Anger over fire control room decision

PLANS to close county fire control centres in Suffolk and Essex and replace them with a centralised regional operation in Cambridge have been attacked by union leaders and politicians.

By Graham Dines

PLANS to close county fire control centres in Suffolk and Essex and replace them with a centralised regional operation in Cambridge have been attacked by union leaders and politicians.

The Government is spending more than a £1bn of taxpayers' money to establish eight centres outside London, replacing 46 county control rooms.

In a property deal worth £23 million, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has pre-let a three storey 33,000sq ft building at Cambridge Research Park for the east's regional control centre for the fire and rescue service.


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A number of jobs will be axed in the region's existing control rooms - including Ipswich and Brentwood - because fewer staff will be needed, although the Government said it hoped to avoid compulsory redundancies.

Ruth Winters, president of the Fire Brigades Union, described the plans as "criminally irresponsible" and warned they would make Britain's fire service less effective and more expensive.

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Carl Francis, officers' section secretary for the union in Suffolk, warned that industrial action could be taken to resist the plans.

"There is huge concern the local knowledge will be lost. The service will be reduced by a regional control room," he said.

More than 200 MPs from all political parties had signed a parliamentary motion calling on ministers to rethink the plans.

Richard Spring, Conservative MP for West Suffolk, said the plans were part of the Government's agenda to take local services out of democratic control into regional units.

"Efficiency will not be improved. Too many services are being run for the benefit of the people who run than rather than the people they are there to serve," said Mr Spring.

Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, described the plan as "ludicrous."

He said: "This is part and parcel of the Government's attempt to dehumanise local democratic bodies - local government is becoming the branch office of central government and the quango culture is taking over."

Shadow local government minister Caroline Spelman said: "If the regional centre is forced off-line by a disaster or attack, the whole emergency response will go down across a massive geographical area."

Suffolk County Council's main concern is the retention and recruitment of personnel in the run-up to the changeover.

Joanna Spicer, the council's portfolio holder for public protection, said: "We have always expressed strong concerns about the proposal - however, we must accept the decision and support and work with our valued control room staff."

Norfolk's Chief Fire Officer David Worsley said: "The new control centre at Cambridge aims to not only benefit the east of England but will help deliver a more resilient fire and rescue service for the country as a whole."

David Johnson, Chief Fire Officer for Essex, was disappointed that the control centre would not be in the county.

"We have a first class work force in our local control in Brentwood. However, we accept that this project is part of the national picture and in that situation there are winners and losers," he said.

Fire Service minister Jim Fitzpatrick, himself a former firefighter, said: "There is a compelling need to modernise and rationalise the control rooms in England as part of the overall modernisation agenda.

"The centres will use the latest proven technology, which will not only enable firefighters to respond more quickly to incidents, but improve their safety by providing accurate information before they reach the scene."

Total cost of the plan is £1 billion, but Mr Fitzpatrick said the Government would have had to spend virtually the same amount of money to upgrade the current control rooms.

Construction of the Cambridge centre, which is leased to the ODPM over a 25-year period, will begin in early 2007.

In addition to Cambridge, regional centres will be in Durham (North East), Warrington (North West), Castle Donington (East Midlands), Wolverhampton (West Midlands), Wakefield (Yorkshire and Humberside) and Taunton (South West). Talks are still being held on a South East site and the London operation room is up and running.

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