Firefighters are taking second jobs and working up to 100 hours a week to make ends meet, leading to growing concerns that an increasingly exhausted workforce is resulting in a “gamble with public safety”.
Firefighters across the country told the Observer that the service was at “breaking point” with more crew than ever being forced to take jobs such as personal trainers, painters and decorators or in warehouses. Wages in the fire service are often about £30,000 but can be as low as £23,000.
“When I started the job just a few years ago, I had good prospects of being able to buy a house and pay my bills – but, with inflation, I’m being priced out of this job,” one said. “I want to do this job, I want to help people … but I can’t afford to have a house, can’t afford to raise a family right now. I’m not asking for much.”
“You’d think [as an emergency service worker] you’d be looked after, but you’re just not,” he added.
The fire service is already dealing with record understaffing, with one Guardian analysis finding that numbers in England have fallen 20.4% since 2010, while local government funding for fire services has been cut by 14% in the past five years.
Firefighters are being balloted by the Fire Brigades Union for what would be its first strike in nearly a decade.
The union, which represents more than 32,000 of the country’s roughly 40,000 fire and rescue staff, is in dispute with the government over a proposed 2% pay award, which the union says would leave firefighters facing a real terms pay cut with inflation at 9.9%. The union says that, adjusted for inflation, firefighters have seen their pay cut by 12% between 2009 and 2021.
Lloyd Akers, an FBU rep and firefighter in Scunthorpe, said he could only afford to heat two rooms of his house last winter – his infant son’s and the living room – before the most recent spikes in heating bills. “If I’m honest, I feel a failure of a father that I can’t provide for my son,” he told The Observer. “I genuinely don’t know how we’re going to get through this winter.”
One London firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions at work, said that despite having two jobs and his wife being in full-time work, his family have £160 a month for essentials.
“It’s got to the point now that we have no luxury in life at all. We don’t have a social life, I don’t drink or smoke. I have no hobbies. We don’t buy clothes for ourselves, we buy the cheapest food we can get. I cut my own hair. We literally cut back on absolutely everything,” he said. “And that’s before this latest inflation rise.
“I spent the last 12 years pulling in the belt and I’ve got no more belt to pull in. And I can’t take a third job, I’ve got to go to bed at some point,” he added.
“I’m not at the point when I need to use a food bank yet, but if this carries on, I can’t guarantee I won’t be.”
Darrell George, an FBU rep and 25-year veteran of the London Fire Brigade, said the levels of poverty and economic hardship for firefighters are the highest they’ve ever been.
“When I came, a few people had to take on second jobs for some luxuries – now everyone has to do it to pay basic bills,” he said, adding that he has taken on extra overtime and works as a painter and decorator to make ends meet.
“For me personally, it means sometimes working over 100 hours a week. Between 80 and 100 hours a week is normal, and I’m not living an extravagant lifestyle.”
He added: “The government is willing to gamble with public safety. We’re not seen as an insurance policy any more. We’ve always got to try and prove our worth, justify our existence.”
One manager in Norfolk said the number of recruits applying for the fire service had dropped by 80% since he joined over 30 years ago. Many shared concerns for the safety of firefighters and citizens alike if funding cuts, understaffing and overwork continued to worsen, with one warning that it was “only a matter of time until people die”.
“Ordinary workers should not be made to pay the price for the cost of living crisis: they did not cause it. Yet that is the position we are in,” the FBU general secretary, Matt Wrack, said. “The 2% pay insult for firefighters will not be enough to halt the increasing amount of firefighters using food banks and struggling to pay the mortgage.”
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.