Fire cuts consultations continue as bosses agree to consider short term cash injection
Emergency cash reserves could be made available to prop-up South Yorkshire’s troubled fire service in an attempt to provide breathing space to solve its worsening financial troubles.
The service is in the process of looking for ways to save £4m after being hit by a double whammy of bills, following a legal decision that it must end a rota system for crews that had been saving £1.4m a year and the potential for needing millions more to top up pensions, following a Government miscalculation.
At present the only two options available would be to remove full time crews from some appliances, leaving part-time ‘retained’ staff to answer 999 calls from home instead, or to cut crew numbers on each fire truck from five to four, a move fiercely resisted by the Fire Brigades Union, on safety grounds.
A 12 week consultation is taking place at present but South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, the political body which controls the brigade, has held an extraordinary meeting to discuss progress because of “disquiet” raised over the way opinions have been sought.
Those two options have been put to the public, and other bodies like councils and trade unions, in the hope further suggestions for plugging the gap can be found without such radical changes to the way the service operates.
The position is confused because it is possible the Government will cover some or all of the new pensions bill in future and decisions about how well it intends to finance fire services in future have yet to be made public.
Sheffield Coun Tony Damms suggested using money from the service’s emergency savings to cover costs for another year, giving more time to find economies and possibly for Government funding to improve.
That idea will now be on the table when the results of the consultations are examined by the authority, but Chief Fire Officer James Courtney said he doubted it could help, because in effect the service would need 50 extra firefighters on a short term basis to cover a year-long gap.
“We are in the order of 50 firefighters short of what we would need. What a temporary solution looks like, I really don’t know,” he told the meeting.
The meeting was called because of what chairman Coun Chris Lamb discribed as “disquiet” over the way service chiefs were consulting by offering the two suggested choices for making the savings which now appear necessary.
The brigade’s position has always been that if cuts to crews are introduced, they will be limited to the minimum possible, with every fire truck running with only four firefighters on board a ‘worst case scenario’.
That would be an important change because it is accepted nine firefighters are needed to safely manage major incidents such as house fires, meaning three crews would be needed rather than the existing two.
Coun Lamb said: “No-one has suggested today that we use reserves. What has been suggested is that at the end of the consultation, it is on the table.
“Maybe out of all that consultation a bit of genius will mean it is all ok and we don’t have to consider reserves.”
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings, who sits alongside councillors on the authority, said the consultations meant: “Something is going to come back to us and we are going to have to sit down and decide what we are going to do.
“I would like to see a medium term financial strategy which sets out options, whether pensions have to be covered or not. That would give a number of refinements to the options we have.
“I suspect something of a hybrid will emerge,” he said.