Fire chiefs count cost after heatwave
SUFFOLK Fire Service has warned it faces a “huge hole” in its budget following one of its busiest months ever.During July, call-outs to crop and field fires in the county rose by 425%, forcing fire chiefs to consider cutting other areas of the service in order to meet the steep cost.
By Danielle Nuttall
SUFFOLK Fire Service has warned it faces a “huge hole” in its budget following one of its busiest months ever.
During July, call-outs to crop and field fires in the county rose by 425%, forcing fire chiefs to consider cutting other areas of the service in order to meet the steep cost.
Crews attended no fewer than 352 heat-related grass and crop fires in Suffolk last month, compared to just 67 in July 2005.
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With Mediterranean temperatures expected to continue throughout August, the final cost of this year's summer heatwave is likely to run into tens of thousands of pounds.
Assistant Chief Fire Officer Gary Phillips said: “We are estimating a huge cost rise for our staffing and resources over July. This will knock a huge hole in our budget.
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“If you have seen a 425% increase in activity, you can expect to match that in terms of the budget requirement. It's going to be very costly to the service.
“We run a very good community safety campaign but we will have to re-prioritise some of the other spending we have and look long-term over the whole year to support the level of funding for firefighters.”
Part of the extra cost is down to the use of retained firefighters, who hold other jobs in addition to their fire service responsibilities and are paid an extra fee for every time they are called out to an incident.
“When they arrive at an incident, they lose time from work and we have to pay them an allowance,” Mr Phillips said.
“A typical retained station team goes out 40 times a month and now they are going out 140 times so that's five people coming in an extra 100 times. You start to realise how much extra wages you have to pay people.”
But Mr Phillips added that the service would not have been able to cope without the support of those retained firefighters and the dedication of full-time crews and control staff.
“Our retained crews have suffered severe battery because they have been out and about on the fire ground all day and night and have to run another job as well,” he said.
“They have been working extremely long hours and we are having to rotate the crews so we can ease the burden. Without that support, we would have faced severe problems. They have been brilliant.
“Our control room crew have been taking anything up to 300 calls a day. That is also very demanding. There have not been any mistakes at all. The professionalism they have shown has been absolutely superb.”
Cllr Joanna Spicer, Suffolk County Council's portfolio holder for public protection, said it had contingency funds in the event of an overspend in the operational fire service budget.
“But I am confident we will manage the budget over the year,” she added.
“We don't think about the money when we go out to fight fires. Our first concern is saving lives and saving property.
“July has undoubtedly been a very busy month for us, but we do expect that things will balance out over the course of the year.
“I would like to take this opportunity to praise all our firefighters for their hard work in keeping Suffolk safe and to thank those employers who have released people as retained firefighters. Their help and support is vital for our operations.”
During the past two weeks, Suffolk Fire Service has had to deal with a number of serious road collisions on the A14 as well as three incidents involving gas cylinders, which has left it even further stretched.