Concern over fire service provision
Fire services disrupted by strike action or a flu pandemic would be less able to deploy specialist equipment for dealing with the aftermath of a terror attack or natural disaster, according to a new report.
Public safety would be at greater risk, with urban search and rescue equipment and chemical decontamination facilities less likely to be put into use, the Audit Commission found.
The watchdog looked at how England's 46 fire and rescue services were preparing for potential disruption caused by industrial action, bad weather, staff illness or power failures.
It found services had good plans in place for dealing with short-term staff reductions, but longer disruptions across several areas could risk public safety.
The Government has made it clear fire and rescue services cannot rely on help from the military in times of disruption, the report noted. Servicemen are heavily committed overseas and the old "green goddess" fire engines have been sold off.
The Government has invested £330 million in a programme to improve the service's capacity to deal with major emergencies, buying equipment for decontaminating large numbers of people if they are exposed to chemicals, and enhancing urban search and rescue capabilities. But the report found less than a third of fire services facing disruption could guarantee the availability of this sophisticated equipment.
Chairman of the Audit Commission Michael O'Higgins said: "It is reassuring to find that most areas have robust plans in place to cope with loss of staff. Of concern, though, is that public safety may be at risk if major disruption occurs across several fire and rescue authorities and lasts for a long time.
"In these circumstances we also discovered that specialist equipment designed to deal with the aftermath of terror attacks or major natural disasters is less likely to be deployable because of demands on firefighter resources."
The Commission looked at every fire and rescue service in England, from the smallest on the Isles of Scilly, employing just 39 staff, to the 7,000-strong London Fire Brigade.
The duty to be able to provide services in any circumstances is embodied in legislation, including the Fire and Rescue Service Act 2004, Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the Fire and Rescue Service National Framework 2008.