I’m a firefighter – and after the heatwave I know we are in deep trouble

Climate change is here – and anyone who still has doubts about whether it is real should speak to our heroic firefighters

Dave Walton
Thursday 21 July 2022 13:34 BST
Sadiq Khan confirms 41 properties destroyed by fires across London amid heatwave

Fire is in my blood, you could say. My birth certificate says Birmingham central fire station as my residence, because my Dad was a live-in firefighter. Eighteen years later, I too began my firefighting career from the same fire station. This is the only thing I know. I have been fighting fires – physically and strategically – for 37 years.

For the first 15 years of my career, I had one job – to fight fires. I would go to work, put out fires then leave to go home. That was it.

But at the turn of the century, things started to change, as the public sector realised it might be better if we worked together to tackle problems that were common to us all. It seems obvious now, but doing prevention to lessen intervention was not widespread at that time. Now it’s front and centre.

Our key priority is our prevention strategy. We are measured on this and we are accountable to the public about how we are leading and if we are achieving our performance targets as we work to keep people safe. Fire services the length and breadth of the country have been working hard to put such plans in place, to manage and mitigate risks and to plan for the future. Working in partnership and engaging our communities is key.

The recent heatwave was no exception to this. We knew it was coming, we had our plans, we had mobilised all our resources to be ready, and we felt confident we had everything where it needed to be to manage what came at us, which we knew it would.

Then Tuesday came. At first, there was a trickle in terms of the increase in calls to the control room. Our highly experienced staff had already been dealing with increased calls due to the preceding few days of hot weather, which had seen a few wildfires erupt.

We were expecting this to be the same sort of situation, given the previous three hot days. But as temperatures soared into ridiculous numbers from lunchtime onwards, the floodgates literally opened. I was standing in control watching call after call coming in, with staff having no time to think about what was happening. It was a case of prioritising where the biggest threat or risk to life was and triaging the calls that way.

But we weren’t alone – calls from other fire services were coming into us, as they too were overflowing with demand. The system to divert calls to another service for mutual aid had kicked in. We were all picking up each other’s calls and dealing as best we could to ensure lives were protected.

As the day wore on and still no let up, many fire and rescue services across the country started declaring major incidents. In total, 17 such incidents were declared, which is nearly half of all the services. This has never been seen before and isn’t something I had ever imagined I’d experience.

When wildfires started erupting close to our capital city, that’s when we knew we were witnessing a whole new phenomenon. Of course, we were aware of the unusual fires in much hotter countries – like in California last year, or Australia where they even threatened to engulf Sydney.

We watched the news, and said to each other at the time: “This is climate change. Things are not as they should be.” But never did we think this was coming here. We could see how Europe was faring as temperatures soared. But again, this wasn’t that unusual these days.

Tuesday was a wake-up call. This was a game changer. We were witnessing something new with the sinking knowledge this is not a one off. Tuesday was not a once in a lifetime phenomenon – it was a glimpse into the future. Here in Britain, we need a gear shift in thinking about how we prepare for this. This is not just about money and resources. If we or other fire and rescue services had an infinite number of fire engines, we still wouldn’t have managed to stop what happened this week.

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We know climate change is here, and anyone who still doubts it is real needs to speak to our heroic firefighters who dealt with some of the toughest situations in terms of heat and ferocity this week – all of which is due to rising temperatures.

I went home on Tuesday night and sat wondering what had just happened. As a regular user of Twitter, I decided to get my thoughts down. Instinctively it felt the right thing to do. Then I went to bed.

In the morning my tweet had gone crazy – now I know what going viral means! Before I’d even had my breakfast, I was appearing on TV and radio, locally and nationally and even internationally as far away as Australia.

As the day wore on, I lost count how many reporters I spoke to and how widely my thoughts were being read. I am of course flattered by the attention, but it is the call to action, the understanding this is a gamechanger and that we need to get prepared – now – which I want people to take away from this week.

We all need to get ready together, or we will suffer the consequences together. This is real.

 Dave Walton is the deputy chief fire officer for West Yorkshire’s Fire and Rescue Service

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