I would first like to thank all those who signed the “Stop fire engine and firefighter cuts in West Sussex” petition, and those who helped collect signatures. More than 3,700 people signed and 3,349 were considered valid by the County Council. This was sufficient to require a debate at the County Council meeting today.
Whilst I was not surprised that they did not reverse the cuts, I was shocked by the appalling attitude of the Cabinet Member, David Barling. After I spoke he said, “that was the biggest piece of disinformation I have ever heard in this chamber”. Quite ironic, as virtually every statistic came from West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service and was obtained from their documents, Government documents or via Freedom of Information requests. You can read what I said below, and I am sure those in the know will recognise the accuracy of my presentation.
He also strongly opposed a proposal from Councillor Andy Petch, to establish a Task Group to consider the concerns, review the evidence and report back to the Cabinet Member. If he was so confident that his cuts were right, then he would surely have welcomed a review of the situation. So his negative response has only fuelled concerns that the fire & rescue service is in crisis.
Independent, Liberal Democrat, Labour and UKIP Councillors all spoke in support of a Task Group, but the Conservative Councillors forgot the public, fell in to line, and voted to prevent effective scrutiny. The proposal was lost 41 votes against, to 20 for, with 1 abstention.
Presentation before the debate
I took up this cause because I care about the fire service and I care about West Sussex. This petition, with well over 3,000 signatures shows that the public also care deeply about their fire service. I spoke to over six hundred people when collecting signatures and only one percent declined to sign. Many who did sign expressed their shock that you were even contemplating these cuts.
The issue of fire service cuts has been dogged by false claims and half-truths. The result being that Councillors and the public were misled in to believing cuts could be achieved without damaging the service.
Councillor Rae, who led the review group, insisted that computer modelling showed 3 extra deaths in 100 years, when it was actually 55 extra deaths. Not his fault, as he had been misinformed. Shameful claims during the consultation that the service had ‘significantly reduced the number of people killed in fires’. Yet, comparing the 5 years before 2009, when the Chief Officer came to West Sussex, to the next five years, that ‘significant reduction’ was actually a 200% increase.
Then there’s the fraud that less calls mean you need less fire engines and firefighters. We’re not talking about a 24-hour supermarket needing lots of staff during the day on Saturday, but very few at 2 am. The need for 10, 50, or a 100 firefighters can arise at any time of the day, and on any day of the year. You don’t cut your insurance, because your neighbours have made fewer claims. It is equally ridiculous to cut the number of fire crews, and make people wait longer for help to arrive.
You’ve been misinformed about Gatwick. You, the Fire Authority, are legally responsible for providing fire & rescue service response to emergencies at the airport. Their private fire service is only responsible for first response to a crashed aircraft at the airport. They depend on your firefighters arriving quickly to rescue survivors, and they have no responsibility for any other emergencies at the airport, that is entirely your responsibility.
I do sympathise with Councillors. You can’t hope to make proper decisions if you aren’t given accurate information. I’ve even received figures that differed to ones given to you, and I was astonished to be told that mine were correct and yours were not. The Council’s Leader wants the Council to be open and transparent, but her fire & rescue service is clearly not on message. Even Councillors seem unable to get reliable information.
Cabinet Members say that Chief Officers are their professional advisers and they have to accept their advice, but that means there is no effective oversight or scrutiny? Something recently confirmed by the National Audit Office who criticised the lack of independent monitoring for the fire & rescue service.
There have been too many decisions that seem to defy common sense:
- New retained firefighter contracts that discourage increased availability, with the result that less fire engines are available.
- Failure to engage with local communities, councils and businesses to address retained recruiting problems.
- Failure to take opportunities for savings through mergers and cooperation with others.
- A Crewing Optimisation Group that is not available for all occasions when there are crewing shortages.
- Cuts so deep that excessive amounts of overtime are needed just to maintain minimum crewing.
- Frequent minimum crewing that restricts the tactics crews can employ at incidents.
- A shortage of personnel that restricts effective training, undermines essential skills and results in qualifications lapsing.
- Vulnerable people, who have automatic alarms as they are less likely to be able to escape a fire unaided, no longer get a full response of two fire crews to rescue them.
- Aircraft at Gatwick carry many more passengers, potentially hundreds of people in need of rescue, but the response to the most serious alert has been cut from 10 to 6 fire engines.
- The Heavy Rescue Tender is essential if there is a crash, but this is no longer sent to the airport. Even worse, when both Crawley’s fire engines respond to the alert, incredibly, no one is left to crew the Heavy Rescue Tender.
- Midhurst firefighters have a large rural area with many narrow lanes and tracks. For over 60 years they have had a Land Rover sized vehicle to access areas that a fire engine can’t. Now, not only have they been given the biggest fire engine they’ve ever had, but the Land Rover is to be replaced with that cumbersome vehicle you saw at your last meeting. Although apparently, it can’t actually be used as, despite being built to your requirements, it is overweight on the front axle.
I read recently that the Council leader had called Government plans for local welfare assistance “a cut too far.” She is quite right, but this Council’s cuts to our fire & rescue service are also, very much, a cut too far. They need to be reversed before lives are lost.
Summing up after the debate
Mr Barling’s approach was a little unfortunate, but I do sympathise with him, he’s again been misinformed. Just take the 55 extra deaths that you were told to ignore, that came from your computer modelling of the effects, not just fire deaths, but deaths in road crashes, because of the extra time it takes the fire service to get there. They are proper figures, they can all be checked and I wish you would check them. Most of the figures have come from the Government and most of the figures the Government have got came from West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service.
West Sussex once had a fire service the equal of any in the country. Now it’s a sorry shadow of its former self. Firefighters are just as committed to the task, but cuts have seen the service coming ‘top’ for all the wrong reasons. Most fire deaths and injuries per head of population in the southeast, worst response times in the southeast and so on.
Since 1948 the County Council has been prudent with regard to fire service funding. Never excessive, always just enough to ensure an effective response anywhere in the County. Until 2010 that is, when the first cuts began to reduce the service’s effectiveness and then, earlier this year, more severe cuts that resulted in the worst protection for the people of West Sussex since before 1939.
It’s been suggested that the service’s management team are happy with these cuts, but let’s consider their motivation. Is it in their interest to tell you that they can’t make savings without affecting the service provided? Is it in their interest to confess that cuts are causing problems? It would take a very brave man to tell the current Council Leader that.
We hear a lot about prevention, but prevention is not new. Efforts to stop fires occurring pre-date organised fire services. Trading one off against the other is never the answer. Does prevention save lives? Well we hope so, but there is no evidence to confirm that. Yet there is ample evidence that response times have a direct effect on the number of lives saved.
The risk of needing to be rescued from a fire, flood or crash remains for all of us. No amount of prevention will remove that risk, after all even the Chief Fire Officer recently discovered he had a faulty tumble dryer in his home that posed a serious fire risk.
In a recent YouGov survey, 95% of the public consider a rapid response from the fire service a high priority. The cuts have seriously jeopardised that rapid response, especially in rural areas. It is time for that rapid response to again become the number one priority.
Professional firefighters are telling you that the cuts have bitten too deep, the public is telling you that they don’t want these cuts, so please don’t bury your heads in the sand.
Please take a detailed look at these concerns, seek reliable, independent evidence and then provide the funding to restore a truly safe and effective fire & rescue service for the people of West Sussex.