Jenners fire Edinburgh: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service's heroes are being short-changed by SNP – Alex Cole-Hamilton
I’m sure I read somewhere that Jenners had one of the first operational escalators in Scotland and that, in its early days of use, company staff would offer shoppers a nip of brandy at the top to get over the ordeal.
It underscores the rich and vibrant history of a building that may well now be lost to us as a result of Monday’s fire.
For a time, it was known as the “Harrods of the North” and occupied the same corner of Princes Street for 185 years. As well as the physical space it occupies, it will have a place for all of us in memories of Christmas shopping and January sales. But the pang of nostalgic grief most Edinburgh residents will feel at its loss is eclipsed by the pride and admiration we should all feel for the valiant heroism of our emergency workers.
At the time of writing, one of Edinburgh's firefighters was in critical condition with several others badly injured as a result of their efforts to bring the blaze under control. A reminder, if any were needed, of the danger that our first-responders put themselves in every day. When we’re told to run from danger, these are the ones who run towards it.
They may only make the news when they’re dealing with big and devastating fires that gut iconic buildings, but the run-of-the mill stuff is equally dangerous to both their physical and mental health. They attend domestic fires, rescue situations and car crashes. They put themselves in harm's way and have to internally process the human tragedies they witness.
Like other emergency services, Scotland’s Fire and Rescue Service is on its knees. They are overstretched to breaking point. Scottish Liberal Democrat research revealed that in the five years up to the pandemic alone, the overtime bill for Scotland’s firefighters neared £30 million. That means stations operating round the clock and personnel putting in punishing hours. A recent study found firefighters face a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke, most likely due to toxic substances they’re exposed to.
Small wonder that our research also demonstrated that an average of 20 retained firefighters or volunteer staff leave every month. This adds to the hundreds of firefighters lost since the SNP merged the fire service into its current form. The huge overtime bills are because there are simply not enough staff. It’s a vicious cycle that will put lives in danger.
The service needs an urgent injection of cash, personnel and well-being support. Many remain in the profession for the sense of vocation and service it offers them, but they can’t pay the bills with that. It’s high time we properly recognised the dangers our firefighters confront and the sacrifices they make.
Astonishingly, Monday’s fire was not a first for Jenners. A blaze in 1892 resulted in a near-total loss of the same Princes Street site, but it rose from the ashes. I’m sure that then, as now, a group of valiant Edinburgh residents put themselves in harm's way to extinguish the flames and stop it taking hold of the buildings around it. There will always be heroes on hand, but we need to make sure they are properly rewarded for their extraordinary efforts.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western