Emergency Services Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:09 pm on 4th September 2002.

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Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:09 pm, 4th September 2002

I thank members for their attendance and I thank those members of all parties—of whom there are 48 at present—for their support of motion S1M-3327. I welcome representatives of the emergency services to the chamber, including service personnel and members of their families.

I lodged motion S1M-3327 last week, following a mindless air rifle attack on a firefighter in Hamilton and a plea for the Parliament to act from a wife and a mother of two firefighters. If members had any doubt about the need for decisive action, they need look no further than today's Edinburgh Evening News, which shows that firefighters were ambushed again last night, in Edinburgh. As I came into the chamber, I was given a dossier by local firefighters detailing attacks that they have experienced.

What is most worrying about yesterday's attack in Edinburgh is that it appears that the gang of children started the fire deliberately to draw the crew out, so that they could assault the firefighters for their amusement.

During the fireworks show in Edinburgh last weekend, a group of about 30 youths attacked a firefighter and a paramedic, both of whom were assaulted and narrowly missed being hit by a rock that had been hurled at them as they walked to where a man lay stranded. They were acting as emergency services staff trying to save lives.

Such cases are not unique. Too often, we pick up newspapers or turn on the television to hear of mindless attacks on emergency services personnel. In Blackhill in Glasgow, 20 youths attacked a fire crew with knives, bricks, bottles and other objects and a firefighter was treated in hospital. In Parkhead, a gang of youths attacked a firefighter, who was injured. In Hamilton, a firefighter who was responding to an emergency call to rescue a nine-year-old boy from a 20ft gully was shot with an air rifle and required treatment in hospital.

It would be easy to list more attacks and I am sure that many members have received similar reports of attacks in their constituencies. The purpose of motion S1M-3327 is to say with one voice that attacks on emergency services staff are unacceptable and must be stopped before they spread further, with the eventual result that emergency services staff will refuse to visit certain areas for reasons of their own safety.

Last week, I spoke to local firefighters about attacks. They told me about how the attacks affect them and how the situation has changed. Between 10 and 20 years ago, they expected to get verbal abuse or to have the odd stone thrown at them, when they went to put out a poorly located fire on bonfire night or when they went to turn off a water hydrant that local kids were playing under on a hot summer day. They tolerated such behaviour; it was unacceptable, but they put up with it.

Now they are frequently subjected to unacceptable behaviour involving bricks, bottles, knives and air guns. In the Highlands, the new game is to tape down the head of an aerosol can, to light it and to throw it at fire crews as they approach. Such attacks involving hit-and-run tactics are cowardly and are without foundation or provocation.

The crews who are subjected to such attacks are responding to emergency calls. They already have to cope with ever-increasing demands in relation to response times and they are hindered regularly by hoax or vicious calls. Now they come under attack more frequently. They are attacked simply for doing their jobs which, as we all acknowledge, they do exceptionally well. It is part of the job of firefighters to risk their lives, day in and day out, to save others. They enter burning buildings to take out victims. They understand that element of their job when they sign up to be firefighters and their families know it too. However, they do not sign up to the thugs' agenda, which means putting their lives at risk for the sake of another's cheap thrill or mindless kick at the system.

We are in a unique and privileged position that enables us to do all that we can to protect the people who play such a crucial role in our society. We must shatter the culture of acceptability that seems to surround the issue. We cannot continue to wash our hands by saying that the thugs are out of control and that there is nothing that we can do.

There have been 22 separate incidents in the Strathclyde fire brigade area in the past six months and there have been 20 incidents in the Lothians this year. That situation is clearly unacceptable. The figures show just how serious the problem is becoming. The fire brigade and ambulance crews believe that violent incidents at work are under-reported and in both services a policy on violence at work has been adopted.

The statistics will never fully show the feeling of insecurity that crews must experience when they arrive at a scene. It is a testament to their professionalism that they are able to carry out their difficult work knowing that they could be attacked at any time for the sport and amusement of some moronic hooligan.

Strathclyde fire brigade already has a number of policies in place for the protection of crews. Risk assessment is done in line with the corporate safety policy. Any attacks are recorded and placed on a database, so that other brigade members can get the information. Perhaps that could be further improved by adding information to the brigade's website.

The most startling policy is contained in operational and technical note A12, which deals with minor disorders and civil disturbances. The note is a set of guidelines for crew on the appropriate action to be taken when they face situations. The guidelines include details on what kit should be worn and why firefighters should never work alone or leave appliances unattended. That is not always easy when firefighters are faced with a burning building containing casualties whom they have been trained to save. The note advises that look-outs should be posted on either side of the incident to inform the officer in charge of impending threats. Car doors should be locked while approaching or departing an incident. However, this is not the wild west. It should not be part of the role of firefighters to ride shotgun while attending to their duties. Firefighters are highly trained and highly skilled staff who are much better placed fighting fires than having to protect themselves from thugs.

Although my comments have focused on firefighters, many public sector workers face violence from the public simply for getting on with their jobs. We would not accept that in our line of work; we should not accept it for any other public servant. I firmly believe that the emergency services deserve action on their behalf by the Parliament. We need to look at the resources closely to ensure that the fire brigades are adequately funded to enable them to supply their staff with the appropriate safety equipment. We should also take action to install hidden closed-circuit television cameras where the emergency services believe that that would be in their interests.

We also need an effective programme of education to make the public aware of the consequences of such attacks. In particular, we need to make young people aware of what they are doing. They need to understand that by taking out fire crews, or ambulance staff, or police cars, they may well place at risk the lives of innocent civilians and even those of members of their own family. We need to get to where those young people are. That might be in schools or in youth clubs, or we might even need to engage with the young people on the streets. The young people on the streets are perhaps the most difficult to reach, but we cannot use that as an excuse for doing little. We must get the message across.

It is also vital that the public who witness such attacks play their role by reporting these yobs to the police. Campaigning newspapers can play their part too in making these crimes unacceptable. At the end of the day, it is we and our constituents who could be waiting for the emergency vehicle to arrive. It will not arrive if it has been smashed up in a mindless act of violence.

Finally, it is most important that the courts ensure that they take strong and decisive action against this mindless thuggery. A clear message must be sent out that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our society. Today's message must be that the Parliament values all public servants and that we will not accept mindless thugs stopping them getting on with the vital jobs on which we all rely.