Councillors in Alnwick were generally reassured after hearing from the county’s Chief Fire Officer about proposed changes to the service.
A series of planned changes to the retained fire service in Northumberland were announced last month as it was revealed that the fire service has to save £500,000 in 2016/17 on top of the £3million already cut since 2010.
One of the changes would see the second retained or on-call fire engine in Alnwick replaced with a smaller appliance, which can be crewed with fewer firefighters (three) and are cheaper to run and lease.
Following concerns raised at Alnwick Town Council’s November meeting, Chief Fire Officer Alex Bennett attended last Thursday’s meeting to try to allay fears and respond to some of the concerns.
“This review has to be considered against the backdrop of performance,” he said, giving examples such as incidents across the service being down by 42 per cent, property fires being down by 46 per cent and there being no fire fatalities in 2014/15.
The 10-year trend for road deaths is down, but road accidents remain a significant issue across Northumberland.
“We must have a fit-for-purpose service,” he said, explaining that the proposals were drawn up based on the evidence and ‘using our professional knowledge’ – the senior and middle management have more than 300 years’ experience between them.
He added: “We continue to struggle to recruit retained firefighters across Northumberland and we will continue to put as much effort into this as possible.”
He pointed out that there are a number of aspects of the service that won’t change, for example, whole-time firefighters and stations in the likes of Amble and Belford.
The capital investment of £7million in new Alnwick depot will continue, as will efforts on prevention and community safety.
He explained that the smaller fire engines still have trauma care capabilities for dealing with road crashes, can still carry four firefighters, still carry safety equipment and breathing apparatus, but have a smaller wheel-base and chassis and are cheaper to run.
“We’re concerned that the public’s concerned that the smaller vehicles are some sort of Transit van with equipment thrown in the back,” he said.
“We will still get an efficient, effective and professional response.”
He showed members pictures of the type of smaller fire engines in use elsewhere in the country.
He said that the difference is that it can work with less than four, ie three, firefighters.
“At the moment, many of our retained engines cannot get out during the day because we don’t have enough firefighters available due to work commitments,” he said
He emphasised that the first engine at Alnwick will still be full-size; this £300,000 appliance is just two-and-a-half years old.
Coun Rachael Roberts asked how many firefighters would the CFOlike in Alnwick, where the establishment is for 15, but there are currently 21 retained firefighters.
He said: “I don’t know if more people would help because if everyone is off at the same time, the second appliance still might be off the road.”
Coun Peter Broom asked if more flexible hours for retained firefighters might help. Full availability is 120 hours a week and restricted is 90 hours.
The CFO explained that they are looking at the possibility of 40/50 hours, but this involves discussions with the unions and each retained firefighter costs money in terms of base salary and training.
Coun Broom also asked about how cover would be provided if crews are in different places.
The CFO said: “We look at the global picture and move trucks as and where we need them.”
They also work with neighbouring forces, for example, Tyne and Wear sent two pumps to last week’s barn fire at Mitford, while the Northumberland boat crew went to Cumbria after Storm Desmond.
Consultation on the proposed changes is ongoing and closes on February 15, 2016.
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