Ask anyone working in the fire and rescue service and they’ll have a story to tell about being on duty the night of November the 5th.Whether you’re a firefighter on an appliance, a control room operator, a mechanic servicing the pumps or a support staff member looking at the duty sheets to arrange appropriate cover you’ll know that working through the week of Bonfire night is a unique experience.
Believe it or not, planning for this time of year, always the busiest period in our operational calendar, begins just as the Edinburgh Festival ends.
From that moment on, fire and rescue service personnel will be looking ahead to plans for November to ensure everything that can be done to keep the public and firefighters safe through this period is done.
In my 23 years working in the fire and rescue service much has changed in terms of how we respond to and rise to the challenges this particular celebration brings.
We have learned a great deal over the years and worked hard to address the huge demand on operational crews and control room staff and to mitigate the volume of calls we receive during this period.
In the late 90s, I was a leading firefighter based at Tollcross fire station. I can still clearly recall the tension of coming on shift at 6pm on a Bonfire Night weekend.
There’s a heightened level of awareness and anticipation when you know that you are going to be exceptionally busy. Back then, we were also very conscious of the threat of antisocial behaviour and violence directed at our crews.
Sadly, this is still an issue for our firefighters today and although the number of incidents has decreased we are always alert to the possibility of an attack.
Nowadays, though, we work much more closely with our partners, including the City of Edinburgh Council and Lothian and Borders Police, who give us exceptional support when we are attending incidents in areas that are known hotspots for this kind of antisocial behaviour.
We have legislation in place which makes it a specific offence to assault, obstruct or hinder a member of the emergency services as they carry out their duties.
And perhaps most importantly, our relationship with the public has changed. Where in the past it was our approach to see a bonfire, extinguish it and move on to the next incident, we realised through engaging with the public that this approach, whilst sensible on the face of it from a risk point of view, was causing a lot of dissatisfaction. Moreover, in the worst cases it could lead to violence and very challenging situations for our firefighters.
These days we will not extinguish a bonfire if it is supervised by an adult and poses no immediate threat to the public or nearby buildings. We will send a community firefighter and police officer, working together, to assess bonfires in historically troublesome areas and they can feed back directly to our control room whether appliances are required to attend or not. This has made a positive impact on the number of incidents we have to attend and has also improved our relationship with the public, who understand better when we do have to extinguish a bonfire it is because of safety concerns and not to spoil their fun.
Education also plays a huge part. Our community firefighters will have been visiting schools to speak to children about Bonfire Night, telling them how to stay safe and why it is important to respect firefighters doing this difficult but important job.
At the end of the day, we want people to have a great, safe time in the lead up to and beyond November 5. Spare a thought for the operational crews who are working hard to keep you safe and support them to make sure this is a happy occasion, not one we remember for all the wrong reasons.
• John Dickie is Deputy Assistant Chief Officer at Lothian and Borders Fire Service and Local Senior Officer for the City of Edinburgh
bonfires attended by Lothian
calls dealt with by the fire service around Bonfire Night
fires resulted in damage to property, but only 3 involved bonfires or fireworks
In 2006, Lothian firefighters dealt with 256 bonfires and 1987 calls
How to stay safe
RoSPA recommend the following ten tips for a safe Bonfire Night.
1. Plan your firework display to make it safe and enjoyable.
2. Keep fireworks in a closed box and use them one at a time.
3. Read and follow the instructions on each firework, using a torch if necessary.
4. Light the firework at arm’s length with a taper and stand well back.
5. Keep naked flames, including cigarettes, away from fireworks.
6. Never return to a firework once it has been lit.
7. Don’t put fireworks in pockets and never throw them.
8. Direct any rocket fireworks well away from spectators.
9. Never use paraffin or petrol on a bonfire.
10. Make sure that the fire is out and surroundings areas are made safe before leaving.