The Fire Brigades Union has criticised “dangerous” cuts planned by bosses at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.
The union warned that the proposed changes would “decimate the service” on top of an earlier round of cuts that left Hove with just one main fire engine.
The changes are expected to place dozens of jobs at risk across Brighton and Hove and the wider East Sussex area.
And it could leave Preston Circus and Roedean, in Brighton, and Hove as three of just five whole-time fire stations run by East Fire and Rescue Service. The other two would be in Eastbourne and Bohemia Road in Hastings.
Fire crews would be less likely to help rescue people from lifts – or take longer to turn out – and they could rescue fewer trapped animals such as birds caught in roof nets.
And they may be less likely to respond to fire alarms, with false alarms regarded as a significant drain on time and resources.
The changes were outlined in a new operating plan – known as the Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) – discussed by the East Sussex Fire Authority at a virtual meeting last Thursday (23 April).
The FBU said: “The fire authority has voted to consult with the public on plans that will in the opinion of the Fire Brigades Union decimate the service.
“An amendment was tabled by the Labour group on the fire authority to postpone the consultation period due to the current covid pandemic.
“The amendment was backed by fire authority members from the Green Party and an independent councillor.
“The FBU welcomed the amendment. However, it was not carried as it was voted against by the Tory councillors and the Lib Dem councillors who sit on the authority.
“The FBU is of the opinion that our members and indeed the public do not believe that now is the correct time to be consulting on any IRMP let alone one that sets out such drastic changes to how services are delivered.
“We are in the midst of the covid pandemic and, post-pandemic, the fire service nationally may change.
“We are already seeing firefighters take on additional roles including driving ambulances, transporting of deceased, testing of sick and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS.”
East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said: “Work on the plan and for the public consultation has been under way for around 18 months and the suggestion that it has been ‘sneaked through’ under the cover of the pandemic is simply untrue.
“It’s also important to clarify that the fire authority has a statutory duty to put in place a revised plan, under the ‘national framework’, and the current one expires this year.
“The implications of holding a consultation during the current situation and the counter impact of the service being able to operate effectively and protect the public if it was delayed had to be weighed up and considered.
“Indeed, in light of the covid-19 pandemic, the service has substantially enhanced our usual consultation and communication plans and, as well as following the government guidance, sought advice from consultation experts.
“This year we are also adding 10,000 direct mail-out to households where we know they are less likely to engage online and using telephone surveys for the first time.
“Due to these additional arrangements, we are expecting a higher response rate than in previous consultations.”
The FBU said that the planned changes include
- Cutting 10 fire appliances from Battle, Bexhill, Crowborough, Heathfield, Lewes, Newhaven, Rye, Seaford, Uckfield and Wadhurst
- Cutting dedicated crews for aerial appliances in Hastings
- Cutting whole-time firefighter staffing levels at Lewes, Newhaven, Uckfield, Crowborough, Battle and Bexhill
- Downgrading The Ridge fire station from being staffed by firefighters 24 hours a day to being staffed only during the day for immediate response
- Cutting staffing levels of whole-time firefighters at other fire stations
To find out more and take part in the consultation, click here.
After the public consultation has ended, the fire authority is expected to decide what changes to make.
East Sussex FBU chairman Simon Herbert said: “These are very dangerous proposals that will heavily impact this critical public service that my members and I provide to the residents of East Sussex.
“The fire service is still struggling to manage, following the cuts that were introduced in 2016.
“These new proposals present a very clear danger to the public and firefighter safety alike.
“When fire authority members are asked to vote on these dangerous plans to our local fire service, I hope they have the morality and strength of character to put safety first and reject these dangerous proposals.”
The FBU said: “The proposals have been met with anger and disappointment among firefighters.
“Firefighters are very concerned that the proposed cuts shall have a detrimental effect on their ability to rescue and help members of the public.
“There is no support for these planned cuts among frontline firefighters and the FBU urges East Sussex Fire Authority members to instruct the service’s senior managers to go back to the drawing board.”
Other changes could mean whole-time fire stations face staffing and rostering changes.
Each currently operates what is known as a “four-watch” system, with firefighters working two day shifts followed by two night shifts then four days off duty.
Fire chiefs want to introduce a “flexible rostering duty system” with a single larger team of firefighters at each station where shifts would be allocated to reflect staffing needs at busier times.
Alternatively, the service could introduce a “group crewing” system at Preston Circus, Hove and Roedean, with Eastbourne and Bohemia Road retaining the “four-watch” system.
Either proposal, if approved, could result in the loss of five firefighter posts, with staff either redeployed or made redundant, the fire service said.
The overall package of reforms is expected to lead to the loss of between 27 and 33 firefighter posts.
The FBU said that it was worried about safety, working conditions and extra pressure on retained firefighters, with recruitment having proved harder in recent years.
The fire service said: “We want to stress that all our fire stations will have at least one fire engine.
“Extensive work by service advisers, analysts and staff has been invested to develop these proposals, looking carefully at the risks in the community across the whole of the county.
“We do not share the FBU’s opinions on these proposals, although we understand their focus is to protect their members from any impacts.
“We would like to encourage everyone to consider the facts and data from nine years of incidents that is set out in the detailed report and have their say in this consultation.
“The conclusion is that we need to move our resources so that we better match them to the risks we have and enhance capacity in other areas such as building fire safety work.
“It’s important to note that our proposals will keep all our 24 fire stations open and increase the number of fire engines in Hastings and Eastbourne, as well as critically ensuring we increase our minimum number of fire engines available at the start of a day from a minimum of 15 (or less) to 18 under these proposals in order to improve resilience.
“We are not looking to ‘cut’ the resources released, although some efficiency will be achieved, but the proposals will free resources to allow us to reinvest in new fire engines and a new high reach vehicle in Hastings and Eastbourne.
“The longer-term impact of covid-19 won’t be known for some considerable time and, as the months pass, we will of course assess any new information or requirements which may emerge but we don’t anticipate significant change in the short term.
“The draft proposals are to ensure that both the fire authority and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service will be strongly placed to effectively deal with the inherent and anticipated risks for the future and over the next five-year term.”
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