Firefighters Memorial Day 2023

– in the Scottish Parliament on 4 May 2023.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-08571, in the name of Bill Kidd, on firefighters memorial day 2023. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I call Bill Kidd to open the debate. You have around seven minutes, Mr Kidd.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises 4 May as International Firefighters’ Day (IFFD), which is also known as Firefighters’ Memorial Day, and is an annual observance to honour the sacrifice of firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty; thanks firefighters serving communities across Scotland, including the crew at Knightswood Fire Station in Glasgow Anniesland, for their tremendous contribution in ensuring people's safety; acknowledges the courage and dedication of generations of firefighters; understands that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is the fourth largest serving firefighting force in the world; remembers and honours the firefighters who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty; understands that a minute’s silence will take place at 12 noon on 4 May 2023, on the forecourts of fire stations and other fire and rescue workplaces; notes the work of the Fire Brigades Union in its Red Plaque project and DECON campaign; further notes the view that all fire stations should have safe work practices, including full decontamination facilities, to ensure that firefighters and their families are not exposed to harmful particles; notes the classification by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, in July 2022, of the occupational exposure of firefighters as carcinogenic to humans, which increases the likelihood of cancer, and notes the view that this classification has made health and safety measures even more important.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

It is a privilege to lead today’s debate recognising firefighters memorial day 2023 as a day that is dedicated to the sacrifice of firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty, both here and internationally. The day is also known as international firefighters day, when the world community can recognise and honour the sacrifices that firefighters make to ensure that their communities and environment are as safe as possible.

International firefighters day began after a tragic incident in Linton in Australia on 2 December 1998. On that day, five volunteers, who were part of a strike team that was called in to assist in tackling wildfires, headed out from the fire that they were tackling to refill their tanker when a sudden violent wind change engulfed the truck in flames. Tragically, all five members of the strike team were killed.

In response, lieutenant firefighter and fellow volunteer J J Edmondson resolved to work with international colleagues to establish an internationally recognised symbol of support and respect for all firefighters. Internationally, 4 May was chosen to coincide with the day of St Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, who was the first known commander of a firefighting squad in the Roman empire. He lost his life, as did his colleagues, protecting the same humane ideals that firefighters around the world share today.

Since the inaugural firefighters memorial day, support for the initiative has grown until it has become truly global, with events and services being held around the world to mark the day. Here in the Scottish Parliament, the overwhelming support for the motion from members across the chamber has been remarkable. It sends out a clear message of the huge respect that we all share for those who risk their lives every day to protect our communities. I thank the members who supported the motion and all those who are here in the chamber to speak. I look forward to listening to their contributions.

We all know the risks that are involved for firefighters. We were recently given a tragic reminder of those risks when, sadly, firefighter Barry Martin was fatally injured when tackling the horrendous blaze at the Jenners building in Edinburgh. In addition, two of his colleagues were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation treatment.

We were all incredibly moved by the solidarity of and support from his colleagues when, to pay their respects, crews lined up across the country and thousands lined the Royal Mile, including outside the Scottish Parliament, as the procession passed by. It was a poignant reminder that, only 15 years earlier in Edinburgh, firefighters performed the same sad duty for their colleague Ewan Williamson, who tragically died while attending a fire at the Balmoral bar. Today, we pay our respects to all those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Although praise must be given for the steps that have been taken to improve safety, the banner that hangs in the head office in Scotland of the Fire Brigades Union, which lists the names of almost 2,500 firefighters who have lost their lives, is a testament to the facts that one life lost is one too many, that we cannot be complacent and that, as the work of firefighters evolves, safety measures must evolve, too. Indeed, the risks that have been created by changes to construction methods and materials such as composite cladding, and new risks that result from firefighters’ involvement in non-traditional work such as water and rope rescue, not to mention the effects of climate change, make that imperative. I support the calls from the FBU for politicians, chief fire officers and firefighters to work together to ensure that, as practices evolve, safety and legislation evolve to reflect the new reality.

The new reality includes hidden risks. As has recently been acknowledged by the World Health Organization, there is an increased number of instances of firefighters dying from cancers and other diseases that are attributed to firefighting as an occupation. That is why I also support and commend the FBU’s recent decon campaign to help firefighters to protect themselves and others from harmful contaminants. The campaign calls for annual monitoring to exposure; occupation to be recorded on health records, death certificates and other related records; decon training and policy to be introduced across the United Kingdom; facilities and contracts for personal protective equipment and workwear cleaning; and legislation to ensure proper compensation and protection for affected firefighters. I hope that campaigns such as that, and other measures, can form the basis for discussions on the future shape of our rescue services.

