Fire chiefs have been told by their own crews that plans to cut staff and close stations is an “extremely dangerous” mistake.
Across Tyne and Wear, firefighters have called on fire chiefs to drop plans to make 131 staff redundant, scrap six appliances and close three stations.
As the Fire Authority prepares to consider its final options next week, staff and the Fire Brigade Union in the region have warned councils on the board not to go ahead with the cuts, or risk lives being lost.
The FBU has told the authority that “the proposed loss of 131 operational firefighters and six fire appliances would be catastrophic and we believe the consequences for firefighters and the public will be extremely dangerous.”
Dave Turner, secretary of the regional FBU, and chairman Russ King, told fire chiefs that they and their members, thought it was an “inescapable conclusion that the fire service will not be able to provide the same level of protection to the public of Tyne and Wear or to staff should the front line response be cut any further.”
Next week the authority will consider which of three cuts options will be needed to save at least £8m.
Six fire engines will go and on some nights, when the service typically sees fewer call-outs, there will be two further fire engines “stood down”.
The number of specialist aerial ladder engines will also be reduced from three to two.
The second option would see all the above changes added to further plans to replace two community fire stations in Wallsend and Gosforth with one station, possibly in Benton. Option three sees Sunderland Central fire station added to the cuts list. The additional cuts see some extra staffing to make up for the changes.
Union chiefs though have said it is incredible that cuts which would place staff in an “intolerable position” are even being considered when the service has millions of pounds in its bank accounts. It said in the consultation response that “we view these proposals with alarm and a degree of astonishment that such proposals would be considered at a time when the Fire Authority are sitting on an exceptional level of balances and reserves.”
The Fire Authority has some £32m in reserves, but around £28m of this is already earmarked for various projects, such as replacing or upgrading equipment and paying off debts. Councillors set to agree the proposals will be told that using up reserves now would only put off the cuts for a few years. Many of the proposals include replacing fire engines with smaller “targeted response vehicles,” often specially fitted 4x4s or large vans, which respond to less dangerous situations with smaller crews.
Across Tyne and Wear 33 staff members told their bosses they did not believe the new mini-fire engines could keep either firefighters or the public safe in a life threatening situation, with some saying the equipment had been shown to have “failed” in other areas.
Union officials said it was “frankly staggering” that the mini-fire engines could be used to attend car fires and other potentially more dangerous situations.
Chief Fire Officer Tom Capeling, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service said: “The findings of the consultation will form part of the discussion at the Fire Authority meeting, where we expect a decision will be made on the options to change the way the service responds to incidents in the future.
“Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service is one of the best and fastest fire and rescue services in the country and we want to continue to be. The safety of our community and firefighters is, and always will be, our number one priority.”