One in seven firefighters at risk as desperate service looks for ways to save millions of pounds

Radical cuts to South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service are being planned which would slash numbers of firefighters and could eventually leave some communities with only ‘on call’ crews available from local stations at night.
Spare seats? Fire trucks could have fewer crew members on board in futureSpare seats? Fire trucks could have fewer crew members on board in future
Spare seats? Fire trucks could have fewer crew members on board in future

The proposals – which go before politicians next week – have been described as “devastating for the safety of firefighters and the public” by the Fire Brigades Union.

They say the first wave of proposed changes would see 84 front line jobs go from the current 590 firefighters in the service, more than one in seven, formally reducing the number of firefighters ‘riding’ their emergency trucks from five to four.

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The South Yorkshire service is facing a double squeeze on finances which have already endured almost a decade of austerity cuts, leaving service chiefs having to budget for savings which could top £4m in the years ahead.

One reason is the service is being forced to dismantle a crewing system introduced at some stations without agreement from the Fire Brigades Union, which means increased costs of £1.4m a year and an unexpected hike in pension costs could account for the rest.

Now the service has concluded the only way to make up the cash shortfall from the crewing arrangement is to reduce numbers of firefighters who crew its trucks from five to four, arguing that staffing level is currently in place for around a third of incidents.

That has been fiercely criticised by the FBU as unsafe for both the public and firefighters, because of the number of jobs which need to be done immediately as they attend 999 incidents.

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It is currently accepted nine firefighters are needed to operate safely at a house fire, meaning three fire appliances would need to turn up rather than two if crewing is reduced to four across the board.

A second wave of cuts could follow if the service has to find all the money it may need to cover the cost of providing pensions and that would mean some fire engines which have crews on station 24 hours a day being reduced to daytime cover, with a “delayed on-call” arrangement at night.

South Yorkshire now only has two stations with two fire trucks staffed around the clock, in Sheffield and Doncaster.

According to a report going before the brigade’s ruling body, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, work would have to be done to establish how many fire trucks would be downgraded to that status, stating: “We cannot yet be certain how many fire engines these changes would apply to and any change we did make would be based on analysis of incident risk data and risk profile.

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“The remaining wholetime second fire engines at Doncaster and Sheffield Central would inevitably be the starting point for this analysis.”

Neil Carbutt, the FBU’s secretary in South Yorkshire, blamed the Government for the looming spending crisis, for failing to warn early enough of a looming black hole in pension costs.

Now he is urging politicians including councillors, MPs and Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis to lobby the Government to plug the gap permanently.

At present, Whitehall will be the full cost for 12 months and 90 per cent in the following year, before handing responsibility to fire authorities.

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Mr Carbutt said the impact of reducing firefighters from five to four all fire trucks would mean three, not two, would have to attend house fire incidents to provide the minimum nine crew members needed to operate in safe conditions, something which would take more time.

“Time is crucial. This is serious stuff. I am devastated by these proposals, they will massively affect firefighter safety,” he said. 

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Alex Johnson, said: “We’d rather not make any changes at all, but have a duty to match our resources to local risk and to manage the service in a financially responsible way.

“We face cost pressures of up to £4 million and the extent of the savings required is inevitably going to mean changes to the way we provide our 999 service to the public.

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 “We think it is better to reduce the number of firefighters on a fire engine, than it is to slow down our response times by reducing the number of fire engines which are immediately available.

“Our fire engines already attend incidents with four firefighters about a third of the time- and many other UK fire services already ride with four as a norm.”

Fire and Rescue Authority members will have to decide whether to accept the proposed changes.