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Slashing fire station opening hours will end up costing lives, warns union

By Rebecca Black

Published 16/12/2015

Up to seven station areas could be affected by the proposals
Up to seven station areas could be affected by the proposals

Firefighters have warned lives could be lost if plans to cut station opening hours are approved.

The Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) said proposals to close some bases at the weekend and reduce opening hours in others while asking staff to maintain 24-hour cover were appropriate to Northern Ireland's "risk profile".

But the Fire Brigades Union warned that there was not enough money to run a safe and efficient service and urged Health Minister Simon Hamilton to intervene.

"The bottom line is the budget has been cut and it is having an impact on cover," union chairman Dermot Rooney told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We believe that lives could be lost as a result of that. We don't believe the NIFRS wants to do it. We believe that their hands are tied by the amount of funding the Department of Health and Public Safety is giving them.

"We don't believe they have enough budget to be able to run a safe and efficient fire service. The minister needs to do something about it."

The NIFRS announced yesterday that a five-year risk assessment exercise had identified 11 station areas where risk levels and resources were not effectively matched. It added that, because of this, it was proposing that Enniskillen, Downpatrick, Dungannon and Strabane should get additional full-time firefighters.

But it also said there should be cuts in Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Portadown, Armagh, Newtownards and Omagh, with opening hours reduced from 7.30am-7.30pm seven days a week to Monday-Friday 8am-6pm.

Mr Rooney claimed this represented a 40% reduction in cover and said the proposals could put lives in danger.

"It is spreading cover more thinly across Northern Ireland," he added. "People in the likes of Newtownards and Antrim will lose cover to provide cover in other places.

"They are basically robbing Peter to pay Paul because the budget has been reduced.

"In 2012, the fire service budget would have been around £81m. It is now down to £69m, with a further cut expected to come in the next financial year. We don't believe that they would do this if they had the money.

"We don't disagree there is risk in the four towns, but we certainly disagree with reducing cover in one area to give it to somewhere else."

Mr Rooney also told how the union had serious concerns about the potential impact on public and firefighter safety, claiming that the proposals could increase response times considerably.

"If you have not got firefighters available for immediate turnout, there is a response time delay," he explained.

"No matter how committed the firefighter, there is a four to five-minute delay when they are alerted to when they come into the station.

"That four-five minutes is lost off the time that the crew have to get to the incident. Time can cost lives in terms of response times. Potentially, lives could be lost".

Mr Rooney said the union was also seriously concerned about proposed changes to the staffing of aerial equipment.

"In Belfast and Londonderry, we have high-reach specialist aerial devices that are also life-saving appliances," he added. "But yet, we are being forced, because of budget cuts, to cut provision of that.

"At the minute, they are crewed by full-time firefighters 24 hours a day, but they are going to remove them from call and not have firefighters on them unless they receive a call.

"That is also going to cause a delay because they won't be immediately available."

Assistant Chief Fire Officer Gary Thompson said that if they were accepted, the plans could be phased in over a period of two years.

"We have clearly identified a change in the risk profile of Northern Ireland, and we need to adapt and remain flexible to the changing needs we face," he explained. "If we were to introduce these new proposals, we could redeploy up to 28 whole-time posts to the identified stations to maximise the use of existing resources.

"We have a duty to ensure that we provide the best possible fire and rescue service to the people of Northern Ireland.

"We are confident that these proposals would enable us to make the most effective and efficient use of our operational resources, aligned to the risk profile of Northern Ireland."

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