The County Council say on their website, “Concerned about a local issue? Then speak to your County Local Committee and make your voice heard”. So, concerned about the deterioration in fire cover in the area, I thought I should voice my concerns at the South Chichester County Local Committee meeting this week.
Well guess what, they didn’t want to hear my concerns, or to answer my questions. I was interrupted and told by the meeting Chair, Margaret Evans, to write to the Chief Fire Officer or Cabinet Member Lionel Barnard. Councillor Pieter Montyn strongly supported her refusal to hear my concerns, which was ironic as the fire cover in his Electoral Division has seen the worst deterioration.
What I wanted to ask was if the County Councillors at the meeting were aware of deteriorating fire cover. If they were, I wanted to ask what they were doing about it and, if they were not aware, then I wanted to know why they had not been given this important information.
You would think that Councillors would be concerned about public safety in their area, but it appears not. Had they listened I would have told them:
1. That the average response time for incidents has increased in West Sussex from under 7 minutes to over 9 (Five year averages for 1994-95 to 1998-99 compared to 2009-10 to 2013-14). Bear in mind that is the average and that it is the longer response times in rural areas that are likely to have increased the most. For comparison, East Sussex has also increased, but only from under 6 minutes to now just under 7 minutes.
2. That the availability of retained crews has got worse with none of the retained crewed fire engines in the Chichester District Council area now achieving 100% availability.
3. That last year the East Wittering crew, that used to be one of the best for availability, was only available for less than half the time (47%). So people who needed help in the Witterings had a less than 50/50 chance of seeing that fire engine arrive at their emergency. The unlucky ones would have to wait for a crew from Chichester or from even further away.
4. That the longstanding practice of ensuring that when several fire engines are called out, or cannot be crewed, others are moved in to cover has been drastically reduced. Previously that would have ensured minimum cover of three fire engines in the Chichester District Council area, with one at Chichester, one for the Midhurst/Petworth areas, and one for the Manhood Peninsula. This was recently changed to just one to be available at Chichester.
5. That a significant factor in these problems has been a new contract for retained firefighters that has six different availability options. This strangely includes the same annual payment for firefighters who are only available for 40 hours per week, as it does for those available for 80 hours (see “Become a retained firefighter” on the WSCC website). This is hardly an incentive to be available longer. The new contract was not tested before it was rolled out to all stations, so the problem is now widespread.
6. That fire engines from Hampshire, Surrey and East Sussex are now being called in to the county more often with, presumably, greater costs to the authority.
7. That the new wholetime crewing system, planned for next year, is also an untried and untested one. This means that wholetime crewed fire engines may join the retained ones in also not achieving 100% availability.