Fire crews shortage sparks concern

A CHRONIC shortage of retained firefighters in Suffolk has led to nearly 90 incidents since January in which the nearest crew has been unable to respond to a 999 call, new figures reveal.

A CHRONIC shortage of retained firefighters in Suffolk has led to nearly 90 incidents since January in which the nearest crew has been unable to respond to a 999 call, new figures reveal.

Fire chiefs have admitted the situation is a source of concern, but insist that public safety is not at risk.

The figures have been obtained following a Freedom of Information Act request to Suffolk County Council.

They show that between January and June this year there were 87 'missed calls' - incidents where firefighters from the nearest station were unable to attend and had to be sent from elsewhere.

Within that period the stations had the combined equivalent of 284 days where they were unmanned or 'off the run'. There are currently 452 retained firefighters in Suffolk based at 36 stations.

The station in Saxmudham had no crew for the equivalent of 36 days and were unable to respond to 16 incidents, while those at Framlingham and Wrentham could not respond to 12 and were 'off the run' for 31 and 40 days respectively.

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However, 17 of the 36 stations responded to every call - including those in Aldeburgh, Orford, Woodbridge, Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds.

There have also been the equivalent of 147 days where stations had 'insufficient crew'. This is a situation where a crew is not up to full strength but will respond to an incident - with a minimum of three personnel performing limited duties and backed up by the next nearest station.

Phil Embury, assistant chief fire officer for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, admitted there was an issue with recruitment but stressed public safety was not at risk.

'We are told in advance when crews are unavailable so that as soon as a call comes in we can mobilise the nearest station,' he said. 'I can reassure the public that if they call 999 they will always get a fire engine from the nearest available station. Our response times are well ahead of the national average so people need not worry unnecessarily.

'Unfortunately the issue surrounding retained firefighters is a nationwide problem. Obviously for us it is a cause of concern because we want to make sure our fire engines are available as much as possible.'

Mr Embury said the county council was currently reviewing the situation and looking at ways to improve recruitment and availability.

'We have particular problems during the day - evenings and weekends aren't so bad,' he said.

'There has been a shift in the way people live and work. Many smaller towns are now dormitory settlements - where people live but don't necessarily work. As a result, during the day there are just not enough people around.

'At the same time there's also been a reduction in people employed in agriculture - traditionally a lot of stations were crewed by people from that industry.

'Also, although employers in general are favourable towards retained firefighters, in times of economic downturn it can be difficult to release people to attend calls.

'However, we are currently looking at ways to try and improve the situation.'

His views were echoed by Adrian Mason, secretary of the Suffolk branch of Retained Firefighters' Union, who is based at the station in Woodbridge.

'Unfortunately there is no simple solution,' he said. 'It has always been a problem in rural areas. It's not a question of the brigade putting a cap on numbers, its just we can't get the levels of personnel. The problem is finding suitable people within five minutes of a fire station.

'It's during the day where we struggle because either there are not enough people working in these areas or if they are their employers are reluctant to release them for firefighting duties.'

Anybody interested in finding out more about becoming a retained firefighter can contact their local station or the county council on 01473 583000.

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