Union's warns firefighters could struggle to cope with another Primark fire
The organisation representing rank and file firefighters has warned it may not be able to cope with another fire on the scale of the Primark blaze if cuts in the service continue.
The 4% reduction in Northern Ireland represents 82 fewer full-time firefighters than last year, while at the same time the service is facing an 8% increase in fires.
The cuts have seen the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) reduced to around 800 full-time staff, with the gap being plugged by fire safety officers.
Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Executive Council member Jim Quinn expects this to have a tangible impact on response times to incidents, alongside appliance capacity.
Mr Quinn questioned whether the service could respond to major fires, such as last year's fire at Primark's Bank Buildings flagship sore in Belfast, as effectively in future.
He said: "In simple terms, less people and less fire engines means a lesser response. I don't see how you can respond in a similar or equal measure.
"I don't think we are in the same place as last year. If it continues it is only going to get worse.
"No one can predict the availability at any given time. I am personally not convinced we can respond to a Primark-type incident as we could last year."
Of particular concern in urban centres such as Belfast and Londonderry is the reduction in availability of specialised high-rise vehicles, used for tackling fires in large buildings.
Mr Quinn said: "The two in Belfast and one in Derry are no longer available immediately. It is potentially catastrophic for that building or the people trapped in it.
"High-rise buildings are going up all over Belfast, with student accommodation and hotels. Our view is the risk is increasing. Why would you reduce the fire cover in a city under development?
"Student accommodation by its nature may provide more risk because of the nature of the occupants. There is an added risk with the student population."
The impact on resources is being acutely felt in fire stations throughout Northern Ireland, with the number of 'ready to go' staff significantly reduced.
"Six stations: Omagh, Enniskillen, Portadown, Armagh, Carrick and Ards - they used to have five people there who were full-time, they have now got three," added Mr Quinn.
"What that means is they have got to wait for our on-call firefighters who live in the locality to come in. It could take them up to five minutes to get into the station.
"You could have a group of firefighters sitting in a fire station. Instead of leaving immediately they are sitting waiting for colleagues to join them.
"There is an impact on morale and people's mindsets. It is a very difficult thing for a firefighter to accept that you can't respond in the way you used to."
The FBU is calling for a halt to the £3.62m of cuts alongside a return to the full retinue of over 900 full-time responders.