I commend the FBU for its red plaques project, which creates memorials for firefighters who have lost their life in the line of duty, with each red plaque commemorating a moment in local history and offering a place of reflection for the community. Each red plaque is funded by the hugely worthy Firefighters 100 Lottery. Since its commencement, that lottery has funded the establishment and presentation of red plaques to remember more than 50 firefighters across the UK. Unfortunately, some of those are in notable locations in my city of Glasgow.

The quote on the medal that is handed out by the FBU to long-standing activists states:

“Remember the dead, fight for the living”.

We all agree with that, I think. We were elected to do just that. Firefighters protect our lives, and we must do everything that we can to protect theirs.

Photo of Russell Findlay Russell Findlay Conservative

I thank Bill Kidd for bringing the debate to mark firefighters memorial day. As fellow citizens of Glasgow, he and I are familiar with its long and tragic history of high-profile and often deadly infernos, some of which have earned it the label of “tinderbox city”.

We do not have to look far to see the legacy of incidents in which gallant firefighters and others lost their lives. The firefighters heritage trail comprises 12 memorial plaques in places around the city where firefighters died on duty. One of those relates to the Cheapside Street fire disaster of 28 March 1960, when 14 firefighters and five salvage corps officers lost their lives following a massive explosion at a whisky bond. I used to live nearby, on James Watt Street, where 22 members of the public were killed in 1968. There are plans to extend the trail, and I hope that that tragedy will be among those that are included.

The ferocity and scale of such horrors seems unimaginable—almost a sepia-tinted history. Fire safety has become central to our lives, in our homes and workplaces, with decades of improvements making us safer than ever before. During a recent trip to Paisley fire station, I saw some of the incredible equipment that is now used. Today, I watched a video about new technologies, which promise so much. In the future, firefighters will almost certainly be supported by augmented reality. They will be able to see on their visors vital digital information, superimposed on the physical world in front of them, about distances and layouts in smoke-filled buildings, and about the location of exits and of their colleagues.

However, technology and human endeavour cannot fully end the risk that is posed by fire and smoke. Despite our many advances, tragedies still occur, as in January, when firefighters were called to the former Jenners department store here in Edinburgh. Five of those who entered the building required hospital treatment, including 38-year-old Barry Martin, who tragically succumbed to his injuries days later.

Such a painful loss serves to remind us why days like today are so important. We have a duty to pay tribute to those on the front line who risk their safety and their lives every day to keep us safe, and to remember those such as Barry, who have paid with their lives.

While firefighters merit our respect and remembrance, they want and deserve our support. New research that was commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union found that Scottish firefighters are significantly more likely to die from cancer, heart attack, stroke and some other diseases. The union’s decon campaign is working hard to minimise that risk. The Scottish Government must do more to ensure proper facilities for our firefighters. It is clear that more can be done—and can be done more quickly—to protect firefighters from exposure to toxic and cancer-causing substances.

According to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, years of underfunding mean that around £0.5 billion is needed to bring its infrastructure up to scratch. Frankly, many fire stations are outdated and dilapidated, and lack adequate facilities. We would not be expected to work in such conditions, so why should firefighters be expected to do so? Today, while we remember the firefighters who have been lost and thank those who serve, let us also collectively vow to continue striving to improve the safety of all those on whom we rely.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I thank Bill Kidd for bringing this important debate to the Scottish Parliament chamber, allowing each of us to recognise the selfless acts of firefighters across Scotland and the world and to give them our thanks and the recognition that they deserve.

Few jobs are more selfless than firefighting. Imagine what it takes for someone to throw on their protective equipment, override every human instinct and run towards danger, knowing that they might not survive, to tackle flames that never want to die and searing heat that no one should experience. We have seen it time and again at tragedies such as Grenfell tower in London and the twin towers in New York and, most recently, with the loss of Barry Martin while he was tackling a blaze at the Jenners store here in our capital. Those men and women whom we remember and those who continue to come to our aid and protect our communities would probably tell us that they were just doing their job.

I am talking about men such as Tom Brown. He was 53 when he lost his life having had 28 years of experience in the service. He joined Strathclyde Fire Brigade in February 1979 and served for 20 years at Johnstone in Renfrewshire before moving to Kilwinning fire station. On Tuesday, 1 May 2007, Tom attended a fire in an unoccupied property on Bank Street in Irvine. He was one of four firefighters who entered the house that morning. All were wearing breathing apparatus. Just seconds after getting the fire under control and leaving the house, Tom collapsed. Colleagues from his green watch division based at Kilwinning fire station did what they could to save him but, sadly, he had suffered a heart attack, and passed away at Crosshouse hospital the following afternoon, Wednesday, 2 May 2007. He left behind his partner, Natalie, and stepdaughters, Natasha and Jessica.

