Fire services face control room crisis

FIRE authorities in East Anglia face a bill of at least £1million under controversial proposals to set up a regional fire control room, it was revealed last night.

By Danielle Nuttall

FIRE authorities in East Anglia face a bill of at least £1million under controversial proposals to set up a regional fire control room, it was revealed last night.

Up to 50% of the 166 staff currently working in fire control rooms across the region will lose their jobs under proposals to introduce a centralised system in 2008, it has been claimed, leaving county councils to foot the bill.

The East Anglian Daily Times understands redundancy packages being put forward by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) will amount to a total of £332,000 in the eastern region.

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The ODPM is also believed to be proposing financial incentives in order to encourage some staff to stay on until the changeover takes place, including a bonus payment of up to £2,000 per employee and more than £130,000 for staff wanting to go into further education.

The extra costs – which fire authority bosses fear could run into millions of pounds across the region - come weeks after it emerged Suffolk Fire Service has to fund repairs to its present radio system, which is already out of date, until the new centre is built.

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The Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) claims the burden of funding will fall on the council taxpayer as fire authorities grapple with tight budgets to meet the costs of implementing the scheme.

It also claims there will be a mass exodus of present staff who will want to jump ship to securer employment and this could potentially result in the "collapse" of the service.

Graham Noakes, regional secretary of the FBU, said: "Our concerns are growing rather than diminishing. The latest information coming out of the ODPM is that it's going to be more costly than they first imagined. Even in the long term it's not clear as to whether there will be any financial savings at all.

"More dangerously in the short term it's actually going to be an increase in the running of the current fire service control rooms so fire authorities will have to increase budgets to run the existing rooms until the change over date.

"If you use the ODPM model there will only be 80 staff in the new one so 50% will go at least. All of the control rooms have a staffing problem at the moment with understaffing, lack of staffing to cover maternity leave, sickness leave and even to provide the correct level of training for existing staff.

"Once the announcement is made in March where the new site will be, people will jump ship and look for alternative employment and perhaps take redundancy. The problem for the fire service is they will not be able to fill the control rooms they have now in the interim period."

He added: "This is going to cost the taxpayers more money for a worse service. If there is an impact on the ability to run the service that will impact on people lives and put people's lives at risk."

Under the plan being imposed by the ODPM, each of the nine European-style regions of England will have to set up its own control centre by 2007, with East Anglia receiving theirs in the final quarter of 2008.

In the East of England, the three county brigades of Norfolk, Suffolk and Hertfordshire will join with the fire authorities covering Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Luton and Essex, Southend and Thurrock – to provide one centralised emergency response centre.

Suffolk county councillor Peter Monk, portfolio holder for public protection, said: "We are potentially talking about it costing millions of pounds. I want commitment from Government they will give that funding to Suffolk.

"It would be £500,000 in packages just for people going [across the region]. Then there's retention, pensions and packages for people training under employment.

"Basically, for something we are not necessarily keen on doing we are actually going to pay for it and it could be a very expensive experiment.

He added: "I don't have a lot of confidence in this system coming on service. The Government has had a pretty bad record with its computer systems in the past. We have got to keep maintaining the service to the public right up to the take over."

"Our aim is obviously to protect the people of Suffolk and to secondly make sure that our staff are treated fairly. We are being treated like children. The interim should be 100% funded by the Government."

Fire and rescue service minister Nick Raynsford said: "The new regional control centres are being designed to overcome shortcomings in the current system.

"The Government would not support any proposals that could lead to a worse fire and rescue service. This programme will do the opposite and provide a better and more efficient service. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible."

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