Three stations will close and more than 100 jobs disappear as a fire service grappling with a shrinking budget makes “devastating” cuts.
Tyne and Wear Fire Authority yesterday voted in a three-year plan of cuts which campaigners say will put lives at risk.
The option chosen by the authority was the one that involved the most closures – though all three options would have meant job losses and fire engines being taken out of service.
Chief Fire Officer Tom Capeling said the move was the most difficult event he had faced in his career, adding: “It is an extremely sad day for the service.”
Six fire engines, 131 staff and 20% of equipment will be cut and two appliances will also be “stood down” during quiet periods.
The authority also agreed to remove one of three aerial ladder platforms in the area and introduce “targeted response vehicles”, which are staffed by two firefighters with “limited capability and resources”.
But the decision was criticised by unions and politicians in the region, with one MP saying she was “shocked, devastated and disgusted”.
The authority met at the fire service headquarters in Washington, where a crowd of Fire Brigades Union members gathered to protest.
The decision is expected to save £5m and comes in the wake of an 8% loss of Government funding described by authority members yesterday as “criminal”.
Mr Capeling denied the assertion that lives would be placed at risk but admitted response times to lower-risk incidents will drop.
He said: “There is no doubt that this continues to be a challenging time for the service. Following the fire authority’s decision we will begin to implement the changes in phases over the next three years and we will monitor this closely.”
Members rejected two proposals - both of which would have included saving at least one fire station - and opted for the most extreme as they negotiate a 23% cut in Government funding between 2010 and 2017.
Following criticism from a number of MPs that the authority was sitting on around £30m of reserves, it was also decided £2m will be put into budget for the next three years in an attempt to stave off further cuts.
Authority chairman Coun Tom Wright said: “This has been one of the toughest decisions the authority has had to make and we are hugely disappointed that the reduction in Government funding has led us to make this decision.
“However, due to the level of cuts we have received, we have been left with no choice but to change our operational response and as a result have decided on this option.
“I know many people will be disappointed but we clearly have to make changes to achieve the required savings while managing our community risk.”
After the decision, Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, said: “I am shocked, devastated and disgusted at the decision of the Tyne and Wear Fire Authority, to close Sunderland Central Fire Station and implement other significant cuts which I believe will put at risk the lives of the people of Sunderland and wider Tyne and Wear.
“I do not believe the consultation on the options was meaningful and I wrote to and met with the Chief Fire Officer about my concerns. He promised to read out my letter at today’s meeting – he did not do this.
“My trust in his leadership of the Tyne and Wear Fire Service as a result has gone. Today I will be writing to the Fire Authority to raise my concerns about the decision and the consultation process.
“I think the Fire Authority needs to go back to the drawing board and look again at how to implement the devastating cuts being imposed by this Government and to also look at the sensible use of its reserves.”
Andy Noble, representative for the FBU in Tyne and Wear, said: “Firefighters know the impact will be an increase in overall attendance times.
“There will be an increase in people injured, there will be an increase in property lost and I would go so far as to say these measures will put lives at risk.”
He added: “There is a problem with the leadership in terms of not just senior management but also the fire authority.
“The decision they have made does not reflect the position taken at any of the public meetings held and, as far as we are aware, no-one has spoken in support of any of these measures.”
This was a done deal, say unions
Union leaders last night described the decision to slash firefighters, stations and equipment at Tyne and Wear Fire Rescue Service as a done deal.
The service is the fourth hardest-hit by Government spending cuts in the country, putting it behind Greater Manchester, Merseyside and South Yorkshire.
It is losing 23% of its grant money over a seven-year period - adding up to £13.6m - and following cuts to back office roles and functions in 2012/13, cuts to frontline roles seemed inevitable.
Tyne and Wear Fire Authority was yesterday faced with three options and voted on the most comprehensive package of cuts.
The first outlined the loss of 131 staff, six fire engines, a reduction of aerial ladder platforms from three to two, a 20% cut in equipment and that two engines would be ‘stood down’ during quieter periods.
The second option included the above measures and the closure of Gosforth and Wallsend stations with a new base at Benton for risk and incident intelligence.
The final option, which was voted on, included all of the above proposals as well as the closure of Sunderland Central Station, ending a tradition of a fire engine in the city centre that had endured since 1908.
Although it was criticised for sitting on reserves, the authority said it would spend £2m over the next three years.
The authority is made up of 16 members drawn from five local authorities. Most of the group are Labour representatives.