A public consultation on “drastic changes” to the fire service is to go ahead despite calls to defer the process until after the coronavirus crisis.
At a virtual meeting yesterday (Thursday April 23), members of the East Sussex Fire Authority agreed to ask the public about the proposed changes to the way the fire service is run.
They include controversial staffing changes, amended priorities and slower response times to be contained in the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP).
Firefighters would be less likely to rescue people trapped in lifts under the proposals, relying on building owners such as Brighton and Hove City Council to take more responsibility.
And firefighters would be less likely to rescue animals such as birds stuck in roof nets or turn out when fire alarms go off at “low-risk” commercial premises.
Slower response times could be expected at weekends and evenings in some areas, the fire service said.
And despite reservations, including a call to delay the process, fire authority members narrowly backed pushing ahead with a public consultation.
Labour councillor Phil Scott said: “We are living in a very, very different world at this time. Our government day-on-day is changing the guidelines, changing our ways of thinking and changing the way everyone is operating.
“All of our keyworkers – NHS, fire service and police – are all going to be working differently in the future. We really do not know how that is going to work and we really do not know resources will be needed.
“What I do know is that the government will come to us next year and the year after and continue to ask us to do extra things without increasing our funding.
“They will ask us to do things differently and work differently to reflect these types of serious pandemic incidents.”
As a result, he said, the consultation process should not start until it was clear what resources the fire service would need.
The consultation would also be likely to receive fewer responses as a result of the lockdown, he added.
His view was shared by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) which, before the meeting, had also called for the consultation to be deferred.
The FBU is also opposed to many of the proposals contained in the Integrated Risk Management Plan, describing them as “drastic changes”.
Labour’s call for a delay won the support of Green councillors and Independent councillor Ruth O’Keeffe but other fire authority members were concerned about holding up the process.
Liberal Democrat councillor Carolyn Lambert said that inspectors had found the fire service’s current IRMP “not fit for purpose”, adding that it would expire at the end of this year.
She said: “I am struggling to understand the need for delay. I think it would be useful to remind ourselves that the IRMP is about the management of risk. It is absolutely fundamental to the organisation.
“It is very clear from the (latest) inspection that our IRMP isn’t fit for purpose and if we delay looking at this any further then we run the risk of being two steps behind the curve, when at the moment we are at least one step behind the curve nationally.”
Conservative councillor Garry Peltzer Dunn said: “I have considerable sympathy with the proposed amendment because obviously there will be problems although I am sure that officers will ensure the maximum possible response … will be gained.
“While I agree we have a duty to consult, we also have a duty of safety to the public. Pre-covid, within covid and post-covid.
“If we do not press ahead with the consultation, I don’t believe we will be fulfilling our public duty.”
Members were told that the consultation – to run from today (Friday April 24) to Friday 19 June – followed a range of “pre-consultation and engagement activities” over the past 12 months.
Any final decisions would not be made until at least September, after the outcome of the consultation could be analysed.
Green councillor Steph Powell said: “I’m putting my most vulnerable residents at the forefront of this. I am also putting the firefighters ahead.
“They are under extreme pressure and to being going through all of this on top of what we are going through nationally is pretty awful.
“I feel very sad that this is going to be voted through today. I think it is utterly wrong.
“None of us know how long any of this is going to take but there needs to be a full review post-pandemic for all the blue light services and I really think it would have been prudent to wait for all of that.”
The fire authority voted to move ahead with the consultation.
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