Fears over fire service changes

Fire bosses in Norfolk are planning an overhaul of the service, aimed at saving �1.5m and boosting rural cover - amid union claims it will see public safety put at risk and the loss of 63 jobs.

Fire bosses in Norfolk are planning an overhaul of the service, aimed at saving �1.5m and boosting rural cover - amid union claims it will see public safety put at risk and the loss of 63 jobs.

Norfolk Fire and Rescue service is putting together proposals to modernise the service over the next three years, which could see a switch to smaller second fire engines at Cromer, Dereham, Diss, Fakenham, Sandringham, and Wymondham.

A confidential report shows that the so-called “integrated risk management and workforce planning” draft for 2011/14 includes cutting fire cover at Norwich's new Carrow fire station, which has yet to open on the edge of the city in Trowse, and reducing the number of whole time crews at Yarmouth. Meanwhile, the retained crew at Gorleston could be replaced by a full-time crew.

Plans also include scrapping or relaxing the response times for second appliances to non-emergency call-outs, such as small rubbish fires, and minor road accidents, and changing shift patterns to a “five watch” system, following the lead of Greater Manchester, which aims to match cover to actual demand rather than having firefighters sitting around.

However, the changes could also mean a new fire station is built at King's Lynn, to help redress long-term cover problems in the west of the county, if the funds can be found.

Union leaders have reacted angrily to the plans and believe it will mean jobs will have to be cut and frontline fire cover hit.

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But bosses insist the plans are in their early stages and no decisions have been taken. While conceding jobs could go as part of the shift changes, they also dispute that a figure has been set.

Jamie Wyatt, Norfolk FBU Brigade Secretary, said the union believes that in reality the plans could see the loss of eight frontline fire engines, with numbers halved at some stations, and 63 job losses.

“These proposals are at a very early stage, but they have still come as a very big shock to local fire crews,” he said. “We are still assessing the full impact of the proposals, but it is clear that they will mean a large reduction to emergency fire cover in Norfolk, which will put firefighters and the public at greater risk.”

Mike McCarthy, deputy chief fire officer, said no decisions had been taken and there were two strands to the proposals, one being the need to save cash in the next three years and the second to boost cover in rural areas.

“We are not looking to compromise our fire cover or our emergency cover at all,” he said. “These are initial proposals; we are in the first stage of the process and it's got to go to a review panel and cabinet and then out to public consultation.

“There is a financial impact because of where we are in the public sector, but the primary concern of the safety plan isn't to save money or cost-cut; it is to deliver the most effective way of emergency cover across the county.

“If you look at the potential changes to the shift patterns that could flag up a number of jobs, but we are not looking to cut 63 jobs as a starting point across the service.”

The report warns that he pace of change in the service now needs to increase “to meet the needs of our community and the risks faced within the current economic climate”.

The service has already introduced cost-cutting plans, including not going to automatic fire alarm incidents, and the document proposes extending this to minor accidents or “road traffic collision response where no action is required”.

But the union fears that because the second engines will not need to arrive at incidents as quickly, the first crew will be put under more pressure.