Consultation on ‘drastic changes’ for East Sussex fire service to go ahead, despite Covid-19 lockdown

Firefighters in Sussex

A public consultation on ‘drastic changes’ to the fire service in East Sussex is to move ahead, despite calls to defer the process until after the coronavirus crisis.

At a virtual meeting today (April 23), members of the East Sussex Fire Authority agreed to go out to consultation on a range of proposals for how the fire service should be run, known as an integrated risk management plan (IRMP).

The proposals include controversial staffing changes and could mean East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS) would no longer come out to rescue birds stuck in nets or attend fire alarms at ‘low-risk’ commercial properties.

It would also be likely to see slower response times at weekends and evenings in some areas, the fire service says.

The decision came despite several fire authority members calling for the consultation process to be delayed until after the conclusion of the coronavirus crisis.

Putting forward a motion to defer, Phil Scott of East Sussex County Council’s Labour group, said:

“We are living in a very, very different world at this time.

“Our government day-on-day is changing the guidelines, changing our ways of thinking and changing the way everyone are operating.

“All of our keyworkers; NHS, fire service and police, are all going to be working differently in the future.

“We really do not know how that is going to work and we really do not know resources will be needed. 

“What I do know is that the government will come to us next year and the year after and continue to ask us to do extra things without increasing our funding.

“They will ask us to do things differently and work differently to reflect these types of serious pandemic incidents.”

As a result, he argued the consultation process should not move ahead until it was clear what resources the fire service would need.

The consultation would also be likely to receive fewer responses as a result of the lockdown, he added.

The view was shared by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which had also called for the consultation to be deferred prior to the meeting.

The FBU is also against many of the proposals contained in the IRMP, which it describes as ‘drastic changes’.

While the Labour motion was supported by Green Party councillors and Independent Ruth O’Keeffe, other fire authority members raised concerns about delaying the process.

Among those to raise this view was Cllr Carolyn Lambert, a Liberal Democrat member of East Sussex County Council.

Cllr Lambert said this would be a particular issue as the fire service’s current IRMP had been found to be ‘not fit for purpose’ by inspectors and is also set to run out at the end of this year.

She said:

“I am struggling to understand the need for delay.

“I think it would be useful to remind ourselves that the IRMP is about the management of risk.

“It is absolutely fundamental to the organisation.

“It is very clear from the [latest] inspection that our IRMP isn’t fit for purpose and if we delay looking at this any further then we run the risk of being two steps behind the curve, when at the moment we are at least one step behind the curve nationally.”

Similar views were raised by Cllr Gary Peltzer Dunn, a Conservative member of Brighton and Hove City Council.

He said:

“I have considerable sympathy with the proposed amendment, because obviously there will be problems, although I am sure that officers will ensure the maximum possible response … will be gained.

“Whilst I agree we have a duty to consult, we also have a duty of safety to the public.

“Pre-covid, within covid and post-covid.

“If we do not press ahead with the consultation I don’t believe we will be fulfilling our public duty.”

Members also heard the consultation – to run between this Friday (April 24) and June 19 – follows on from a range of ‘pre-consultation and engagement activities’ over the past 12 months.

A final decision would also not be expected to be made until at least September, following the outcome of public consultation.

These arguments did not satisfy Cllr Steph Powell (Green), however.

The Brighton and Hove City Councillor said:

“I’m putting my most vulnerable residents at the forefront of this.

“I am also putting the firefighters ahead … they are under extreme pressure and to being going through all of this on top of what we are going through nationally is pretty awful.

“I feel very sad that this is going to be voted through today.

“I think it is utterly wrong.

“None of us know how long any of this is going to take but there needs to be a full review post-pandemic for all the blue light services and I really think it would have been prudent to wait for all of that.”

Following further discussion the fire authority agreed to move ahead with the consultation as recommended by officers.

The decision has seen concerns raised by the FBU East Sussex chairman, Simon Herbert.

He said:

“These are very dangerous proposals that will heavily impact this critical public service that my members and I provide to the residents of East Sussex. 

“The Fire Service is still struggling to manage, following the cuts that were introduced in 2016. 

“These new proposals present a very clear danger to the public and firefighter safety alike.

“When Fire Authority members are asked to vote on these dangerous plans to our local fire service I hope they have the morality and strength of character to put safety first and reject these dangerous proposals.”

The proposals include major changes to the fire service’s workforce.

The largest change would come for the fire service’s day-crewed stations: Battle, Bexhill, Crowborough, Lewes, Newhaven, and Uckfield.

Currently, these services are staffed by two watches of six wholetime firefighters, who cover an average of 42 daytime hours per week and remain on-call during the evening.

Additional cover is provided by on-call (or retained) firefighters – part-time firefighters who work as needed and typically have a day job.

Under the proposals, however, the wholetime firefighters would only work during the daytime Monday to Friday, with on-call firefighters providing cover in the evening and at weekends.

This change would likely see slower response times at the weekend as a result, the fire service says.

This change would also result in the loss of between 27 and 33 existing posts, although the fire service says it would seek to redeploy firefighters to a new ‘flexible working pool’ to provide cover across the county.

While this would be a major change to contracts, it is unclear whether this would see staff being laid off rather than redeployed.

Wholetime fire stations – which are manned by full time firefighters 24/7 – are also set to undergo major changes to working conditions.

This would affect up to five wholetime fire stations: Bohemia Road in Hastings, Eastbourne, Hove, Preston Circus and Roedean.

The proposals would also see the Ridge fire station in Hastings cease to be a wholetime fire station and instead become day-crewed. It would not become a ‘day-only’ station, however.

All these changes are opposed by the FBU, which says it has concerns around safety and working conditions.

It also says the changes would put too much pressure on the retained firefighter system, which has had difficulty recruiting in recent years.

The proposals could also see the service stop attending some ‘non-emergency’ calls.

This would include rescuing birds from netting on tall buildings and automatically attending fire alarms at ‘low-risk’ commercial properties.

It could also delay rescuing people trapped in lifts if they are not considered to be vulnerable or in distress ‘give building owners time to resolve the issue themselves.’

The FBU also opposes these proposals.

(By Huw Oxburgh – Local Democracy Reporter)

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