Scotland's firefighter overtime costs soaring as officer numbers decline

Scotland’s fire service is spending increasing amounts of cash on overtime as a result of cuts to firefighter numbers, it has been claimed.
Firefighters overtime costs have risen as numbers have dropped, the Scottish Conservatives have claimed.Firefighters overtime costs have risen as numbers have dropped, the Scottish Conservatives have claimed.
Firefighters overtime costs have risen as numbers have dropped, the Scottish Conservatives have claimed.

According to statistics revealed by a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Conservatives, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service spent £7.2 million on overtime costs last year.

The figures come three months after the Fire Brigades Union warned there were “nowhere near enough” firefighters in Scotland, after “severe” cuts over the past decade. The FBU said there were 917 fewer firefighters across the country than there were in 2010, and that there was a need for “radical investment” in recruitment.

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‘Radical’ investment in firefighter numbers needed, union warns
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Yesterday, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, Liam Kerr, said the rise in overtime spending proved the impact of fewer firefighter numbers. The overtime figures showed that £5.5 million was spent in 2015/16, followed by £5.8 million the following year. Spending dropped to £4.9 million in 2016/17 but rocketed to £8.3 million in 2017/18, leaving the five-year total standing at more than £31 million.

Mr Kerr said: “We know the fire service has been placed under increasing strain over the years by this SNP government. The fact so many millions more are being spent on overtime payments proves that point.

“Clearly, the existing firefighters and other brigade staff are being asked to do more, and that’s down to a lack of resources. It’s time the SNP started listening to firefighters and provided the organisation with what they need to do the job.

“Of course an organisation like the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will always require some overtime work, but the millions more being spent in the last couple of years point to a real problem.”

Overtime used 'appropriately'

However David McGown, Deputy Chief Officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said overtime was used "appropriately" to ensure the service was able to "respond effectively to every emergency and protect Scotland's communities."

He added: “It is an integral part of organisational stability and maintains flexibility and resilience across the Service.

"Nonetheless, we are taking steps to manage our use of overtime including the inward transfer of qualified firefighters from other Services, and a more flexible deployment of resources across Scotland.

“We therefore anticipate an overall reduction in overtime spending in this financial year, compared to the previous two years.”

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Mr McGown said that the SFRS was continuing to recruit firefighters. “Not only have we increased the number of wholetime, retained duty and Operations Control firefighters by 199 compared to last year - we also last month welcomed a further 50 wholetime firefighters into the Service and the construction of a new £12million training facility at Newbridge in Edinburgh is now complete.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the overtime costs were a small part of the SFRS budget.

“These overtime costs – which of course put extra money into the pockets of Scotland’s hard-working firefighters – were only 2.7 per cent of the Service’s resource budget over that period. We have increased the SFRS budget this year by £5.5 million, taking it to £327 million in 2019-20, to invest in service transformation. This is on top of increasing the spending capacity of the service by £15.5 million in 2018-19. The SFRS is the only fire service in the UK to receive this level of additional funding.

"The number of firefighters per head of population is higher in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. At March 2019, in Scotland there were 12.1 firefighters per 10,000 population. In England, that figure is just 6.2 and in Wales 8.8.

“We will continue to press the UK Government to return the £50 million paid in VAT between 2013 and 2018. This funding would allow SFRS to do more to keep our communities safe.

“Operational decisions on the local allocation of resources are a matter for SFRS board and chief officer. Overtime is a crucial tool for emergency services to deal with a range of issues and major incidents such as the fires we have seen in Glasgow in recent weeks.”