Fire engines are being sent to incidents in north Northumberland with a crew of just three firefighters, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has revealed.
The trial scheme, known as phased response, currently under way at Wooler and Seahouses fire stations, means fire engines would only have enough firefighters to respond to small, contained, 'low-risk' fires.
This is a dangerous policy, says the FBU, as fires can develop rapidly to the point where three firefighters alone can’t tackle them – a minimum crew of five is needed before firefighters can even contemplate undertaking life-saving interventions.
Guy Tiffin, secretary of the FBU in Northumberland, said: “Life is put at risk when crews are forced to wait for back up. In an emergency, every second counts. Whether by accident or design, this trial actively lengthens the amount of time it takes for firefighters to rescue people. It is completely unacceptable.
“From the public’s perspective, they will still see a fully-sized fire engine turn up to an incident and expect it to perform in the same way as a properly staffed fire engine. But it won’t be able to help them. The public are being served up a dangerously reduced and hamstrung fire service which will only become apparent to them when there is a serious emergency.
“Whatever the situation, firefighters feel a need to act – firefighters serve their communities with pride. It fills me with dread that these consummate professionals will be torn between the intolerable dilemma of waiting for backup in order to follow safe, professional firefighting procedures or the moral pressure to do everything to save lives.”
Although the phased response crew will only be called out to attend smaller fires where there is no risk to life, the union says it is common for fires to be misreported or to develop into bigger incidents where people are at risk of injury.
But deputy chief fire officer Mark McCarty, Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service strategic lead for emergency response, said the pilot scheme was being introduced in support of retained officers, who have been involved in the planning of the scheme.
He said: “It will bring real and positive benefits for our firefighters and communities, allowing them to be involved in low-risk incidents within their station areas, maintaining motivation and interest, preventing resources being brought in unnecessarily from other station areas, maximising fire cover across the county and allowing continued response to incidents when staffing levels fall below four. This allows whole-time staff to focus more on their planned work activity and also reduces overtime costs.
“We must stress this trial scheme only covers specific low risk incidents such as small grass or rubbish fires which are fully risk assessed throughout - from the moment the call comes in, when fire officers themselves reach the incident and through to the time when the incident is being dealt with and resolved.
“This type of ongoing dynamic risk assessment is a key part of training for every officer and officers will request further resources if or when required. This is standard practice for any incident type or for how may resources are committed.
“The trial scheme will be kept under continual review and will be fully evaluated following the pilot to determine its effectiveness and whether there should be consideration given to expanding the scheme.”