Dear County Councillor,
At last week’s County Council meeting Cabinet Member David Barling helpfully pointed out that, “It is often about what they don’t tell you that you need to focus on”. He is quite correct that there were a number of extremely relevant things that you were not told.
You were told that the changes were developed by a professional team, but you were not told that they were only allowed to come up with changes that also saved £1.6 million pounds. So not the best protection for the people of West Sussex, not fit for the next decade, just the best they could come up with on an inadequate budget. You were also not told that hundreds of professional firefighters say it is wrong.
When Mr Barling mentioned fewer incidents, he did not tell you that the number of incidents has never been a key factor in determining the number or location of fire engines. When West Sussex had 6,000 incidents there were 45 fire engines, yet when there were over 15,000 incidents there were just 46 fire engines. When incidents dropped back to around 10,000, fire engines were cut to 40, and now that incidents are between 9 and 10,000, they will be cut to just 35. Ten less than when far fewer incidents were dealt with.
He did not mention that the key factor in determining the number and location of fire engines is response times. When fire engines were cut from 46 to 40, response times went up and West Sussex residents in desperate need now have to wait, on average, 30% longer for help to arrive than those in East Sussex. Further cuts will increase this significantly.
When Mr Barling said that there is a problem with keeping retained firefighters, he did not say that the Deputy Chief Fire Officer has stated this is not a problem. Lee Neale is on record as saying that the retained establishment is continuously monitored and maintained at the appropriate level. He has also said that WSFRS had twice as many applicants as retained firefighter vacancies.
You were not told that some people applying to be retained firefighters have been turned away, even when their local station has crewing problems. This is because the County Council has barred the service from recruiting enough firefighters to properly crew all stations. This has resulted in the ridiculous situation of some stations having 14 firefighters to crew one fire engine round the clock, whilst others have to struggle with just 7.
Mr Barling said that the fire engines being removed were used irregularly by retained firefighters. You were not told that this was because of inadequate crewing levels and that they were actually required much more frequently. Fire engines had to be called from other areas to cover for these crewing failures, which reduced cover in those areas and increased the response times significantly.
Mr Barling even added Horsham to the list, but did not tell you that this fire engine was crewed by wholetime firefighters and attended 626 incidents in 2013/14.
You were not told that experience has shown that when retained stations are cut from two to one fire engine, the availability of the remaining fire engine suffers. This is clearly evidenced by East Preston and Lancing, where the first fire engines were close to 100% availability, but are now only available for 56% and 73% respectively.
You were previously told that the new retained contract would improve firefighter and fire engine availability. You were not told that the contract was untested before being introduced and that it has actually resulted in a dramatic drop in availability.
You were not told that the new wholetime crewing system has not been trialled or tested and that there is no evidence to support the claim that this will not reduce performance.
Mr Barling said that the new ‘super-duper’ 4x4 vehicles will enable ‘our people’ to get off road, but he neglected to say that they already had 4x4 vehicles at those stations and could get off road now. He did not tell you that the so called ‘high tech equipment’ could not in any way replace a proper fire engine. He also neglected to say that a previous new ‘super-duper’ 4x4 vehicle, trialled at Midhurst in the 1970s, proved to be inadequate. There is no evidence that this will be any different.
Mr Barling said that the fire service had listened to the people of Littlehampton and were improving the service they receive (4 minute better response time at night). He did not mention that they did not listen to the people of Bosham, East Preston, Findon, Keymer and Lancing in 2010, and are not listening to the people of Crawley, Horsham, Midhurst, Petworth and Storrington now. All of whom have, or will have to wait longer for help to arrive on many occasions, both day and night.
When Mr Barling mentioned the Horsham fire engine being removed, he did not tell you that this will result in a 4 minute increase in response times in the area both day and night. Worse still, the second fire engine will often not respond at all. It will be crewed by retained firefighters who, in 2013/14, were only available for 52% of the time.
Mr Barling also rather bizarrely claimed that ‘every second, every minute’ the fire authority is moving fire engines around to areas of greatest need. Not only is that a gross exaggeration, but the movements that do take place are not to meet demand, but to areas where inadequate crewing has meant several fire engines are not available. Covering up failures instead of properly resourcing the service.
The most serious omission was that Mr Barling did not tell you that all the national and local evidence shows that these cuts will increase response times, increase deaths and increase property damage. Clearly an increased risk for the public and firefighters and certainly not a service fit for the next decade.
Some of you have opposed these cuts, but for those who have not, it really is time to put your residents’ safety before your party politics.