DUP urged to rethink budget amid claims £12m cuts will see stations close and firefighters axed
Fire stations across Northern Ireland are facing potential closure - with the number of firefighters also slashed, the Assembly has been warned.
MLAs heard that stations in Armagh, Portadown, Coleraine, Antrim, Carrickfergus, Newtownards and Omagh have already been earmarked for "downgrading" while "desperately needed station upgrades" in four stations elsewhere have been put on hold as a result of spending cuts.
Several other towns currently have no full-time cover, despite being placed in a "higher risk" category and the fire service staff are facing "increasing difficulties in their endeavours trying to keep the public safe".
Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance MLAs backed an Ulster Unionist Party motion warning of deep concern at a "major deterioration" in attendance times over the past five years, "particularly delays in the first appliance reaching high risk cases". Former DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots said management of the fire and rescue service in recent years had been a case of "lions led by donkeys".
The Lagan Valley MLA argued much of the considerable cuts to the fire service in recent years had been managers.
"There was a period of colossally bad leadership in the service .. people at the head of it were not doing their jobs well at all," he said.
Sinn Fein hit out at the DUP's position, with health spokeswoman Maeve McLaughlin saying: "I question can anybody stand hand on heart and say a reduction of £12m isn't having a detrimental effect.
"I suggest the (DUP) members opposite reflect long and hard about that."
A recent letter from interim chief fire officer Dale Ashford said the proposed budget reduction of 5-10% would have a "devastating impact".
Opening the debate, the UUP's Jo Anne Dobson said: "Here we have the most senior fire officer in the country with almost 30 years' experience effectively pleading with government to show some sense."
And the Upper Bann MLA added: "While much of the health service budget has been mismanaged over the last four years, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has actually had its budget slashed from £81.6m to £69.7m: a major reduction before inflation is even considered.
"I fear that a further cut will simply lead to even greater risk to public safety." She claimed fire and rescue staff are not considered a front line service by the Health Minister Simon Hamilton, and said a Fire Brigades Union briefing last week warned that cuts of that magnitude would see potential station closures, downgrades and firefighters' numbers "slashed".
The SDLP's Fearghal McKinney said while it was vitally important the Assembly showed appreciation of the fire service, there was a fundamental flaw in the UUP's contention that the Health Minister alone has the ability to ring-fence the service.
Alliance's Kieran McCarthy warned any further proposed cuts to the fire and rescue service will have "devastating consequences for everyone".