Tom was described as a popular member of staff and a very able firefighter. His final act was protecting our community by tackling one of the many house fires that he would have faced throughout his time in the service.

Today, while remembering those firefighters such as Tom who lost their lives, our thoughts should also be with the families of those who have died in service. I pay tribute to the parents, siblings, partners and children who are heroes themselves.

On the day that we gather to remember, we should also pledge to support firefighters in whatever meaningful way we can. Risk of death should not be the norm. The report from the University of Central Lancashire, which was commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union, found that there are serious health risks to UK firefighters following exposure to toxic fire effluents. It revealed that firefighters such as Tom Brown are dying from heart attacks at five times the rate of the general public, almost three times the rate are dying from stroke, and firefighters are significantly more likely to suffer from cancer.

Understanding the effects of those harmful contaminants is vital to creating a better working environment for our brave firefighters. I am pleased that the Fire Brigades Union continued its research with an extra 100 firefighters last month, and I welcome the additional £10 million funding uplift and the continued engagement between the Scottish Government and the fire service on providing better resources and to discuss current and future actions to protect firefighters.

Today we are honouring and remembering extraordinary public servants. I say to the families who have lost loved ones that we know that our words will never replace them but, today and every day, we offer them our eternal gratitude.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

Deputy Presiding Officer, I thank Bill Kidd for initiating this debate and welcome the new minister to her post.

Last week, we marked international workers memorial day, where we pledged to remember the dead and to fight for the living. This week, we mark international firefighters memorial day, where we honour those working people who have paid the ultimate price, sacrificing their lives while saving the lives of others. It is worth reminding ourselves that both are international memorial days, because our horizons must never be narrowed by geography but must be widened by our common bonds and by those universal principles of solidarity, of equality and of justice.

That is the abiding belief of the FBU as well. The very opening lines of the union’s rule book spell it out. Listen to them:

“The Fire Brigades Union recognises that workers, however employed, can only improve their lot by their own endeavours and organisation. A richer and fuller life can be achieved only by similar means.

To this end the Fire Brigades Union is part of the working class movement and, linking itself with the international Trade Union and Labour movement, has as its ultimate aim the bringing about of the socialist system of society.”

Today we come together in Parliament to commemorate those firefighters who went out on a shift but who did not come home: workers like Barry Martin, who tragically died at the tender age of 38 while doing his job, in this city, just this year, whose grieving family we think of especially on this day but whose grieving family we know think of Barry every single day.

We also commemorate those firefighters who have been exposed to killer diseases at work. That is why we must all redouble our efforts to get behind the Fire Brigades Union’s vital decon campaign. The campaign is built on evidence gathered by Professor Anna Stec, whose findings are shocking.

Compared with the general population, firefighters in Scotland are almost twice as likely to die from urinary cancers; two and a half times more likely to die from cancer of the oesophagus; more than three and a half times more likely to die from acute myeloid leukaemia; and nearly four times more likely to die from prostate cancer.

The decon campaign is about saving the lives of those who have saved the lives of others. However, it is also a recognition of how the class system fuels gross inequalities in health, mortality rates and life expectancy. As the FBU says,

“We don’t just fight fire, we fight injustice too.”

Back on 19 January, when we debated Professor Stec’s groundbreaking report, the minister’s predecessor told Parliament that

“The safety, health and wellbeing of all SFRS staff ... are a key priority”.—[

Official Report

, 19 January 2023; c 48.]

More than once we were told that, in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, decontamination was something to be pursued vigorously. I hope that, more than 100 days on, the new minister will update us on what progress she has made on the vigorous pursuit of tackling that injustice.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to recall the life of a very special firefighter: my late friend and comrade Enoch Humphries, a former national president of the Fire Brigades Union. He was a man of principle born of experience and forged in fire, and he taught me so much. However, he never got used to injustice and inequality, against which he battled all his life. Enoch Humphries never looked away and never forgot. It is the task of those who follow in his footsteps—those in the union, and those of us elected to the Scottish Parliament for which he campaigned so tirelessly—to keep the red flame of courage alive, to keep those socialist principles burning brightly and to rekindle our faith that we can build the better future that humanity richly deserves.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I also congratulate my colleague Bill Kidd on securing a debate on such an important topic.

