Councillors to discuss 3,000-strong fire service cuts petition

Fire crews dealing with an incident in West Sussex
Fire crews dealing with an incident in West Sussex

AVERAGE response times for fire and rescue calls increased by more than ten per cent across West Sussex in 2014/15, according to anti-cuts campaigners.

A petition calling on West Sussex County Council to reverse £1.6m of cuts to the fire and rescue service, which has received more than 3,000 signatories, will be discussed by councillors on Friday December 11.

While the petitioners have described the service as in ‘crisis’, its chief fire officer has responded by pointing out that ‘emergency response standards were not lowered or changed’ as they embarked on a transformation programme earlier this year.

A statement by the petitioners released before the meetings reads: “The nature of risk to the public may change, with new threats replacing old ones, but the risk of death, injury and property damage remains.

“Prevention work may help, but it will never remove the need for a quick and effective response for those who need urgent help.

“The petition has clearly shown that West Sussex residents did not want these cuts. Hundreds of the signatories said they were unaware of the cuts and most were appalled that county councillors were reducing their level of protection.

“The cuts have been too deep and are now undermining essential training, effective and speedy response, and prevention work.”

It argued that average response times had increased by more than ten per cent in 2014/15, with rural response times, and supporting appliance times ‘even worse’.

The statement also pointed out that cuts in Hampshire were affecting West Sussex residents near the border, while Sussex Fire Control was ‘under staffed, over budget and the promised computer mobilising system is now more than two years overdue’.

But Sean Ruth, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service as well as executive director for communities and public protection at WSCC, said their transformation programme, known as Future Fire & Rescue (FFR) was about improving public safety and meeting the future needs of communities at the same time as reducing costs.

Mr Ruth explained that the FFR was developed by professional fire officers over an 18-month period, and had been consulted on extensively in 2014.

He added: “Protection and prevention have become primary roles for firefighters alongside their emergency intervention role. New risks and expectations are emerging however and the Fire and Rescue Service will still be there to help communities in times of crisis.”

The service’s annual report ‘demonstrates the excellent work of the service and the outcomes delivered for residents’, and while he said a Government report has shown an increase in response times nationally over the past 13 years, the extent of damage has generally fallen.

He added: “Ultimately residents and communities are becoming safer.”

He pointed out that, in the first six months of this year, response to fires involving life or property risk is 24 seconds faster and the critical special services, which includes road traffic collisions, is nine seconds faster.

WSFRS was also on target to deliver 7,000 home safety checks this year, an increase of 500 from last year, and will reach 8,000 young people through its ‘Safe Drive Stay Alive’ campaign.

However Mr Ruth did admit that West Sussex was continuing to experience difficulties with the availability of retained crewed fire engines, particularly during the day and at weekends, which ‘can impact on attendance times’.

But he said this was a long-standing issue and was in no way a consequence of the ‘cuts as some have claimed’.

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