A highly flammable issue

The fire service is under siege on all fronts. Rosie Millard spent a day with the West Yorkshire brigade and found high ethics under pressure from cutbacks, car crime and the local kids
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Gipton Fire Station in east Leeds is the sort of place you might once have visited on a school trip. Behind the big red doors, there are two big red fire engines, rows and rows of big black firemen's boots with loops for quick pulling on, lines of yellow helmets and jackets, all neatly hung up on numbered pegs, and, upstairs, beds for the night-watch. Oh yes, and a big alarm bell, and two shiny 60-foot poles, down which the firemen at Gipton spend much time sliding.

The station is one of the busiest in West Yorkshire. Twenty-five years ago, engines sped out of these garages to the sound of the alarm just over 800 times a year; now, it's more like 6,000. What with high-rise flats, crowded housing, and a local population with a keen habit for setting stolen cars on fire, this inner-city suburb is nothing if not eventful.

Yet look closer and, regardless of the whirl of activity, you will see things are not as they should be at Gipton. The floors are very old, patchy and slightly dirty. The plaster is cracked; the windows dusty. This is perhaps because the regular cleaner has been made redundant; the men are expected to clean the station. In the canteen, the cook has also been sacked. The firemen, who must be fit enough to lug 40lb of breathing apparatus around, exist on a daily diet of porridge, tea and toast. They bring in their own food, whichis cooked up by whoever is least busy.

It's a picture that could be painted across the country, and which has been reinforced by a recent report from the Audit Commission. This stated that half the 600 deaths and 12,000 injuries caused by fire in England and Wales could be prevented by an "overhaul" of the fire brigade's regulations - still standing since the Fire Services Act (1947) - and of the current financial arrangements. The Home Office, it would seem, is finally being called to recognise that the brigade is in trouble.

"We've been turned into cooks and cleaners," says leading fireman Robin Poskitt, fireman at Gipton for 24 years. "You can't tell me it is in the public interest to have firefighters polishing floors and wiping down cabinets. It's all down to money and politics. The station used to be clean and tidy. Look around now: it's a crapheap."

We go outside to look at a large red fire truck carrying a 100-foot ladder on a turntable wheel. "We used to have three of these appliances in Leeds," says Mr Poskitt. Mr Poskitt is a large, moustachioed chap by whom you would be quite happy to be rescued off the top of a 100-foot ladder. "We now have one. And you're looking at it." For the whole of Leeds, population 680,000? Mr Poskitt smiles wryly, and turns around. "Just look at all the highrises," he says, gesturing to the skyline.

It's not only the ladders. Cutting gear, carried on emergency tenders (engines) and useful for accidents on the nearby A1, has also been reduced. Why? The engines have gone. Oh, and the laundry service has also been knocked on the head. "I am allowed to have my kit cleaned twice a year," says Mr Poskitt. "Otherwise I have to wash it myself."

The reason for this radical cost-cutting is because West Yorkshire Fire Service, like all the others, faced rate-capping if it did not radically reduce its budget. Since 1991, the chief fire officer, Jim Manion, has lost 266 full-time firemen and managed to reduce his budget of £43m by 13 per cent. He now faces a further budget deficit of £3m, which has to be found by next year.

"We are already down to the minimum legal standards," says Mr Manion. "I have reduced the specialist appliances, and closed one station. We're at rock bottom. Next year, unless they sort out the funding, we'll have to go through the cap, or make unacceptable cuts. I'll have to start thinking about closing further stations. And the workload is increasing."

It certainly is. In east Leeds, where a large proportion of the inhabitants are the disaffected unemployed, it would seem that igniting petrol is one of the main pursuits - on stolen cars, on rubbish, even council houses out of which they are desperate to move.

It is 11.30am. Gipton's alarm goes off and two men are jacketed, helmeted, booted and in their engine, pulling out of the building before I have even put pen to paper. "Twenty seconds," says the assistant divisional officer Trevor Leighton. "That's how long they have. At night, 30."

It's another car fire; last year the station dealt with 908 such cases. They are a particular delight for joy-riders. Steal a car, drive it around, put a match on the back seat and hey! no fingerprints. There is the additional fun of stoning the fire engine when it turns up, even with blocks of concrete. Or ambushing it, hemming it in with other cars and then robbing any useful equipment on board.

"They even know which boxes we keep what equipment in," says fellow fireman Roger Honeysett, sadly. "They go for electrical stuff - generators, pumps and torches." Engines from Gipton have been so badly abused that they now have to approach the scene silently. Don't announce your approach with sirens. They also must spend time backing into cul-de-sacs, in case the burnt-out car has been parked there as a ploy to block the engine in, head-first, down a dead-end. "Sometimes we have to send two engines in, for safety," says Mr Poskitt. "At the beginning of the Eighties, people weren't bothered by us. We were considered an independent body. Now, we are considered figures of authority, at one with the police."

Fire prevention? School visits? Not any more, not much from Gipton. They haven't the time, or the money. West Yorkshire now only funds two school liaison officers, for a population of 2 million. Indeed, the brigade even has an absurd disincentive to prevent fires. Under the current funding arrangement, the more fires it attends, the more money it receives; and when you need to find £3m, you attend as many fires as possible.

"I couldn't do without my fires," says Mr Manion wryly.

"Fire prevention is just not part of the equation any more," Mr Leighton adds. "Anyway, if you went into the estates here and gave people smoke alarms, they'd simply go down the market and sell them."

As far as visits from jobless youths are concerned, the feeling in the station is that young men around Gipton are less likely to be inspired to become a fire-fighter, than to see what they can make off with. "I can show you kids of four and five who would stone us," says Mr Poskitt. "If we fetched kids in for a look around, they'd simply case the joint - take all our computers, the lot."

Upstairs at Gipton the team awaits the next alarm call. One is having his hair cut with an electric razor; the others are playing cards. A television newsflash reports on the clearing up of last night's large fire at a loudspeaker warehouse in east Leeds. One of the men playing cards is, briefly, on the screen. "Can you tell it's me? Can you tell it's me?" he shouts, jumping up to have a closer look.

The atmosphere in the room is still one of warm community, for all the financial crises. "I joined the service for life," says Roger Honeysett, fingering his pay-slip, which has just arrived. A full-time fireman earns approximately £16,500 a year. "I don't do it just for money. I do it for the security, and the variety, plus the feeling you get when you rescue people. If you've ever handed a child back to someone after a fire ..."

He pauses briefly. "There's no money in the world nor any drug you can take which will give you such a high. Would I encourage my son to join? Yes, I think I would, even now."

Noble stuff; yet fire chiefs must ask how long the brigade, financially and legislatively constricted - and now somewhat socially ostracised - can go on delivering a service supported merely by high ethics. "You can never be confident that if you take engines away, lives won't be lost," says Mr Manion. "The fewer resources there are, the greater the chance of someone dying."

The Department of the Environment has since decided to relax its capping criteria for West Yorkshire Fire Service. This decision is worth an extra £800,000 to West Yorkshire. It must still find £1.19m and cut £900,000 from its budget.