As we have heard, today is international firefighters day, or firefighters memorial day. It is an annual observance that allows us the opportunity to recognise the immensely important role that firefighters play in our society and to honour the memory of those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Scotland has an important place in the development of firefighting. The city of Edinburgh—our capital—is believed to have had the first municipal fire service, which was formed in 1824, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is now the world’s fourth-largest fire and rescue service.

Just last week, like other members, I attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Alloa as part of international workers memorial day. The ceremony was, rightly so, in memory of all those who have been killed at work. However, it is also right that we should have a special day to mark the particular sacrifice of those men and women in our Fire and Rescue Service.

As we have heard, firefighters memorial day has a particular poignancy in Scotland so soon after the death of firefighter Barry Martin as a result of injuries sustained while tackling a blaze in the former Jenners department store here in Edinburgh. Firefighter deaths have, mercifully, become more infrequent in recent years. Barry Martin was the first firefighter to be killed in the line of duty since 2009. Indeed, he was the first since the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was formed. I hope that it will be a very long time indeed before there is another, but of course the nature of the job is such that danger is ever present.

Bill Kidd’s motion understandably acknowledges the crew at his local fire station at Knightswood, and I take the opportunity to mention the firefighters, whole-time and retained, who protect the communities of my constituency from the fire stations in Alloa, Tillicoultry, Bridge of Allan and Dunblane.

Firefighters are a special breed. They willingly and deliberately put themselves into situations that are incredibly dangerous in order to protect us, the public. They are the ones who run towards danger when others are fleeing. At any time on their shift or when they are on call, the bell could ring, and off they go, ready to face whatever danger awaits.

I am also pleased that the motion highlights the red plaque project. As has been outlined, that important endeavour seeks to recognise and remember the contribution and sacrifice of those firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty through the placing of a distinctive plaque as near as possible to the location where they died, commemorating an important moment in a community’s history and offering a place for reflection for family, friends, colleagues and those from the wider community who have been affected by the events around the loss of the firefighter. The project, which has been creating memorials since 2017, is funded by the firefighters 100 lottery—a charitable initiative that is run by the Fire Brigades Union.

One such plaque in my constituency commemorates John Noble, who lost his life in the line of duty on 23 January 2008. I actually met John at an event about a week before his death. His red plaque was presented on the anniversary of his death on 23 January 2019. A watch manager at Alloa fire station, John was on his way to a call-out at Strathdevon primary school in Dollar—which all three of my children went to, and which one of them was at on the day in question—when the fire engine that he was in was involved in a fatal accident. With more than 20 years of experience in the fire service, the 46-year-old left behind his wife, Lorraine, and two children.

The fire engine had a crew of five and they were responding to a smoke alarm that had activated at the primary school when the driver attempted to turn into a bend between Tillicoultry and Dollar—the place is called the Dollar bends, and those who know it will know that it has a lot of sharp bends in it. The fire engine left the road near Tillicoultry and collided with a tree, killing John and injuring four of his colleagues, one seriously. The call was later found to be a false alarm.

That story underlines the random nature of the threat to life that firefighters face on a daily basis as they go about their work of protecting the public. It also highlights the sad fact that even a false alarm can result in the death of a firefighter. It is right that we take the time to remember and honour the memory of John Noble and all those firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

I, too, congratulate Bill Kidd on bringing this debate to the chamber to allow us to mark firefighters memorial day 2023. I echo what I think all speakers have said: this debate is particularly poignant as we remember Barry Martin.

I want to thank, as the motion does, the firefighters who serve communities across Scotland, and to recognise their courage and dedication. I fully agree that, as the motion says,

“all fire stations should have safe work practices”.

Russell Findlay detailed some of the work that the FBU has done to look into the conditions in stations up and down the country, and it is incredibly alarming. As we look to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters, we must also look at the conditions that we are asking them to work in every single day.

In my region, 60 per cent of stations, including Bellshill, Motherwell, Kilsyth and Coatbridge, are considered to be in bad or poor condition. In Cumbernauld, the station requires remedial action, is considered in bad condition and has scaffolding supporting the structure. Crucially, however, it lacks the single occupancy showers that are absolutely vital to proper decontamination. The FBU has raised concerns that firefighters are being unnecessarily exposed to carcinogenic fire particles for long periods of time, which means that those decontamination facilities are absolutely crucial. Firefighters, who work hard to ensure the safety of people in our communities, need to be well equipped, well resourced, well protected and well paid. We owe that to them and their memory, but that includes giving them the facilities that they need to properly decontaminate.

