Revealed: Crisis as Scotland’s stressed-out firefighters take more time off sick

Marionville was closed all day with too few firefighters
Marionville was closed all day with too few firefighters
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STRESSED-OUT Scottish firefighters and support staff are increasingly taking time off sick, figures obtained by the Evening News reveal.

Some 96 whole time and retained officers took 2,844 days of psychological leave in 2017-18, compared to 89 claiming 2,489 days in 2015-16.

Firefighters at Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow. Pic: John Devlin

Firefighters at Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow. Pic: John Devlin

Union reps blamed dwindling resources for increasing stress levels while bosses said help is available to all struggling staff.

“There appears statistically to be an increasing trend of the number of our members suffering from psychological illness within the service,” said Fire Brigade Union East Area Secretary John McKenzie.

“The issue is not so much the support that the service offers to affected staff, rather that our members are suffering from increasing instances of psychological illness in the first place.”

Mr McKenzie pointed to a 14.7 per cent drop in whole time firefighters nationally since 2011/12 – along with six per cent less retained and nearly 20 per cent fewer control room staff.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has chosen Martin Blunden as its new Chief Officer.''Martin is currently Deputy Chief Officer of South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, and will take up his new role in early 2019.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has chosen Martin Blunden as its new Chief Officer.''Martin is currently Deputy Chief Officer of South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, and will take up his new role in early 2019.

“The correlation between increasing psychological illness and ever decreasing resources is one that we firmly believe is interlinked,” he added.

“The service cannot continue to expect us to do more with less without consequences.”

Figures obtained under freedom of information laws showed the Capital currently down 15 firefighters on target – with 205 as opposed to 220.

The Evening News reported in December how the worst staffing crisis in a generation left Marionville Fire Station closed all day with too few firefighters available.

Stations across the Capital were reduced from two to one engines towards the end of last year.

Meanwhile, specialist roles such as water rescue and major crash response have also suffered.

There were 64 whole time firefighters taking 1,743 days psychological leave in 2015-16 – the first year such numbers were recorded.

In 2016-17, there were 70 whole time officers taking 1,660 days and in 2017-18, 73 taking 1,970 days – equivalent to nearly 27 days each.

Among the retained ranks, there were 25 officers taking 746 days in 2015-16, 25 taking 1,050 in 2016-17 and 23 taking 874 in 2017-18 – or 38 days each.

In 2015-16, there were 19 support staff taking 682 days off with stress, depression or anxiety.

A year later, in 2016-17, 23 support staff took 598 days off while in 2017-18, 24 support staff took 653 days off – equivalent to more than 27 days each.

Only five control room staff took 32 days psychological leave in 2015-16, compared to 16 taking 249 days in 2016-17.

In 2017-18, 13 control room staff took 355 days off – equivalent to more than 27 days each.

Nationally, the service currently has 2,054 firefighters covering Scotland, one down on the target number.

That figure includes 105 trainee firefighters who came on duty last month.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service intends to recruit about 150 whole time firefighters in 2019 – while 68 are expected to retire this year.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s Director of People and Organisational Development, Liz Barnes, said support is available.

“The safety and wellbeing of our staff remains a key priority,” added Ms Barnes.

“We are acutely aware of the importance of this area and we continually review our processes to ensure equitable access to key support services across Scotland.”

Whenever a member of staff cites work-related stress as a reason for being off sick, the service automatically refers them to a “health and wellbeing” section.

The worker is then asked to fill-out a “workplace stress questionnaire” as part of the SFRS’s duty of care. An employee assistance programme offers “post incident welfare” to all staff who experience 
problems.

Physiotherapy is also on offer to anyone deemed to be in need of it.

Ms Barnes added: “We have effective arrangements in place including a dedicated health and wellbeing department resourced by qualified health professionals.

“This is supported by specialist materials for both staff and management.

“We continue to develop our data monitoring systems to better understand the causes of such absence and inform how we provide support to our staff.”

andy.shipley@edinburghnews.com