Thirty-five firefighters have walked away from their life-saving jobs at Surrey Fire and Rescue Service after harsh cuts created a ‘toxic culture’ which has damaged the family lives of staff, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) can reveal.
Enforced changes to shift patterns, cuts in pay and allegations of bullying and intimidation by senior management have seen 9% of Surrey’s firefighters leave the brigade since March this year.
These significant losses mean Surrey Fire and Rescue Service now has just 380 operational personnel, down from 558, an overall reduction of 31% since 2010.
The FBU has called the revelations a “shocking indictment” of senior management in the service, who forced through cuts against the warnings of firefighters.
Included in the cuts which were made by the service in April were imposed changes to shift systems which force firefighters to work four consecutive 12-hour day shifts with some working more than 16 hours due to operational incidents.
This has had a detrimental effect on the welfare and wellbeing of the firefighters, impacting on family life.
Two fire stations (Walton, Haslemere) have had enforced and un-negotiated contracts imposed on them which have resulted in 20 firefighters having their pay cut by up to 26%.
In October this year, it has been reported that Surrey Fire and Rescue Service will continue these cuts by reducing night cover at a further three fire stations.
The majority of those who have left moved to London Fire Brigade, where they are paid £4,570 more than a Surrey firefighter due to the increased London Weighting, while others have left for neighbouring brigades to remain on the standard shift system
More firefighters are understood to be leaving in the coming months, while 68 others are being moved to non-front line roles.
Firefighters have reported a history of mistreatment in Surrey that has increased in severity since their brigade began forcing through cuts to the service and some have faced disciplinary action for speaking out publicly.
Now, a former Surrey firefighter of 20 years, has blown the whistle on the service for its treatment of staff.
In an email seen by the FBU, the firefighter accuses management of engaging in bullying and intimidation, resulting in him requiring therapy.
He has now left the service to work in London and has asked to remain anonymous.
Crews battling the recent wildfires reported dangerous conditions without proper welfare measures in place, working long hours with insufficient numbers of personnel for extended periods in extreme conditions, and in some cases without food and drinking water and relief crews or toilet facilities.
The cuts have resulted in several “close-call” incidents where it has taken fire engines too long to reach an incident.
In one case, a house struck by lightning was completely destroyed after it took 22 minutes for the first fire engine to arrive.
Firefighters have spent more than a year campaigning against cuts to their service.
Last year, 13,000 people signed a petition calling on Surrey County Council to scrap the cuts, but councillors ultimately voted through the ‘Making Surrey Safer’ plan.
Surrey FBU launched a six-month industrial action campaign against the cuts in December 2019 but paused the action due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, they have been aiding the coronavirus response locally, while still responding to fires and other emergencies.
A new petition calling for the reversal of fire cuts, launched last week by author Emma Kennedy and backed by Queen star Brian May, has reached 3,840 signatures.
Graham Whitfield, Surrey firefighter and FBU brigade secretary, said:
“Recent weeks have shown just how dangerous fire cuts have been for Surrey residents, but the changes have also made life much harder for firefighters.
“A culture of mistreatment has emanated from the very highest levels of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service. Poor welfare conditions were reported when we battled the Chobham Common wildfire, but that kind of mistreatment is all too common in Surrey.
“After a decade of austerity, staffing was already threadbare in our service. The brigade’s senior management recklessly planned to remove 68 firefighters from the frontline, but they’ve already pushed another 35 away to other brigades. It’s a shocking indictment of the toxic culture they’ve created.
“Every day is a struggle to keep residents and firefighters safe as it is. If we keep losing firefighters and fire engines like this, someone is going to get hurt, or worse.”
The former Surrey firefighter said:
“I decided that working for Surrey was no longer sustainable for my mental well being.
“Senior management’s regular bullying, intimidation and lack of professionalism became unbearable, as did the blasé attitude towards the welfare of staff.
“This same management team have cut the service to the bone, stretching all resources and pushing firefighters to work harder and longer at incidents with little or no welfare provision, putting their safety at risk.
“Many like me have already left, and more will follow unless senior management listens to their workforce.
“The people of Surrey deserve a fire service that is properly resourced and managed. As it stands more cuts are coming and I really fear for my colleagues, friends and for the people of Surrey.”
A spokesperson for Surrey County Council said:
“Our top priority is to keep Surrey residents safe and that’s what we continue to do. In an emergency we will always respond.
“The Making Surrey Safer Plan is not about cuts but about ensuring we are in the right place at the right time and to prevent incidents from happening in the first place.
“We know some staff have been attracted to other roles in neighbouring fire services, including for better pay and shift patterns but improving welfare and recruitment/retention of staff our remains our highest priority alongside protecting the public.”
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