On Friday, when we marked international workers memorial day—a day to remember the dead and fight for the living—the FBU, along with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the wider labour movement—came out in support of my proposed Scottish employment injuries advisory council bill. I want to put on record how grateful I am for the support of the FBU, because it is its work that is making the case for a devolved employment injuries benefit that works for its members and can bring that system into the 21st century.

Thanks to Maggie Chapman and others who took part, we have previously debated the work that the FBU has done through its decon campaign, with the help of Professor Anna Stec from the University of Central Lancashire. That work has been absolutely groundbreaking. Not commissioned by any Government, it confirms the World Health Organization’s finding that firefighting is a cancer-causing occupation and it identifies an epidemiological case for including cancers in firefighters in Scotland in the new employment injuries assistance benefit. Those involved in the campaign have been using Scottish firefighters’ death certificates, and I think that it makes a case that the Government absolutely cannot ignore.

It is a principle of fair work that workers have an effective voice in Government. Having an advisory council where firefighters have a direct role advising Government on what the benefits to support them should look like is fundamental to that idea, and they can do that only through an independent statutory council that operates without fear or favour of Government, which is, ultimately, their boss.

Firefighters know their workplaces and they know how the lack of decontamination facilities is giving them cancer. We must give them a voice and enable them to get justice through the employment injuries benefits system and to take their place on a council advising Government.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

Like others, I thank Bill Kidd for bringing this debate on firefighters memorial day to the chamber.

It is always a tragedy when a professional loses their life in the line of duty, so I stand today in solidarity to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and to recognise the dedication and courage of each of Scotland’s 3,531 whole-time operational firefighters. I also thank the FBU for sending us a briefing for today’s debate, and for its endless work in advocating for firefighters’ rights.

Firefighters are at the heart of our communities. During 2021-22, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service attended 95,709 incidents. Firefighters provide a lifeline to our communities when they face danger, and they dedicate time in our local communities to educate us and fit smoke alarms on behalf of those who cannot. If firefighters undertake a variety of roles, they share the same goal: all of them prioritise the safety of our communities.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the deaths of local firefighters Stanley McIntosh MBE and Joseph Calderwood, who lost their lives in a tragic blaze in Holytown, in my constituency. Earlier this year, in honour of their sacrifice, a red plaque from the FBU was placed at Motherwell fire station to ensure that everyone in Lanarkshire remembers their names and to remind local people of their selfless dedication to protecting our community.

In response to firefighters memorial day, I want to raise awareness of all the other everyday sacrifices that firefighters make, because their sacrifice does not stop at the fire station.

As we have heard, the invaluable decon campaign is informed by ground-breaking research by the University of Central Lancashire. It plays a vital role in raising awareness, and it highlights the need for firefighters to protect themselves, their family and others from toxic contaminants.

No one should have their health worsen just from going to work. However, firefighters are routinely faced with traumatic and high-stress environments and exposed to toxic and carcinogenic contaminants. It is harrowing that firefighters are at increased risk of cancer, as we have heard, and that they are often diagnosed only once they have reached the terminal stage. They die up to 20 years earlier than the general public from rare cancers.

In addition, exposure to toxic contaminants is causing higher rates of mental health issues. Findings from the 2023 UK firefighter contamination survey revealed that those who remained in contaminated PPE for over four hours after incidents were twice as likely as their peers to report mental health disorders. Those findings are an evident call for further investigation of health monitoring and PPE management for firefighters, as reducing exposure to contaminants is pertinent to protecting the health and wellbeing of our firefighters and their families.

Sacrifices are made not only by the firefighter; they are made by every partner and family member who patiently waits for their loved one to return home. Being a firefighter means prioritising the safety of our communities, often at the expense of sacred family time—it means missing big occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, and other moments that the rest of us often take for granted. The experience of being married to a firefighter was generously shared by Amber, who wrote:

“The truth is, being a fire wife is rarely glamorous. It’s extremely lonely nights, followed by long days.”

However, Amber would not change that for the world, because she knows that being a firefighter is her husband’s calling, not just his job.

On firefighters memorial day, let us share our gratitude to the firefighters who are currently serving our communities, the families who support them and all those who have fallen. We are honouring extraordinary individuals today. They include the firefighters Stanley McIntosh and Joseph Calderwood and, more recently, Barry Martin and Ewan Williamson, as well as every other firefighter who nobly made the ultimate sacrifice—more than 2,500 in total. I say to all the firefighters out there: thank you for keeping us safe.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

A number of members still wish to participate in the debate. To allow all of them to do so, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 of standing orders to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Bill Kidd to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Bill Kidd


Motion agreed to.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I thank Bill Kidd for lodging the motion so that we can—as we should—mark firefighters memorial day today. I welcome firefighters and FBU members to the gallery.

