The safety of firefighters on the Isle of Wight and the public they protect will be put at risk if plans are given the go-ahead tonight (Thursday) to reduce the size of fire crews, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned.
The Isle of Wight Council’s Cabinet will today vote whether or not to cut the number of firefighters in each fire crew, from 5 to 4, in what the FBU say is a desperate bid to save cash disguised as realigning the currently employed, permanent, wholetime firefighter resources to the times of greatest demand.
The FBU are insistent that a review should be conducted using risk based data not demand, as instructed by the National Fire Chiefs Council in a recent circular.
Councillor Tig Outlaw and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service (IWFRS) senior management have proposed cutting the number of firefighters from 5 to 4, as well as changing shift patterns of firefighters – particularly for those at Ryde Fire Station. The union says a crew of 4 firefighters is not able to provide the full range of aggressive firefighting tactics (i.e. committing firefighters into a burning building) in a safe, controlled and timely manner that a crew of 5 can.
Appliances from Bembridge and Sandown are off the run as they are struggling with retained numbers. So an appliance from Ryde, crewed with just 4 firefighters, is on its way. It is made up of:
• 1 Crew Manager to oversee the incident, making tactical and potentially life-changing decisions
• 2 Firefighters donned in breathing apparatus ready to enter the burning building to fight the fire and rescue occupants
• 1 Firefighter operating the pump, pulling out reels, setting up supplies, cordons and so on
The 5th firefighter would normally be acting as the Entry Control Officer (BA Control), ensuring the safety of the 2 firefighters inside the building at all times. They are also another set of eyes and hands on the fire ground.
Does the crew of the first appliance wait for backup – which could be 4 minutes or more behind – or commit to the building with just 1 firefighter, or no BA control officer, or maybe no one keeping an eye on the water supply? A 5th rider on the pump allows for a safe rescue to be affected immediately, as it always has done.
If plans are approved then Cabinet members will be asking firefighters to undertake these working practices on a daily basis, which national guidance stipulates is for exceptional circumstances only. ‘It is a complete misrepresentation of the agreed standards’, says the FBU.
Spence Cave, Brigade Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union on the Isle of Wight, has this week said:
“These proposals, if agreed by the fire authority, will put lives at risk. Fire crews will be under immense moral pressure to either act before appropriate resources are available at a fire or wait for sufficient backup. This proposal is not linked to any change in the risk faced by firefighters. It is a purely financially driven decision.
“Having only four firefighters on a fire engine will place crews and the public at an intolerable risk of serious harm or possibly worse. The cabinet should reject this unacceptable, dangerous proposal immediately.
“A crew of four not only puts firefighters at greater risk but also the public. You need five firefighters in a crew in order to carry out safety critical jobs. Anything less and it means we cannot properly prepare for either firefighting or rescue operations.
“There is a real possibility that a crew of four turn out to a house fire but cannot affect any rescues until backup arrives. They face a huge moral dilemma. Either break service protocol and begin rescue operations without the right support, for which they increase the risk of being seriously injured themselves, or they wait for backup and hope those in danger can survive. In most cases the firefighters will step in but it is a very dangerous and hazardous way of working. There maybe casualties as a result.
“Other Fire services may operate with four crew. It is not right, but at least they have the support of other immediate appliances within minutes. The Isle of Wight does not have that capability or the immediate support from its neighbouring County”.
“These common sense proposals for the Isle of Wight will realign full-time firefighters to meet the need.
“I think most people will understand that having firefighters in the right place at the right time will save lives, not put them in danger.
“I make no apologies for proposing firefighters be on duty when research shows the risk is greatest. Research I’ve done demonstrates fire authorities across the country use this model.
“Listening to the FBU, you could be forgiven for thinking fire services have stood still since the 1950s, but everyone knows this is simply not the case and that appliances, capabilities and equipment have progressed beyond recognition.
“The fire service on our Island needs to be more responsive to modern challenges and it needs to modernise. This is simply not about money, it’s about making the best of the resources to keep the public safe.”
Mr Cave has go on to say:
“This is the third attempt for the Fire Authority to attempt to get its Service Review through with cuts to crews and potential loss of posts, and therefore Island jobs, in order to save on its budget. Previously it has been rejected for lack of detail. This is the same idea but a different paper. Not the Impact report on the previous options that was expected or required.
“Cllr Outlaw pointed out that the management were the councils fire professionals. I must point out that so too are all the Islands firefighters and the FBU is the professional voice of those professionals. Firefighters views on safety must be listened to and included in the review .
“It has been stated that the new review will give more firefighters on duty. It won’t give any more immediate appliances than we have now. It may give more immediate cover at weekends, but weekend cover from RDS crews at weekends is not an issue. It will not give greater immediate cover at night. A fully crewed and resourced retained firefighter staff is part of the answer”.
According to Spencer Cave, up to 8 posts may be lost in this review even though the Cabinet are stating there will be no redundancies. He says this is only because management have tactically placed 8 firefighters on temporary contracts and can easily end those contracts. He has gone on to say:
“If the cabinet pass this review on Thursday then the safety of the Island’s public and its firefighters, and the inability for a crew to carry out full firefighting duties on arrival as the first appliance, will fall at the feet of those cabinet members.”
During a meeting at Ryde Fire Station last night (Wednesday), questions were raised by firefighters whether under the new arrangements Ryde would be left with only 1 fire appliance at night, crewed by retained staff. Currently it has at least 1 guaranteed pump at night with up to a possible 3, plus an aerial appliance.
Firefighters are fearing the current under staffing of the retained crew in Ryde could leave the town without a fire engine at night if the plans proceed before the Retained Duty System (RDS) recruitment drive, which could take years to train and bolster the Island’s fire stations.
An anonymous source has said:
“These plans could leave the residents of Ryde, the Island’s largest town, in a very risky situation at night. The only immediate back up would be the wholetime appliance from Newport and then from other retained stations, but they are not guaranteed.
“There are less fires at night but they are the cause of most fire related deaths as everyone is in bed”.
Questions were also raised as to why other Islands such as Guernsey and Isle of Man have a crew of 5, as do Cornwall. All have none or very little immediate support – just like the Isle of Wight. Councillor Outlaw is said to have had no answer other than the Island has to realign its wholetime staff and would be using crews of 4 to operate within the budget.
Howard Watts, the Island’s most senior fire officer but from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, has had his say on the matter:
“While I recognise the FBU’s concerns, I’m responsible for the safety of our firefighters and I will not put them at any increased risk.
“This move will not change our policy on the number of firefighters on fire engines.
“I believe our firefighters are the best in the country – they’re trained and equipped to the highest of standards.
“These changes will improve the service they deliver, making the community safer.”
Councillor Ian Ward has come under fire overnight following the release of photographs appearing to show him shopping and taking a nap during Tuesday’s Scrutiny Committee meeting.