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'Lives at risk' claim in 999 shake-up in Lowestoft

PUBLISHED: 14:22 13 January 2012

Lowestoft North fire station. Photo: Andy Darnell.

Lowestoft North fire station. Photo: Andy Darnell.

Archant © 2010

PEOPLE'S lives are being put at risk in Waveney by a new, multi-million pound 999 fire calls system that is sending the wrong crews to emergency incidents, a union claimed this week.

The Cambridgeshire and Suffolk combined fire control partnership – the first of its kind in England – has been handling 999 calls in the two counties since October. But just days before its headquarters are officially unveiled, a union representing Lowestoft firefighters has highlighted what it says are potentially serious flaws.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says the new system has led to crews from the full-time Lowestoft South station being sent to four incidents that should also have been dealt with by retained crews at Lowestoft North – putting the safety of people involved in fires and road accidents at risk of potentially fatal delays.

But last night fire service bosses defended the new merged control room, saying it had handled more than 1,000 calls across Suffolk since its launch and that it was still being “looked at” and assessed on a daily basis.

The concerns were raised this week by the Lowestoft North crew after they were not called out on “shouts” in their patch, despite the fact their new station in Normanston Drive was only officially opened a year ago.

They say crews at the Lowestoft South fire station, in Stradbroke Road – which is staffed 24 hours a day – were the only ones called to four incidents north of the bridge, which they could have got to more quickly.

One of the incidents involved was a road crash at about 11.10am on Monday in Green Lane, Somerleyton, where a car had collided with a tree and careered into a field. Two crews from Lowestoft South were called to the scene, along with police, ambulance crews and a rescue pump from Great Yarmouth.

They were forced to cut the roof off the vehicle to free the driver who suffered “moderate shoulder, chest and head injuries” and was airlifted to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital by the East Anglian Air Ambulance.

But the retained Lowestoft North crew was not sent to this incident and, after the main crew from Lowestoft South had arrived at Somerleyton, it took another 10 minutes before the second crew reached the scene.

Phil Johnston, secretary of the FBU Lowestoft branch, said the new calls system was failing to take account of local road and traffic conditions – such as the bascule bridge – which were vital factors when people’s lives were at stake.

He said that although members of the Lowestoft North crew were retained firefighters, who had to be alerted and called in to answer shouts, they often arrived at incidents just as quickly as their full-time colleagues.

“The problems that have been happening now have been happening since day one,” he said. “These mobilising systems are to get all the right fire engines in the right place – but this has not happened and the guys have had enough. They do not mobilise the right appliances and this is not the fault of the control staff – it is the system.

“We were lucky in the first 24 hours there was not a fatality and we’ve been lucky every day since!”

He added: “When we had our own control room in Suffolk the staff knew how the system worked, but those in Cambridgeshire don’t know how we work and they don’t have the privileges to over-ride it.

“Every day since the new system has been in operation we have been on a wing and a prayer. Every day, every hour, every minute of the last three months the risk factor has gone up – we’ve been lucky there’s not been a fatality.”

Among the other 999 calls highlighted by the FBU when only Lowestoft South crews attended were:

A road crash, with people reported trapped in Denmark Road, Lowestoft, on November 29

A road crash with people reported trapped on December 18 at Parkhill, Oulton, and

A fire at WaterLane sports centre on January 4.

One Lowestoft North firefighter, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Journal: “We have had several issues where the nearest appliance to the accident did not go on the call-out. There are blips in the system and it’s ongoing – with at least four different incidents in recent weeks. These are life-critical things.”

Referring to Monday’s incident at Somerleyton, he added: “The crew at the scene had to wait another 10 minutes for the second crew to arrive from South Lowestoft – so why were these pumps sent to it in the first place? And then 18 minutes after the call-out, the North Lowestoft crew were called in on stand-by.

“Something needs to be done as there is potential for a fatality here.”

Responding to the concerns, deputy chief fire officer for Suffolk, Mark Hardingham, told The Journal that the fire service was aware of the FBU’s concern over the four incidents and the safety of the public was paramount.

He said: “We have an attendance standard where attendance to a road traffic collision by a fire appliance is within 13 minutes and in those particular incidents this was achieved, apart from the last one (at Somerleyton) when the second appliance was there in 15 minutes. Lowestoft is really well provided for in terms of fire cover.”

Reflecting on the 999 calls merger, Mr Hardingham said: “This was a very complex project. We are the first in the country to do it and we knew we would have issues we’d want to look at and improvements to make.

“From the very first incident we’ve been looking at it very closely and pretty much every incident since then. If we get something the firefighters are not sure about and ask questions, we’ll look at it. Waveney Group Commander John Tiffen was at Lowestoft North fire station last week talking to them about the different way of mobilising.”

Mr Hardingham said the fire service had not ruled out making changes to the new system in light of the problems raised by the FBU.

He added: “We have looked into them and spoken to control staff. We have had a close look at the system (in response to the highlighted incidents) and we can try and adjust this in future.

“We are convinced that in the future we will have one of the best controls in the country.”

•What do you think? Send your views to Postbox, The Journal, 147, London Road North, Lowestoft NR32 1NB or email max.bennett@archant.co.uk

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