CUTS to the fire brigade’s budget are leaving the service ‘at breaking point’, as it aims to save £1.6m in the next year.
But the service has defended its cost-cutting proposals as ‘sensible’.
West Sussex County Council needs to make cuts if it is going to meet its target of saving £141m in the next few years, and the fire service is the latest service to feel the burn.
In the Observer area, changes include losing a fire engine each at Midhurst and Petworth, and a change in shift patterns at Chichester and Bognor Regis, with a loss of three firefighters in each station.
The draft proposals for the fire service aim to ‘improve the service’, while ‘managing resources within a reduced budget’.
The proposals aim to make the savings without impacting on response to emergencies.
Changes include a shake-up of shift patterns, a reduction of around 29 in firefighters across the county, plus an additional ten retained firefighters in Crawley. It will also change the way fire engines are crewed.
At the Midhurst and Petworth fire stations, instead of having two fire engines, there will be one engine and a 4x4 emergency response vehicle.
The fire service said the number of firefighters at the stations would not be reduced under the proposals.
“There is quite low demand for a second fire engine,” said communications manager for the service, Gary Towson.
Figures show in 2012/13, the second fire engine at Midhurst was used 28 times, with the first one going out 214.
In Petworth, the second engine also went out 28 times, and its first engine went out 202 times.
Mr Towson described the replacement for the second engine with a 4x4 as a positive step, as less crew members were needed to man the 4x4.
“It gives us more flexibility,” he said.
In Chichester and Bognor Regis, the main changes are to shift patterns. At the moment, 28 firefighters work in four ‘watches’ which are on a rota at each station. These watches will now be scrapped, which is a big change for the firefighters, but Mr Towson said it shouldn’t affect the service’s response.
“I think there is going to be an impact on our staff with different working arrangements and shift patterns,” he said.
“We have been talking to them about it for months. Some of the suggestions are from staff. I do not think there were any surprises – we have been asking for ideas. My genuine sense is most people can see why we’re doing it.
“Both Bognor and Chichester stations are crewed 24/7, 365 days a year. This isn’t going to change.
“Instead of the watches system, you’re having 25 firefighters at the station, still working days and nights, but it will just take less management posts to organise.
“We’re maintaining a 24/7 response.
“It’s a big change for our staff, but it won’t impact the public at all.”
However, he couldn’t guarantee the cuts wouldn’t result in redundancies.
“We will be bending over backwards not to do compulsory redundancies,” he said.
There is an estimated loss of around 29 jobs and, although there are several vacancies in the service, there are not enough to make up the numbers.
However, he said the service was ‘hopeful, optimistic, confident’ it would not have to cut jobs.
“Some people will get emotional about it. There is a perception that you take away one firefighter and everyone is going to burn in their beds. That is not the case.”
He said the approach was a ‘sensible’ one.
However, spokesman Mick Cambers for the Fire Brigades Union in West Sussex said the service had been making cuts for the past three years and more would ‘stretch the service to breaking point’.
He said staff morale was at ‘an all-time low’ and he urged the public to have their say on the changes.
“We have less firefighters in the service, less fire trucks in the service. It’s putting strain on areas which used to have this service. We are concerned.”
On the news of job losses, he said: “It is down to people taking voluntary redundancy. They have not been replacing people who have retired. Again from an FBU perspective, we think the service in West Sussex is getting stretched, we think, to breaking point. We’re down to a minimum.
“Taxpayers are being badly treated here. Obviously we want a fire service knowing if there is a problem, I can ring 999 if my house is on fire or anything else. Response times are going to take longer if we have not got the same appliances and staff. I think you will see it. Our service is being eroded.
“We all pay for our peace of mind that we have a fire service we can rely on. I do not think it is going on the same way, I think there are going to be more cuts next year.
“What we really need is the public to take an interest.”
One proposal which is likely to be popular, is a £220,000 investment in specialist equipment and training for flood rescue. This reflects the changing face of the fire service, which not only deals with fires, but rescuing people from floods, and dealing with car crashes.
Chief fire officer Sean Ruth said: “The number of emergency calls we receive has fallen, and the types of incident we respond to has changed. We need to adapt our service to reflect this.
“We have done a huge amount to target prevention work to those most at risk. We want to continue to work even more closely with the communities we serve to reduce the likelihood of emergencies from occurring in the first place.”