Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Dangerous neglect of our Fire & Rescue Service

Nationally 10,000 firefighter jobs have been lost in the past six years. Response times are now the slowest they have ever been and delays are reported to have cost lives across the UK. You can read more on the FBU's website.

In West Sussex front-line fire engines have been cut by 24% in just six years. In addition, there has been a failure to honour promises to improve the availability of fire engines crewed by Retained (Part-time) Firefighters. "New and creative options" to achieve this have been replaced by changes that have made the position even worse.

The fire at the Selsey Academy last month was a shocking illustration of how neglected the service has become. Four of the six nearest fire engines were not available, including the one at Selsey, because of a lack of firefighters. 

Up until 2010, fire engines were allocated as follows

The Bosham fire station has been closed and that fire engine was permanently removed. Whilst the other six remain, they are not always crewed.

When the call was received to this fire only these two fire engines had crews

In addition, the standard crew on the Chichester and Bognor fire engines has been cut from five on each to four. How short-sighted that is becomes clear when you realise that for safe and effective operation, five firefighters are required at a car fire and nine firefighters are required at a building fire. So instead of sending one fire engine with five firefighters to a car fire, they have to send two, with four firefighters on each. Instead of sending two fire engines to a building fire, they now have to send three. With the cut from 46 to 35 fire engines to cover the County, in just six years, that strains resources even more.

For the Selsey incident, the third fire engine had to come from Arundel, which is nearly twenty miles away. I dread to think what would have happened if, instead of the Academy being on fire, it had been a house fire in Selsey with people unable to escape. If there were only a total of eight firefighters on the first two fire engines, a breathing apparatus search could not start until the Arundel crew arrived. Either that, or the Chichester and Bognor firefighters would have ignored safety procedures and started a search. That would have exposed themselves to greater risk and to the possibility of disciplinary proceedings.

It actually transpires that there were enough firefighters in Selsey at the time to crew their fire engine, but they were not all shown as available. This is because the only new, but not very creative, option WSF&RS came up with was a revised contract for Retained Firefighters. Instead of reporting when they are not going to be available, firefighters now have to say when they will definitely be available. They also have to do this several weeks in advance. This is not very flexible and has certainly not improved fire engine availability. In fact some fire engines that used to achieve 100% availability, now struggle to achieve 30% availability.

This incident was on a Sunday morning, when historically most crews would have been available, yet on this morning two thirds of the nearest fire engines were not crewed. Worse still, nothing had been done to alleviate the situation. 

Official figures show that they now fail to meet their generous response times for one in four critical incidents. I can now well believe the shocking unofficial reports from within the service of times when less than a third of the significantly reduced number of fire engines can be crewed.

This is a crisis, but the Cabinet Member continues to wear his blinkers and pretend that all is well. It is time that he let Councillors establish a task and finish group to investigate and halt the continuing deterioration in the Fire & Rescue Service's performance.

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