Last week, Liberal Democrat councillors called a special meeting of local authority councillors and fire officers following repeated concerns about the impact of budget cuts on Portsmouth’s fire service, particularly in relation to fires in high rise buildings. A local firefighter and representative of the Fire Brigade Union has been working with S&C Editor in Chief, Sarah Cheverton, on this report.
£4.1 million of cuts were announced for Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service in February 2016 and fire officers from the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) have continued to raise concerns about the impact of the cuts on the safety of local communities.
In a deputation to Portsmouth City Council last year, Portsmouth firefighter Mark Chapman told councillors, ‘the people of Portsmouth…did not cause this financial crisis, nor did our firefighters or our fire service…yet [its] consequences now put our most effective safety net under the knife.’
Last month 3 Bristol MPs wrote to the government protesting continuing cuts to the fire and rescue service, revealing that 10,000 frontline firefighter posts have been cut across the country since 2010. The Service saves the lives of approximately 40,000 people each year.
Standing alongside the MPs, a representative of the FBU said, ‘In addition to fires, firefighters regularly respond to traffic collisions, industrial accidents, medical emergencies, chemical spillages, terrorist incidents and civil disturbances. This government must now listen, and stop putting budget cuts ahead of public safety.’
Last year 16 fire officer posts were cut from Southsea Fire Station, reducing the number on each of 4 watches by 4 officers per watch. Hampshire FBU highlighted strong concerns that the impact of the cuts affected crewing of Southsea Fire Station’s Aerial Ladder Platform (ALP). The ALP is intended for use in any high rise fire in Portsmouth. Buildings directory Emporis lists Portsmouth as having over 29 high rise and tall buildings.
The specific concerns raised by firefighters include:
- Southsea Fire Station currently crews with a minimum of 12 firefighters and has 3 fire engines, primary crewed by 4 firefighters each
- At a high rise incident, all 3 fire engines are deployed utilising all 12 fire fighters, while the ALP – designed for use at high rise fires – remains at the station
- Prior to the cuts, higher staffing levels meant that all local vehicles – including the Southsea ALP – could attend fires simultaneously if required. However, now the ALP will only be dispatched if firefighters already at the scene request its use
- Under current staffing levels, the firefighters in a position to request the ALP are the same officers trained to drive it, meaning these officers would need to stop fighting the fire to return to the station and collect the ALP
According to a statement from the FBU earlier this month, ‘Our concerns are that this critical piece of safety equipment is no longer immediately available for the risk it was designed to accommodate.’
Particular concerns have been raised about the impact on the ability of local firefighters to respond to a fire in one of the city’s high rise buildings. Usage of the Southsea ALP to date suggests concerns are not without substance, as it is in regular demand in the city. Between January – December 2016, it was called out approximately 75 times, an average of more than 6 time each month.
However, despite continued lobbying from the FBU, Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service have continued with plans for reduced staffing, and have allocated the ALP in Southampton to come out to any high rise fire in Portsmouth, rather than staffing the service so that the Southsea ALP could be utilised quickly.
In low level traffic, estimated attendance time for the ALP in Southampton is 20 minutes. The Southampton ALP was dispatched to Portsmouth on at least 5 occasions between September and December 2016.
At a meeting last week called by local Lib Dem councillors, Fire Officer Nigel McCullen detailed the FBU’s concerns about the impact of the cuts on staffing the ALP, particularly that if a fire breaks out in a Portsmouth high rise, there will be ‘nobody left to crew the ALP should it be required.’
‘Crewing of the ALP Southsea, we think, could be better: safer for firefighters and members of Portsmouth. We are in talks with management about that at the moment but we believe the way it is crewed is potentially dangerous, and we think we have a better solution for that.’ Fire officer, Nigel McCullen.
Mr McCullen’s interview with Cllr Steve Pitt can be seen in full in the video below.
Portsmouth Conservatives reject all claims that the cuts to the fire service will impact on the early response of the fire service to high rise fires. Conservative councillor Frank Jonas, who represents Portsmouth City Council on the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Authority, the governing body for Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service was the only Conservative councillor to attend the meeting with local fire officers last week. He could not be reached for comment.
Speaking to The News earlier this month, Conservative council leader Donna Jones rejected the concerns of frontline firefighters and Lib Dem councillors.
‘I have had reassurance that no lives are at risk in Portsmouth by senior fire officers. This is the union and Lib Dems using the recent changes for political gain.’ Donna Jones, Leader of Portsmouth City Council
It is unclear from mainstream media reports in what way firefighters might stand to gain politically from continuing to suggest alternative ways by which the Southsea ALP could be utilised without increasing response times by deploying an ALP from Southampton.
Local fire officers have publicly rejected the Leader’s claim. In a public statement, the FBU stated that fire fighters are ‘in no way politicising this topic.’
‘[Our] only aim is to maintain an appropriate and effective response that above all keeps firefighters and members of the public safe, whilst mitigating any avoidable risk.’
‘Hampshire FBU to that end have proactively proposed workable alternative measures to ensure that the ALP at Southsea can, and would, turn out on the initial attendance to a high rise incident. It is with regret [we] state that this option was refused.’ Hampshire Fire Brigade Union (FBU)
Following the meeting last week, a local firefighter told S&C that councillors in attendance had agreed that the FBU’s proposals are ‘a pragmatic and workable approach to a problem brought on by the cuts.’
The firefighter revealed that since the meeting, ‘the [Fire & Rescue] service have since made changes to the response but unfortunately the changes have still not maximised the equipment available that is required for a high rise incident.’
S&C would not have been able to publish this report without the proactive and professional approach of the FBU, who continue to protect the safety of firefighters and the public they serve. This is part of S&C’s renewed focus on investigative, critical journalism and our continuing mission to create a sustainable and robust local press without compromising editorial independence through advertising or ‘advertorial’ (articles that have been paid for by businesses for promotional purposes). If you want to support journalism like this, please consider donating to support S&C, or volunteering with the S&C team of volunteers.
Find out more
BBC investigation by 5Live finds longer response times to fires since the government’s austerity programme started in 2010.
The Guardian – Fire deaths rise by 21% nationally as chiefs issue cuts warning.
Read Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service’s Integrated Risk Management Plan, ‘A Safer Hampshire’ outlining the Service’s strategy to address an estimated ‘budget deficit of £16 million by 2020’.
Support the national petition
Sign and share the Fire Brigade Union’s petition against continuing cuts to the national fire and rescue service, which has seen the loss of 10,000 firefighters across the country since 2010.