I SPENT THE EVENING of November 5th in the Dundee fire control room, watching as the calls came flooding in.
As we know now, firefighters across Scotland dealt with more than 330 bonfires while Operations Control firefighters handled more than 723 calls from members of the public. A few things struck me about what I saw.
First, the absolute courage of those on the ground. They go out there every day on our behalf and put themselves in difficult and dangerous situations. And they do it without complaint.
Second, the professionalism of staff in control rooms as they work up to 14-hour shifts. At times of crisis, we require cool heads and a steady voice on the end of the line. The skills of these people simply cannot be overestimated.
Sadly, finally, I picked up the necessity to stand together to send one single message: We are here to help you but any attack on us will simply not be tolerated.
The challenge we face is to sustain this message beyond Bonfire night, and to stop all violence directed at emergency workers. Police Scotland has confirmed recently that over 7,000 attacks on emergency workers were reported in 2017-18, which is an increase on the previous year. This is just the tip of the iceberg of course, as we know that many assaults will go unrecorded.
But perhaps more concerning is that while reports have risen, convictions have fallen over the same period. There were over convictions in 3,300 in 2016-17, but this fell to less than 2,800 in 2017-18.
These attacks must not be accepted as an occupational hazard. We need to make sure those who attack and abuse our emergency workers – including prison officers and NHS healthcare professionals – face the full force of the law.
The Scottish Conservatives recently outlined just some of the measures we can take to protect these dedicated public servants. There are two strands to our thinking. First, we have to reduce the risk of violence in the first place. Prevention is always better than cure. One of the best ways this can be done is through community engagement by the emergency services themselves.
They have correctly identified that if they engage the young people who are most likely to initiate this behaviour, beforethey start it, there is a chance it can be prevented. This community engagement happens in classrooms, in neighbourhoods and even over an impromptu game of 7-a-side. I know a lot of effort goes into this work especially leading up to Bonfire night, and can I applaud everyone involved this and every year.
Another key to stopping violence in its tracks is the intelligent use of stop and search. The review of the appalling attacks that took place against emergency crews on Bonfire Night 2017 identified a gap in police powers to search over-18s for fireworks. The SNP has the opportunity to close that gap and they must do so.
This would also help avoid the scenes we saw on Bonfire Night this year in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where gangs of youths terrorised neighbourhoods. This has a huge impact on those communities and could also lead to a serious injury.
We also have to equip our services with the tools they need to de-escalate situations. Of course, that means training but it is also requires equipment. Body-worn cameras are worth looking at seriously in this regard. Although we must be alive to the potential privacy implications, their wider use could make attackers think twice and have the added benefit of capturing evidence, which could be crucial in securing a conviction. In addition, when I mention kit and equipment, it almost goes without saying that all our emergency services should have what they need to protect themselves.
It is crucial that workers are supported by the law, and they have confidence that when an instance of violence has taken place, it is comprehensively reported, investigated, charged and the perpetrator is convicted. Moreover, the sentence has to send a message that deters any other potential perpetrator.
We have the Emergency Workers Act – and it must be used – but we also have to ensure that other offences attract tougher sentences too. Sexual assaults, assaults to severe injury, and death threats are all a real risk for emergency personnel. A statutory aggravator would guarantee that when crimes like these are sentenced, the fact they took place against someone working on society’s behalf will be taken into account.
And in the extreme case, when a police or prison officer is murdered in the course of their duty, there can be only one answer – a whole life sentence.
Emergency workers are there when we most need help – when we find ourselves in danger, when time is critical, when accidents happen. And they are there when nobody else answers. It is not enough to thank them. We must protect them.
Liam Kerr, is a Scottish Conservative & Unionist MSP for North East Scotland and shadow justice secretary