This year’s firefighters memorial day is perhaps especially poignant because of the tragic death of firefighter Barry Martin in Edinburgh in January. I give my sincere condolences to Barry’s family, friends and colleagues.

As the motion highlights, the Fire Brigades Union has created the red plaque scheme, which seeks to mark, with the placing of a red plaque, where or close to where firefighters have lost their lives in the course of their duties. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the red plaque unveiling ceremony at Blackness Road fire station in Dundee. Two plaques were installed on the wall of the station—one to honour John Buist, who died after being trapped by burning jute bales in a warehouse in April 1962, and one to honour William Carnegie, who was killed in a fall while attending a fire on Mains Road, also in 1962. We remember them today, just as we remember Barry Martin and each of the firefighters who have lost their lives in Scotland, the rest of the UK and beyond.

I turn to the FBU’s decon campaign. Over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly plain that firefighters are exposed to toxins and other conditions that have negative impacts on their health. Professor Anna Stec’s excellent work on Scottish firefighters occupational cancer and disease mortality rates highlights the extent of the impact that the work of firefighting has on our firefighters.

The international agency for research on cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, has assessed firefighting to be a carcinogenic occupation. That is why the FBU has developed its decon campaign. Bill Kidd highlighted the campaign’s key asks: regular health screening and monitoring; clear recording of occupational information, including on death certificates; legislation that enables compensation; and, of course, investment in personnel, in training and in the facilities and infrastructure that are needed in order to decontaminate effectively after incidents and to limit exposure in the first place.

Recently, I was pleased to visit a fire station with FBU colleagues to better understand how things work on the ground in relation to safety and decontamination. Improvements are clearly under way in several areas, and firefighters are supporting one another with the culture change that is required.

One of the FBU’s posters calls on firefighters to “shower within the hour”—to shower as soon as possible after an incident in order to remove as many contaminants as possible. We know that some stations do not have running water, so firefighters have to go home to shower, taking contaminants home to their families. We must address that.

Where showers are available, some do not have soap or other detergents. Sometimes, contaminated personnel need to walk past other colleagues through carpeted areas to get to shower facilities. We need to rethink the provision of soap and other basic things to ensure that they are as close as possible to arrival points in order to limit the spread of contaminants through stations. Clear policies and procedures for limiting exposure and prioritising decontamination must become ingrained in the culture and practices across the service.

The FBU’s decon campaign is a call for us all to act: for the Government to plan the investment and implement that investment appropriately; for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to ensure that policies and procedures are appropriate and adequate and that training meets the needs of the evolving service; and for firefighters to be aware of what they need to do to keep themselves, their colleagues and their families safe.

The campaign is vital for the long-term sustainability of the service. Firefighting must be a profession that people want to join, and stay in, without facing additional disproportionate risks of stroke, cancer, heart attack and early death.

We rely on firefighters at some of the worst moments of our lives. At those moments, we expect firefighters to be there, equipped as best they can be to save our lives, our families and our communities. It is only right that we recognise and respect that, in order for them to be there to do that, they need our support now.

Just a week on from international workers memorial day, we must remember the dead and fight for the living. I pledge to continue to work with the FBU to do just that.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Bill Kidd for bringing this important debate to the chamber.

We observe the annual international firefighters day to honour and pay tribute to the firefighters past and present who put their lives at risk while working tirelessly to protect the life and property of people and to prevent the damage that is caused by fires. In the past 100 years, more than 40 firefighters have died while serving in Scotland. Today, we remember them and their comrades around the world who have given their lives in the service of their communities.

In recent times, tragically, two of that number were members of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service who served in Edinburgh. They paid the ultimate price, and lost their lives as a result of firefighting in this city. As Bill Kidd mentioned, in July 2009, firefighter Ewan Williamson died while fighting a blaze in the Balmoral bar in the city’s Dalry Road. Much more recently, we saw the tragic death of firefighter Barry Martin, who died as a result of injuries that he sustained while firefighting in the vacant Jenners store on Princes Street in January this year.

In recognising the ultimate tragedy of that loss of life, we should never forget that, across the country, firefighters can and do sustain injuries, which are sometimes life changing, while protecting the public from harm. In acknowledging the deaths of firefighters Williamson, Martin and others across the world, we should also remember those who sustain injuries. Four of firefighter Barry Martin’s colleagues were also hospitalised as a result of the Jenners incident, but thankfully their injuries were such that they were discharged from hospital relatively soon after.

