Andy Burnham: Halt axe of 'dirty bomb' emergency vehicles
A third of emergency vehicles kitted out to deal with a "dirty bomb" or other major contamination incidents in England are to be axed within days, according to a leaked document Labour said exposed a serious security risk.
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said the withdrawal of 22 incident response units (IRU) on December 31, including four of the 10 based in London, was being done without consultation and should be put on hold until ministers explained the implications.
IRUs are equipped to provide mass decontamination facilities at incidents where large numbers of people have been exposed to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials.
Showers, protective clothing and detectors are among the equipment on board the trucks, which are ready at all times to be taken out by specially-trained firefighters from local brigades.
The document, a national resilience information note issued by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOS), said the reduction was the result of a review conducted with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
It found 43 were sufficient "in order to meet the scale of event identified within the national resilience planning assumptions".
The 22 deemed surplus to requirements need to be taken out of service "almost immediately", it explained, because their power respirator protective suits (PRPS) are about to pass their expiry dates.
A set of the one-piece gas-tight chemical protection suits will be supplied for the remaining appliances.
Central government funding for affected areas will cease from April.
The CFOA said it was in discussions with DCLG to identify a disposal strategy.
Mr Burnham said: "It cannot possibly be the right time to cut, by a third, our ability to respond to serious terrorist incidents.
"Not only is it the wrong time, but it is even worse that these plans are being hatched in secret, without any public information or consultation.
"Ministers must put these plans on hold immediately and make a statement to Parliament as soon as it returns. It is disgraceful that we're days away from this happening without any debate."
A government spokesman said: "Public safety is our number one priority.
"Research and experience shows that speed is of the essence in dealing with major incidents, which is why it is better to issue all front-line responders with the training to begin decontamination rather than wait for specialist services to arrive."
The IRUs being axed are those based in: Alfreton, Derbyshire; Broughton, Buckinghamshire; Blandford, Dorset; Bovey Tracey, Devon and Somerset; Burton, Staffordshire; Canley, West Midlands; Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; East Greenwich, London; Godstone, Surrey; Hereford, Hereford and Worcester; Morecambe, Lancashire; Penzance, Cornwall; Plaistow, London; Slade Park, Oxfordshire; Southern, Leicestershire; St Albans, Hertfordshire; St Neots, Cambridgeshire; Stalybridge, Greater Manchester; Stanmore, London; Walsall, West Midlands; Wimbledon, London; Winsford, Cheshire.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: "This is vital specialist equipment that can save thousands of lives in the event of particular types of terror attacks.
"Removing one third of them significantly reduces capability across England. The remaining vehicles would have to travel further, meaning decontamination would be delayed, possibly with disastrous consequences for human safety.
"This announcement was made without proper discussion or consultation, and we are unable to examine the basis upon which the Government made this decision.
"Fire and rescue services in the affected areas need to know how long they will have to wait for specialist support, while local communities have a right to know what has changed during 2015 to make them less at risk from these threats. Given the current terrorist threat in England, this is very worrying news indeed."