Fire service merger plans defended

The head of a controversial new regional fire control centre has insisted services will be “as good if not better” than the current county-based system, as plans to introduce the new project move forward.

The head of a controversial new regional fire control centre has insisted services will be “as good if not better” than the current county-based system, as plans to introduce the new project move forward.

Fire control rooms in six counties, including Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, are due to be scrapped to make way for a service covering the whole of the East of England.

The plan will see a switch to a single control centre with Cambridgeshire the first to move to a regional system in September 2011, followed by Suffolk two months later. Norfolk is expected to move to the new system from its current base in Hethersett in May 2012.

The new control room will have around 63 staff - around half of the current levels - and cost �7.1m a year to run compared to around �7.3m now.

Critics ranging from the Conservative Party to the Fire Brigades' Union want the regional plan to be scrapped, claiming that the savings are negligible and the money would be better spent on the frontline.

Union leaders believe the technology currently used in Norfolk is better than the new systems being proposed and they are scathing about the mothballing of the purpose-built �23m headquarters at Waterbeach, near Cambridge, which currently sits empty at a cost of �200,000 a month, after being beset by technical problems.

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But David Worsley, chief executive of the new service - provisionally called Fire Control East - said the aim was to provide better support to local fire services and the move was part of a �1bn investment nationally, which would see the provision of new fire engines and better radio equipment capable of linking with other emergency services.

The new chief, who was Norfolk Fire Service's deputy chief officer before taking on the new regional job, is set to appoint his key management team, while the computer equipment at Waterbeach is due to be installed next year.

“We are going to build this up slowly and safely,” Mr Worsley said. “It's not big bang; it's gradual steps and we want to make sure each step works. It's better that we spend time getting it right rather than trying to put some deadlines in and end up getting it wrong.

“This is about making sure that the fire service of the future has the resources to deal with the challenges of the future. I am in the process of building a team and the governing bodies have been set up. Apart from London, the buildings have been built and the contracts have been let for the technology that's needed.”

And he moved to allay fears that the new system will be too remote.

“We will know the location of every fire engine and the operators will know where the calls are coming from, and the system will advise us where the nearest fire engines are,” he added. “Norfolk can already do it - that was one of my other jobs. Norfolk has got a first class system and my job is to ensure that the people of Norfolk get a system which is equal to, if not better than what they have now.”

With eight out of nine of England's regional control rooms now built, and London soon to be completed, and contracts let, supporters believe that light is at the end of the tunnel for getting the system in place - several years after a switch to a regional system was first mooted in 2004.

Mr Worsley, said the aim of the new service was to pick up 95pc of calls within five seconds, which matches current performance and the plan was to use the same kind of locating technology to pinpoint where calls are coming from.

“What we want to do is make sure we get it right and ensure the right fire appliances are sent,” Mr Worsley said. “Anything less won't be good enough.”

His pledge comes as the South West Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser moved to secure a debate in the House of Commons on the issue to try to get the scheme scrapped.

“This project is unpopular amongst fire fighters, the Fire Brigades Union and the public,” Mr Fraser said. “Currently, every fire brigade has its own emergency control centre, tailored to the needs of locally agreed safety plans. Under the new system, these will be replaced by only nine regional control centres.

“There is a genuine concern that call-handling capacity will be seriously jeopardised. On top of this, what began as a project with estimated costs of around �100m has now escalated significantly. This money should be spent on front line services, not on an initiative that is unnecessary and unwanted.

“As is so often the case, ministers have cited efficiency savings as a reason for the project - but I fear this will only be at the expense of public safety and the morale of fire crews.”

The region's new fire chief.

David Worsley joined Norfolk Fire Service in 1978. After stints in London and three years at the National Training College, the 53-year-old rose through the ranks to become deputy to current Norfolk Fire Service chief Richard Elliott.

Born in London, the family moved to Norwich when he was around two years old and his father Ivan was a station officer at Bethel Street station where the family lived.

How will it work?

The new fire control service is in fact a company East of England Fire Control Centre Ltd, which is jointly owned by the region's six county fire services. It is answerable to a governing body, whose members include two Norfolk County Councillors.