It is important that we acknowledge the annual firefighters memorial day, but I would also like to recognise the work of the Fire Brigades Union in its support for the red plaque scheme, which recognises and honours as many fallen firefighters as possible for their selfless commitment to protecting others. The red plaque scheme is funded by the firefighters 100 lottery, which was born out of plans to mark the centenary of the Fire Brigades Union. It is run independently, and was set up to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters killed and injured in the line of duty, and to establish a fund for the future benefit of firefighters, their bereaved families and the firefighting profession. So far, the scheme has seen a number of plaques installed in Scotland: in Aberdeen, Dundee, Inveraray, Dollar, Paisley, Motherwell, Glasgow and Edinburgh—on Dalry Road, to commemorate the death of firefighter Ewan Williamson; in time there will be at least one more to mark the death of Barry Martin.

The list of towns and cities that I have just shared shows that, right across Scotland, our firefighters put themselves in harm’s way—sometimes at the cost of their lives—while they protect the public. We know that other workers tragically lose their lives at work, and they are remembered on international workers memorial day, but it is right and proper that firefighters are acknowledged separately, because while others evacuate or flee from danger, firefighters head towards it to render their three main aims: to save lives, protect property and provide humanitarian services. For that, we are eternally grateful. On this day, especially, but also on every other day, we thank them and their families for the work that they do on our behalf and we remember those who gave their lives doing so.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I congratulate Bill Kidd on securing this debate and thank him for lodging the motion. As he pointed out, this is an international day, and the issues raised when firefighters put themselves in danger in the interest of others are also international. I associate myself with all of the tributes that have been made to firefighters who have lost their lives.

Firefighters memorial day is a day of solidarity and one on which to remember all firefighters and fire and rescue services workers who have lost their lives. As has been said, more than 2,500 have lost their lives serving their communities and many thousands more have been injured. The health risks to firefighters are now very clear, with higher death rates, higher rates of heart attacks, higher cancer and leukaemia rates and excess cancer mortality rates linked to different exposures and fire toxins.

My office recently submitted freedom of information requests to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service about the conditions in our fire stations. In total, 75 per cent of Scotland’s fire stations are assessed as being of bad or poor suitability. Around 45 per cent of fire stations are assessed as being in either bad or poor condition. In total, around 30 per cent of Scotland’s fire stations do not have dedicated female toilets and about 33 per cent of Scotland’s fire stations do not have dedicated male toilets. Around 40 per cent of Scotland’s fire stations do not have dedicated female showers and around 26 per cent of Scotland’s fire stations do not have drying facilities.

At the Criminal Justice Committee, interim chief, Ross Haggart, estimated that £138 million is needed to address that issue, but he also cited a £630 million backlog in the fire service’s capital budget. Despite strong representations being made, the Scottish Government is cutting the budget in real terms over the next year. We also know that between 2012 and 2021 almost 1,100 firefighter jobs were lost across Scotland, which is around 15 per cent of the workforce.

Last Friday was workers memorial day. The message then and now must be that we must remember the dead and fight for the living. In reality, that means that we in the chamber must put our actions where our words are, and we must commit resources to ensure that firefighters in this country are provided with safe systems of work.

Photo of Siobhian Brown Siobhian Brown Scottish National Party

I thank Bill Kidd for raising this important issue and bringing it to the wider attention of the Parliament. It is fitting that we gather to remember firefighters across the world who gave their lives to protect others and that we honour the memory of those exceptional and very brave people.

That has been brought into sharp focus for us all in Scotland this year with the very sad death of firefighter Barry Martin in January. Today, we have also heard about Tom Brown in Irvine, John Noble in Alloa and Stanley McIntosh and Joseph Calderwood, just to name a few; my deepest condolences go out to their families, friends, loved ones and colleagues at this time. The SFRS continues to mark the tragedies that took place at Cheapside Street and Kilbirnie Street in Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s to ensure that the firefighters who lost their lives are never forgotten.

It is often said that firefighters are those who run towards danger while everyone else runs away. Of course, they train and prepare so that they can do that as safely and as effectively as possible, but whenever there is a loss it is a clear reminder of the courage that our firefighters demonstrate every day of their working lives.

Although firefighters face known risks when they attend an emergency, it is right that we also support and protect them from lesser known and more silent risks. In that respect, I thank and acknowledge the significant work of the Fire Brigades Union in commissioning its important research with the University of Central Lancashire and in the production of the report that was discussed at an earlier debate in January this year. I also welcome members of the FBU to the gallery.

