Pressures on Northern Ireland firefighters highlighted by blaze, says MLA
The prompt response to a fire which gutted a shop in Belfast yesterday demonstrates the need for firefighters to be able to act quickly and in adequate numbers, an MLA has said.
Forty firefighters and seven appliances fought the large blaze on the Woodvale Road in the north of the city, which broke out at around 5.30am.
Part of the road was closed and a number of other businesses and apartments had to be evacuated, with thick smoke hampering motorists.
Police investigating the fire have arrested a 27-year-old man who yesterday remained in police custody.
Area commander Chris Fee, the officer in charge of the incident, said the first appliance was on the scene within five minutes of receiving the call and that "firefighters worked extremely hard" to stop the blaze spreading.
"Every second does count. The fire had the potential to spread to numerous other business premises," he said, adding that two adjacent buildings sustained some roof and water damage.
On Wednesday, the Fire Brigades Union warned that budgetary cuts were threatening the ability of the NI Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) to respond to emergencies.
They said there were 82 fewer full-time firefighters in Northern Ireland now compared to last year, while at the same time the number of fires had increased by 8%.
UUP MLA for Lagan Valley Robbie Butler, who served as a firefighter for 16 years, said he had concerns about the "resilience" of the Fire Service.
"In yesterday's fire, everyone was where they should have been," he said. "The first crew on the scene of a fire needs to be making decisions and you need to know what back-up you have coming.
"If there is a big fire and resources are pushed into that area, you have to ask if the service has the resilience to cover the rest of the province and the ability to respond adequately and safely.
"It comes down to numbers. Numbers will always be important when responding to blue light emergency calls. It's like an elastic. If you stretch it too far, it will break at some stage."
Mr Butler said he had met interim chief fire and rescue officer Michael Graham two weeks ago to discuss the challenges facing the NIFRS and that he was seeking more meetings with him.
He said: "I want the Fire Service to transform, as I know Mr Graham does, to make the community safer and ensure better safety for firefighters.
"I would like to see firefighters numbers at the agreed levels - at the moment, they are under that level.
"And there are other issues too that need to be considered, such as fire safety and education."
However, Mr Graham, in response to yesterday's warning from the union, said the NIFRS was continuing "to manage all of our resources in a safe and effective way".
"This now includes NIFRS using operational personnel in a more flexible manner, which ensures that we continue to have the right number of firefighters, in the right place, at the right time, in line with risk," said Mr Graham.
He added that 28 new firefighters would be joining the organisation by the end of September and, "budget permitting", there are plans to recruit another 28 before the end of this year.
North Belfast DUP MLA William Humphrey said the fire was "devastating for the businesses concerned, for the owners and employees whose jobs may be lost".
He said: "I am relieved to hear that no one was injured by this severe fire. We are grateful to the Fire Service personnel who attended and who prevented the blaze from spreading further.
"It appears that three shops have been directly damaged by the fire and others will have suffered secondary effects.
"However, many shops on the Woodvale Road have been able to open as normal this morning."