Fire Service union fears changes at station first step to reduction in cover
The Fire Brigades Union has warned that a change to operations at one of Northern Ireland's busiest stations could lead to a reduction in emergency cover down the line as public service cuts begin to bite.
The Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service's (NIFRS) specialist rescue team - in a pilot scheme - will form part of the regular crew for callouts during its night shift.
The team normally provides a service for incidents involving water, the need for rope access and for urban search and rescue.
It has 24 personnel and is based at Central Station on Bankmore Street, off Ormeau Avenue in Belfast.
The Fire Brigades Union said the move was a bid to cut overtime costs and was the "least worst option" put to representatives. Stephen Boyd, regional secretary of the union, said the move would not affect overall fire cover in the city.
However, he feared it could be an opening gambit in cuts to the service. He said: "This was the best option put to us in order to reduce the overtime budget.
"The other option considered reducing ridership - the amount of personnel - on appliances, which would have compromised the safety of both firefighters and the public. So this was the least worst option.
"However, we would be concerned that this is the start of a major cuts agenda against the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service."
Like most public services, NIFRS is under pressure to reduce costs.
It has had a 5% reduction to its budget for this financial year.
An spokesman said: "Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service is a front line emergency service tasked with protecting our community.
"However, as an arm's-length public body we are not protected from budget cuts.
"We are required to make a budget saving of 5.5% in this current financial year and in order to make this saving we are considering all available options to improve efficiency right across the organisation.
"We are looking at ways of delivering our service differently to fit within our reduced budget, to see how we can make better use of our existing resources in such a way that it has the minimum impact on public safety or the safety of our firefighters.
"As part of an ongoing wider review of how we crew our appliances, NIFRS has implemented a pilot scheme that will see a change to the crewing arrangement with regard to the specialist rescue team at Central Fire Station, Belfast. The specialist rescue team will now be available to crew a fire appliance during their night shift when this is required.
"This does not impact on emergency cover or change the number of fire appliances available to respond in the Belfast area.
"This change is about making sure we are utilising our resources to their full capacity.
"As part of this process, NIFRS management have liaised with the Fire Brigades Union and other relevant stakeholders.
"NIFRS remains steadfast in our commitment to protecting front line service delivery, which ensures the safety of the public as well as our firefighters, and also to appropriately align our resources to risk across Northern Ireland."