The safety, health and wellbeing of our firefighting staff who work so hard to protect communities in some of the most challenging environments is of utmost importance to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. The FBU’s campaign, research and any subsequent conclusions are primarily a matter for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, as the employer of firefighters in Scotland. The SFRS has engaged with that work for a number of years, and has met with Professor Anna Stec of the University of Central Lancashire on several occasions to achieve a deeper understanding of the important research that she is doing, and to offer SFRS’s co-operation and support to identify the actions that are needed to minimise harm to firefighters.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I hear what the minister says, but I understand that 14 fire stations in Scotland do not have running water. Does she agree that that is unacceptable and needs to be addressed urgently?

Photo of Siobhian Brown Siobhian Brown Scottish National Party

I met with the SFRS earlier this week, and it raised that point with me. I totally agree with the member, and I know that there are plans in place to rectify the situation as a matter of urgency.

I am aware that as a result of the debate in January, the previous Minister for Community Safety swiftly engaged with the SFRS and the FBU. Meetings took place in February between the previous minister and the SFRS senior leadership team at SFRS headquarters at Cambuslang. The minister also met with the FBU and Professor Stec in February this year, and wider health monitoring for firefighters was among the issues that were discussed. I will meet the FBU next week.

I am pleased to say that since those discussions the SFRS has been working closely with Professor Stec and the FBU on developing further research and analysis on health monitoring, and will make progress on detailed proposals over the next 12 months. I understand that the FBU has welcomed that development.

The decon campaign also raises the need for recognition of the occupational risks of firefighting in relation to Department for Work and Pensions benefits and pensions and in terms of public record keeping. I am pleased to be able to say that officials have been progressing positive discussions with the other devolved nations and Westminster on issues such as the industrial injuries disablement benefit.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

The industrial injuries disablement benefit is now fully devolved, and it is entirely within the gift of the Scottish Government to set out the entitlement. Will the minister commit to looking at the particular cancers that are affecting firefighters and consider prescribing those for the purposes of employment injuries assistance, as it is called now that it is fully devolved to the Scottish Government?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, I can give you the time back for the intervention.

Photo of Siobhian Brown Siobhian Brown Scottish National Party

Thank you. Yes, I will be happy to look into that on the member’s behalf.

I fully recognise the risk that contaminants can pose to firefighters, and I want Scotland to be at the forefront of moves to tackle that threat. SFRS has a long-established management of contaminants working group that looks at technical, procedural and cultural solutions to mitigate the risk of SFRS personnel—and any others who may be affected by the actions of SFRS personnel—being exposed to contaminants. The group includes representation from the Fire Brigades Union, has links to external specialists and is supported by the highest levels of SFRS staff.

Richard Leonard asked for progress in his speech. However, SFRS has already made significant practical changes in procedures, equipment and facilities to reduce firefighter contact with equipment that could contain contaminants that are harmful to health, and that important work will continue.

Practical examples of such changes include ensuring that firefighting equipment is properly cleaned and stored and encouraging crews to shower as quickly as possible upon their return to the station grounds. All SFRS buildings have been audited and reviewed to minimise the risk of contamination, and procedures have been developed to ensure that firefighters in some rural fire stations that lack showering facilities have appropriate decontamination solutions in place. A number of steps have also been taken to mitigate risks, including supplying specialist decontamination wipes and the trial of station zoning systems to limit any potential spread.

The Scottish Government has continued the commitment to support SFRS service delivery and reform with a further uplift of £14.4 million budget cover for 2023-24. However, I must reiterate that decisions on how to spend its budget, including its capital allocation of £32.5 million is a matter for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service board.

Difficult decisions have to be taken on budgets, particularly for capital investment, but we have maintained the £32.5 million capital budget for SFRS in 2023-24 to invest in buildings, fleet and equipment.

I will touch on a few speeches made by members, but I thank all members for their very moving and passionate contributions to today’s debate.

Keith Brown’s speech highlighted the threat to life that firefighters face every day and the fact that that risk is not always from fire—John Noble died in a road accident in the line of duty. I also take the time to thank Keith Brown for all his work as cabinet secretary—[



The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, please turn to the microphone.

Photo of Siobhian Brown Siobhian Brown Scottish National Party

In closing, I again thank Bill Kidd for the opportunity to mark firefighters memorial day and to discuss the wider issues around the FBU decon campaign. I will continue to discuss the issues of decontamination and the wider health of firefighters with the FBU and the SFRS through my regular meetings with them to ensure that progress continues to be made on this important issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, minister. That concludes the debate.

13:44 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—