FBU threat over regional control

THE leader of the Fire Brigades Union has claimed merging East Anglia's six fire control rooms into one regional centre would compromise public safety.

By Roddy Ashworth

THE leader of the Fire Brigades Union has claimed merging East Anglia's six fire control rooms into one regional centre would compromise public safety.

Andy Gilchrist added he would not rule out the possibility of strike action if the Government pressed ahead with its plan to combine the region's existing control rooms into one centre.

Mr Gilchrist was speaking after he addressed a meeting of control room staff and officials at the union's offices in Witham yesterday.

At the moment there are county emergency fire control rooms in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

But last year Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott unveiled a white paper designed to revolutionise the way the fire service works, including a proposal to merge emergency control rooms into regional centres – which the East Anglian Daily Times has been campaigning against.

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Mr Gilchrist was adamant any mergers would be resisted by the union and added: "This is absolutely unnecessary and irresponsible. I believe this will badly affect the safety of firefighters and the public of East Anglia.

"These proposals won't save a single life in Essex. This is being done as part of the dying embers of the Government's passion for regional government."

Asked whether the union would consider striking over the issue, Mr Gilchrist said: "We cannot rule it out. But with public support, we believe we can stop this."

Mr Gilchrist said he did not believe substantial savings would be made by merging control rooms and added there was also the prospect of redundancies among staff.

"If you merge all the region's control rooms into one, some people are going to lose their jobs. There is a direct threat to people's employment," he warned.

Shelley Blewett, an Essex fire service emergency control room operator for 18 years, said she thought the plan for one regional centre was "ludicrous".

She added: "Public safety is our biggest fear. I know the county of Essex, so it doesn't take long to deal with a fire call because I can usually recognise the address.

"But you can't learn six counties – we would be taking names of places we have never heard of. How can you turn out fire engines to places you have never heard of?"

A spokeswoman from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the setting up of regional fire control centres would create a better, more efficient fire and rescue service that saved more lives.

"It is a key modernisation project to equip the control service in England with the most up-to-date equipment," she added.

"It will enable control service operators instantly to identify where a caller is located, including those using mobile phones, and to mobilise direct to appliances, thus reducing the time it takes to get to a fire and save lives.

"Additionally, the new control centres will deliver efficiency savings through the use of improved technology and streamlined processes.

"The money will be ploughed back into the fire and rescue service to fund fire prevention work, which will save more lives."

The spokeswoman said the new centres were expected to achieve a cost saving of about 30% on current control room running costs.

"We have made no secret of the fact that fewer staff will be needed to staff control centres," she added.

"However, we are putting a strong emphasis on the retention of staff who provide a valuable contribution to the fire and rescue service, even if their future roles may not be traditional control room ones."