Safety backlog could put lives at risk

LIVES are being put at risk in Norfolk by an “impasse” between firefighters and management over home fire risk checks, it has been claimed.Firefighters have been refusing to carry out the inspections, citing concerns over training and other issues, leading to a backlog of more than 1,000 checks yet to be done.

LIVES are being put at risk in Norfolk by an “impasse” between firefighters and management over home fire risk checks, it has been claimed.

Firefighters have been refusing to carry out the inspections, citing concerns over training and other issues, leading to a backlog of more than 1,000 checks yet to be done.

In an email seen by the Mercury's sister Eastern Daily Press, Norfolk's acting deputy chief fire officer Mike McCarthy referred to the “current impasse on watch activity” regarding the checks, adding: “I am anxious to pursue this agenda as I firmly believe that public safety is ultimately being compromised by the stance of a few individuals.”

Neil Harvey, of Norfolk Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU), said: “It's putting lives at risk, without a doubt. God forbid someone dies in a fire in a house without a smoke detector that could have had one fitted free.”

Peter Greaves, of Norfolk Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: “We felt we didn't have the correct training to do it. We all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet across the brigade.”

The waiting list for home fire risk checks stands at about 1,100 - up from 800 at the end of May.

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A spokesman for Norfolk Fire and Rescue service said: “At any one time there are a number of people who will be awaiting help. We would try and prioritise to make sure the vulnerable are seen first.”

Anyone can request a check, but priority is given to groups deemed particularly at risk from fire, including households with children; single parent families; tenants renting privately and those in bedsits, rooms and caravans; and households where are smokers or heavy drinkers.

Chief county fire officer Richard Elliott confirmed whole-time firefighters had not been carrying out the checks for several months, but said some were still being done by other fire service staff and partner agencies.

“Concerns have come from a few individuals who wanted to remove any ambiguities and make sure we were much more consistent in our approach,” he said.

He said management had been working with the FBU to address its concerns and the service would resume on September 1.

But both unions claimed a lack of retained firefighters was leaving large swathes of Norfolk without adequate cover.

Mr Greaves said: “It's a huge problem. In Norfolk, the service runs on luck. I don't want to scaremonger, but all it would take is one large incident and we would be in trouble.”

Mr Harvey said: “There have consistently been 20 appliances off the run at any one time that couldn't be mobilised to an incident because we didn't have the manpower.”

But Mr Elliott said: “It's not ideal but safety is not being seriously compromised. This is a national problem linked to a decline in rural employment and we keep the situation under constant review. If we see gaps in cover, we can and do direct crews or individuals to particular stations.

“While this issue becomes more acute during the school holidays, I want to reassure the public that we are very used to dealing with this on a day-to-day basis and providing effective fire cover.”

He said 97pc of retained posts in Norfolk were filled but acknowledged there were difficulties at certain times of the day when employers were unable to release staff.

He said the county council had invested �333,000 to recruit eight full-time firefighters, stationed across Norfolk at four locations to help keep fire engines available.

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