Fears fire engine crewing could be cut to ‘unsafe’ levels

Firefighters attending an incident in 2015. Photo by Eddie Mitchell
Firefighters attending an incident in 2015. Photo by Eddie Mitchell

Fears crewing of fire engines in West Sussex could be cut to ‘unsafe’ levels have been expressed by opposition county councillors.

Last week a public consultation was launched on a draft Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) for 2018-22, which explains how West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service intends to save lives, improve public safety and reduce emergency incidents.

The document outlines the fire service’s activities in detail and residents are being asked to comment on the priorities identified by West Sussex County Council.

However concerns were raised by Labour and Lib Dem county councillors at a meeting last Friday about the potential for cuts outlined in the IRMP document.

The IRMP describes how the fire service plans to ‘make crewing with four our standard crewing level to effectively utilise our personnel’.

It also proposes to look at developing a ‘safe system of work to enable fire engines to be crewed with fewer than four firefighters when necessary’.

James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, asked if the Tory leadership was content reducing standard crewing from five to four would not reduce the ability of firefighters to safely enter and search buildings on fire.

He also questioned whether a review of response standards would increase the risk to lives and property in West Sussex.

Debbie Kennard, cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, said issues such as these in the IRMP would lead to an ‘open debate’ about the future of the fire service.

She added: “Right now the first thing we need to do is go out and answer the questions in the IRMP.

“We know the challenges we are facing, we know what we have to do. The times are changing and we have the same issues with the retained firefighters. We can’t have them four minutes away.”

Dr Walsh asked if she would take account of feedback from the public and the select committee on the IRMP.

Mrs Kennard replied: “That’s why we are having the IRMP so the community can say what they need, but also we have to get what the fire service views needs.”

In a written question Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) described how they had heard ‘worrying reports’ at times up to half the county’s fire engines cannot be used because retained firefighters are not available.

He described how they had been told at weekends as few as ten fire engines are available, adding: “It is time for the political leadership of this council to take radical action to deal with this crisis.”

In her answer Mrs Kennard (Con, Shoreham North) described how West Sussex’s retained fire officers were ‘highly professional and incredibly committed to providing the service with exceptional levels of availability’.

But in line with the national picture the county was facing challenges in attracting and retaining such staff.

She outlined plans to allow whole-time staff to provide extra crewing at retained stations, as well as allowing some retained staff to provide whole-time cover.

Mr Jones asked if this would reduce cover in West Sussex’s main towns and also raised concerns about reducing crewing to fewer than four.

He said: “My understanding is firefighters are adamant that this is unsafe.”

Mrs Kennard said they were making sure the service is fit for the future, something they would do in a ‘full, frank and honest way’.

She added: “I would never jeopardise the safety of the people and residents of West Sussex.”

But Daniel Purchese (LDem, Rustington) suggested respondents to the IRMP might think they are supporting an enhanced fire service when actually it was a ‘recipe for cuts not just in crewing levels but other aspects of the service as well’.

The consultation runs until Monday May 28. To comment visit the council’s website.

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