MPs asked to pressure Government over fire service spending crisis in South Yorkshire
Consultations are to start which could see numbers of firefighters crewing tenders in South Yorkshire reduced to a level operated by only one other ‘big city’ brigade in the country.
The service is facing a potential shortfall of £4m a year in future and senior managers say the only way they can manage that is to reduce crews from five to four on the fire trucks sent as the first response to emergency incidents.
Although 17 fire and rescue services already operate to that model only one – Tyne and Wear – is a metropolitan area like South Yorkshire, covering major population centres in addition to tracts of rural land.
The Fire Brigades Union has argued that having five firefighters on the first truck to attend incidents like housefires is vital for safety, with the second crew to arrive expected to be four strong.
But Chief Fire Officer Jamie Courtney has told members of the service’s ruling Fire and Rescue Authority the only other way to save enough money would be to take away crews from some stations at night, leaving the fire engines to be staffed on an ‘on call’ basis, regarded as a worse option.
Authority members have agreed that consultations, including staff, the public, council leaders and MPs, should start, but refused a recommendation to accept a draft document spelling out details of the proposals, opting to “note” the report at this stage at the suggestion of Sheffield Coun Jackie Satur until the consultations are complete.
It was also agreed to update the consultation document with details of other money saving options which had been considered.
There are also moves to encourage the county’s MPs to lobby Government over services finances, which come largely from the Government.
Chairman Coun Chris Lamb, who sits on Barnsley Council, said the funding formula used to work out budgets disadvantaged the county compared to both districts of London and the “leafy shires”.
His constituency MP was already planning to raise the issue in the House of Commons, he said, and others including Clive Betts and John Healey had also taken an interest in the situation.
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The financial problems are due to two issues arising at the same time, with the service forced to scrap a crewing arrangement which sees some volunteer staff spending four days at their station, called close proximity crewing, which saves the service £1.4m a year.
However it was introduced without agreement from the FBU and was deemed unlawful as a result.
The service has also been told by Government accountants its pension contributions need to be increased by around £3m a year and although the Government will meet the shortfall next year, it is currently anticipated finding the cash will fall to the authority in future.
Rotherham Coun Alan Atkin said: “Our MPs are already asking us for information to lobby the Government.
“None of these (options) are palatable, but I think this is more palatable because it has flexibility built into it.”
If the budget position improved in future, the service would be able to “reign back” the crewing reductions more easily than re-introducing night time cover at stations where it had been lost, he said, “Changing to day crewing is harder to unpick.”
Sheffield Coun Tony Damms said the consultation: “May bring forwards some alternatives. I personally cannot think of anything.
“I hope what we can get from the consultation process is reassurance and perhaps some new ideas.”
Mr Courtney told the meeting it was hoped advances in technology could help smaller fire crews, but he acknowledged that ‘riding’ four instead of five would mean each crew member would ultimately have to do more.
The FBU has welcomed the authority’s desire to lobby the Government over funding and South Yorkshire secretary Neil Carbutt said: “I am really pleased with the intervention of Coun Satur because this will start a process of extensive consultation between the unitary authorities and residents.”