Fire services throughout the country face drastic changes triggered by new cuts this week, despite the part fire crews have played rescuing hundreds of people from stricken communities in the past fortnight’s floods.
Almost 70 fire stations in England are at risk and scores more throughout the UK face severe downgrading if the Government presses ahead with “unprecedented” spending cuts, union leaders have warned. The Fire Brigades Union claimed that the service was being downgraded “behind the scenes” without proper public debate, as fire crews in the West warned of drastic changes to operations.
They cautioned that worse will follow if the cuts are extended, as predicted, in Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement.
The worst-hit brigades are in big cities, with 17 stations under threat in London, 11 in both West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire and 10 in both Greater Manchester and Merseyside, claimed the union, as well as in Dorset, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, North Yorkshire and Kent.
Scores more could be downgraded, to have fewer appliances and firefighters, with rural communities being hit more heavily on a like-for-like basis.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “People need to realise that this Government is now putting public safety at risk. People rely on having a fire station near where they live, so that in the event of any emergency, professionally trained and well-equipped firefighters will come to their aid. The cuts have now gone so far that dozens of fire stations are threatened with closure, an unprecedented development in the recent history of our fire service. We cannot just stand back and watch this essential service be systematically dismembered.
“Firefighters have excelled again in recent weeks, dealing with floods as well as fires and all manner of emergencies. That’s what people expect.But this Government is cutting the service to the point where they are putting lives at risk.”
Unions have warned that if, as is feared, the Government slashes fire and rescue budgets by up to 19 per cent in the next spending review, a future response to something on the scale of the recent floods will look “very different”.
A recent report shows that rural services receive just £17.52 per capita, compared to £28.89 for metropolitan areas.
The FBU in Devon and Somerset is bracing itself for a cut of up to £15 million – which could render operations like the one conducted over the past week much harder. .
Regional chairman Bob Walker said the service could not continue to be “the poor relative”.
“If they take that amount then there is no way we can operate in the way we do at the moment,” he added.
“In Devon and Somerset, 94 per cent of spending goes on staff costs – if you take one seventh or one eighth of the entire budget we are not going to be doing something that looks like it does now.”
The annual State of Rural Public Services report by the Rural Services Network, said that, on a per-capita basis, the most urban areas receive two-thirds as much funding again as the most rural areas.
But rural areas face higher costs – with more appliances and stations needed to serve the same size of population – and a heavier reliance on retained firefighters.
The report says services in rural areas such as Devon and Somerset, which logged 500 incidents in 24 hours when this round of flooding struck, rely heavily on the country’s 18,000 retained firefighters These staff are calculated to reduce the cost of service provision to about one tenth of its normal level. But typical incident response times are about five minutes longer, because they first need to be mobilised.
Some Devon and Somerset fire stations deal with 400 incidents a year.