no plan for stepping up recruitment.

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In support roles away from frontline firefighting, the staffing shortage is even worse, with the SFRS operating 8 per cent below its target. The biggest recruitment challenge facing the fire service is in finding enough retained firefighters, who operate on an on-call basis protecting remote and rural communities. The SFRS is short of 500 full-time equivalent firefighters, or 16 per cent of target strength.

Audit Scotland highlights that the loss of expertise from retirements means there is “limited capacity and continuity” for work to improve the service.

The report warns of a “high turnover of managers” at the SFRS, adding: “A loss of continuity of leadership across many of the integration and transformation projects is evident, slowing their progress.”

Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson Daniel Johnson said: “It speaks volumes about the SNP’s abject failure to support the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service that it is now facing a retirement time bomb, with almost half of firefighters scheduled to retire in the next twenty years or earlier.

“That could clearly leave the fire service dangerously short of manpower as well as bereft of crucial skills experience.

“Coupled with a scandalous £400m maintenance backlog, it is increasingly clear the SNP has completely mismanaged our fire service.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said leadership succession formed part of the SFRS’ strategic planning process.

She added: “SFRS recruited 136 whole-time firefighters in 2017 and launched a campaign to recruit 300 more. We have also provided additional spending power of £15.5m to support their transformation plans.”