The West Sussex Fire & Rescue Stop the Cuts group is concerned that survival chances for passengers and crew, in the event of a crash at Gatwick Airport, have been seriously reduced by County Council cuts to the fire service. A spokesperson said, “Not only have the cuts put 800,000 residents in greater danger, but millions of passengers who use the airport each year will be doubly unlucky if they are in a crash at Gatwick”.
The spokesperson continued, “We all hope we are not involved in an aircraft crash, but there are several around the World every year. When it happens we rely on the emergency services arriving quickly to rescue survivors from the wreckage. Sadly the response from West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service is now slower and smaller than ever, despite aircraft now carrying more people”.
The spokesperson added, “The airport is not responsible, as they have an effective fire service, but for crashes they need significant support from local emergency services. The only criticism of the airport is that, according to the County Council, they raised no objections to the cuts”.
Retired Fire Service Operational Planning Officer Tony Morris said, “Not only do the cuts affect survival chances at the airport, but if a plane comes down beyond their very small response area, the airport’s fire service does not respond. Survivors would then be totally reliant on the hopelessly inadequate local fire service response. Firefighters would do their best, but the odds would be stacked against them”
West Sussex County Council cuts include:
- The two nearest fire engines to the airport could reach the airport in two minutes, but they were removed in the last round of cuts.
- The next nearest fire engines at Crawley have just been cut from three to two.
- Response to the most serious category of emergency has been cut from ten fire engines to just six, despite aircraft now carrying more passengers. Other essential specialist vehicles have also been removed from the automatic response.
- Together with cuts in crew numbers, instead of around 90 firefighters being sent, less than 50 will arrive. Yet they know that at the Kegworth crash in 1989, over 100 hundred firefighters were needed to rescue the 82 injured survivors.
- The Heavy Rescue Tender, with specialist rescue equipment, is no longer sent when emergencies are declared. Gatwick is now the only international airport in Europe not to get a specialist rescue vehicle from their local fire service when aircraft are in trouble.
- Even worse, when an emergency is declared the two fire engines from Crawley are sent, but no firefighters are left to crew the Heavy Rescue Tender. If a crash then occurs another vehicle will have to be sent from 35 miles away.
- Whilst they have stopped sending this rescue vehicle, they do send a high reach aerial appliance, just in case the aircraft is a large Airbus A380. To do that, but not send the rescue vehicle, which would be essential at any crash, makes no sense and indicates that professional judgement is either flawed, or cuts are forcing these dangerous changes.
- Foam supplies have been removed from the nearest station to the airport and now have to be sent from 50 miles away. Last time these were sent to an emergency at the airport they took over an hour and a quarter to arrive.
- Inadequate crewing across West Sussex also means that many of the nearest fire engines and support vehicles are often unavailable. As many as 16 of the nearest 22 fire engines have been without crews on occasions, and response times have increased dramatically.
- At a recent incident in Crawley, cuts and inadequate crew levels showed that the nearest ten fire engines included two from Brighton, nearly 30 miles away. With Gatwick located in the Borough this is a disgraceful level of protection.
Mr Morris concluded, “When early warning is received of an aircraft in serious trouble at Gatwick, the public expect the local fire service to be there with enough resources to give them a good chance of survival. It is shameful that West Sussex County Councillors are failing to ensure that happens.”
West Sussex Fire & Rescue Stop the Cuts
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1. At all the other airports in the UK that handle the Airbus A380 aircraft, the airport authorities have equipped their own fire service with an aerial appliance. Gatwick rely on the local fire service to send one from Horsham (16 miles away), or from Worthing (35 miles away).
2. The Kegworth Comparison – this crash in 1989 involved 118 passengers, 82 of whom were seriously injured. Their rescue required the airport fire service plus 22 fire engines and over 100 firefighters from local fire services.
The latest aircraft using Gatwick include the Airbus A380, versions of which carry over 550 passengers. Instead of increasing the response to cope with the greater challenge, West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service has quite unprofessionally reduced it to the lowest it has been since the 1950s.
3. Tony Morris responded to the Airports Commission consultation to highlight these problems. A copy of his submission is attached below (Annex 1).
