Recent events in Britain have brought into sharp focus the role of our public services in daily life. The two main strands of this discussion have centred around their importance to us in times of need and to what degree they should be financially rewarded for this.
Most recently, and in such horrifying circumstances, it has been Britain’s firefighters at the forefront of our minds.
Having been called into action to tackle the macabre blaze at Grenfell Tower last month, the sight of these brave individuals looking so utterly haunted in the aftermath is one that will long reside in the public consciousness. Equally, hearing individual firefighters lament the fact that their ladders did not go high enough to reach the highest floors of Grenfell Tower was intensely difficult.
For many of us, however, the intricacies of a firefighter’s role are something of a mystery. Naturally only firefighters will fully understand what it is they do and how it is they do it, but the revelation that firefighters at Grenfell were required to write their initials on their equipment before entering serves as an eerie symbol of what these people could be called upon to give at any given moment.
The purpose of the initials, of course, was to identify their bodies should they not have made it out that night. As job-related requirements go, it doesn’t get much heavier than that. There were officers at Grenfell witnessing scenes they had never seen before. People like 26 year old April Cachia, who told the Daily Telegraph how she helped terrified residents from the towering inferno having only been in the job for five days:
“The smell of smoke, the sound of crackling, the sound of debris hitting the ground, children screaming, people hand you their phones to speak to their loved ones – these are the things you won’t ever forget.”
The bravery of the firefighter is of course well established almost to the point of cliché, but in view of recent public discourse concerning public sector pay, the question of how to adequately reward firefighters has become particularly relevant.
In response to the defeat of Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which proposed to “end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise”, MPs on the winning side of the vote were heard cheering in the Commons.
Regardless of party politics, such grotesque displays of contempt merely highlight the disconnect that exists between some politicians and the will of the public.
Boris Johnson telling Labour-Assembly leader Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” in 2014 in response to the question of his office’s cuts to fire services was another unsavoury incident which looks far worse in retrospect.
Firefighters and other public service workers are often lavished with praise but little else. Unfortunately, praise doesn’t make ends meet. Despite this, it was heartening to learn that some of the firefighters who attended Grenfell have been amongst the first to take free holidays donated via the Grenfell Tower Holiday appeal group.
Fire Brigade’s Union General Secretary Matt Wrack has noted that firefighter’s real wages are falling and “our members are struggling to make ends meet.”
Wrack went on to launch a scathing criticism of governmental policy, saying: “it is sickening to hear politicians praising firefighters for the outstanding work they do every day of their working lives only to be told they have to tighten their belts as a result of economic problems caused by bankers.”
With this having been said, political dogma categorically should not take away from the fact that when called upon, Britain’s firefighters step up to the task. Their numbers may be diminished – there are 19% less firefighters than in 2010 – but their resolve to protect is not.
Blessedly for all of us, there is no cap on the bravery of Britain’s firefighters.
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