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Should reduced fire crews be sent to major blazes?

Mark Hardingham has defended the changes to on-call crewing in Suffolk. Picture: NICK BUTCHER

Mark Hardingham has defended the changes to on-call crewing in Suffolk. Picture: NICK BUTCHER

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Cut-back crews could mean firefighters tackling the largest blazes are sometimes faced with a "difficult choice to make", Suffolk's chief fire officer has admitted ahead of a protest.

Mark Hardingham from Suffolk Fire and Rescue   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNMark Hardingham from Suffolk Fire and Rescue Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

However, Mark Hardingham believes the number of times that will happen will be very rare - and argued the controversial decision to cut on-call crews from four people to three improves Suffolk's firefighting capability overall.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue has sent reduced crews of three firefighters to lower risk incidents for the past 15 years to help save resource for the biggest incidents.

But with fire services across the country continuing to be short of part-time, on-call firefighters, who manage their duties alongside other jobs, Suffolk Fire and Rescue is now proposing to send reduced crews to all incidents.

The move would only affect on-call crews and not full-time firefighters.

The changes have divided opinion in Suffolk. Picture: NICK BUTCHERThe changes have divided opinion in Suffolk. Picture: NICK BUTCHER

But it has sparked fury from the Fire Brigades Union, which says it potentially endangers lives of both the public and firefighters if smaller crews are left to tackle fires potentially out of their control.

It is one of the reasons FBU members are staging a protest outside Suffolk County Council's Endeavour House headquarters in Ipswich on Thursday, September 12, which will be attended by FBU general secretary Matt Wrack.

Mr Hardingham conceded that there "will be occasions when a reduced crew will turn up and have a difficult incident and the incident commander will be faced with a difficult choice to make".

But he said statistics analysed by the fire service showed those would be very few and far between.

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For instance he said: "You don't get fully developed house fires very often.

"We do get those, but often a house fire that gets reported is of a much more minor nature and can be dealt with by a crew of three."

Previously on-call stations without enough firefighters would not have been sent to the scene of bigger fires at all.

That would mean a full-time fire crew would be sent from further away - taking longer for any firefighters to get there at all, Mr Hardingham said.

But if on-call crew numbers are reduced, overall availability will be greater - meaning they will be able to attend in the period between the outbreak of the blaze and full-time firefighters arriving.

"There is an awful lot you can do to make that area safer," Mr Hardingham said.

"We could do a search around the building or start firefighting through a window.

"Would the public expect me not to send them or would they rather I sent them and there are things they can do to make it safer?"

Although he admitted that some people would disagree with the approach, he said: "The majority of on-call firefighters want to do this because they want to respond."

The new system has been trialled in Suffolk over previous months and has helped improve availability of on-call stations, he added.

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