Tony Morris email@example.com
Important factor omitted from review of possible second runway at Gatwick Airport
Dear Mr Davies,
I am writing to you as an individual. I am now retired, but was an Emergency Planning Officer for West Sussex County Council (1999 to 2014) and before that the Operational Planning Officer for West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service (1993 to 1999). In both posts I worked closely with other emergency services and the airport operator on planning for all types of major emergency at Gatwick.
There appears to have been an important omission in the debate regarding a possible second runway at Gatwick Airport. That omission concerns consideration of the ability of hospitals, the emergency services, local authorities etc. to cope with an aircraft accident, or other major incident at the Airport.
I believe this aspect is even more vital than the infrastructure to support the airport. It is becoming increasingly clear that these services are less well able to respond to an incident at Gatwick than previously, primarily as a result of budget cuts. Whilst I am less familiar with their ability at Heathrow, I believe they have significantly more resources close to the airport. In addition, whereas West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service (WSFRS) has removed the two nearest fire engines to Gatwick and intend to remove the third nearest, London Fire Brigade has increased resources in the vicinity of Heathrow. The attached maps illustrate the disparity between the airports with regard to the location of supporting fire stations.
It is quite clear that the ambulance service and hospitals in Sussex are struggling to cope with winter pressures, so their potential to also cope with hundreds of casualties from an air crash must be in serious doubt. Sussex Police have also suffered staffing cuts that affect their ability to deal with major emergencies. The ability of West Sussex County Council's Social Care department to provide support to uninjured survivors and relatives of the injured or deceased is another vital service that has been affected by budget cuts.
The latest aircraft using Gatwick include the Airbus A380, versions of which carry over 550 passengers. When you consider that the aircraft involved in the Kegworth air crash in 1989 was only carrying 118 passengers, you get an idea of the significantly greater demand on local services if a larger aircraft crashes at Gatwick. At Kegworth 82 people were seriously injured and it took over seven hours to free them all from the wreckage. The local authority fire service needed 22 fire engines and over 100 firefighters at the incident.
It should also be borne in mind that the Civil Aviation Authority say that planning should consider more than one aircraft being involved in an accident, and the surroundings of the Airport should also be taken in to account. With a busy commuter line at the end of the runway, an aircraft collision with a crowded commuter train must also be considered. Casualties could run in to the thousands at Gatwick.
West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service's cuts and crewing difficulties have made the fire and rescue service much less able to cope than in previous years. The well publicised emergency landing at Gatwick Airport at the end of December showed that, instead of resources increasing to cope with increased risk, they have actually been reduced. The time taken to get resources to the airport has increased significantly, as they have to be sent from stations much further away. The proposed 2015-16 cuts will make this even worse.
When aircraft carried fewer passengers, WSFRS were able to get the full response to the airport by sending fire engines from fire stations that were within 13 miles of the airport. At the 29th December 2014 incident, despite having reduced the scale of the response, it had to come from fire stations up to 40 miles from the Airport. A special vehicle carrying foam, that used to be at the nearest fire station to the airport, took an hour and a quarter to arrive in December. A specialist rescue vehicle is no longer sent automatically, because of crewing shortages. If an aircraft does crash, then that rescue vehicle will have to be sent from at least 30 miles away. With the potential for several hundred trapped and injured casualties, that is just not acceptable.
Please note that the Airport Fire Service depend heavily on support from WSFRS. The Airport Fire Service is only required to provide a full response to crashed aircraft within the airport boundary, and a reduced response to crashed aircraft very near to the airport. Beyond that small area, the survival of casualties is wholly dependent on an increasingly under resourced local authority fire and rescue service.
This situation is unacceptable for one runway, but I appreciate that is beyond your control. However, recommending a second runway at Gatwick would increase capacity and the likelihood of an accident. To do so, whilst aware of the poor state of the local services to respond, would seem most unwise.
I would urge you to properly consider this aspect before deciding on your recommendation regarding Airport expansion.
Proximity of fire stations
Please note that Surrey Fire & Rescue Service are building a fire station at Salfords, for one fire engine, about five miles from the Airport.
 Report by Executive Director Communities, Public Protection and Chief Fire Officer – “The Service has met with the Gatwick Airport Fire Service Manager, who raised no objections to the proposals".