Radio system could put lives at risk

EXCLUSIVEBy Danielle NuttallUNION leaders claimed last night the deteriorating state of Suffolk Fire Service's radio system could put lives at risk if the Government did not step in with extra funding.


By Danielle Nuttall

UNION leaders claimed last night the deteriorating state of Suffolk Fire Service's radio system could put lives at risk if the Government did not step in with extra funding.

The brigade's existing radio system is now due for replacement and has become increasingly unreliable in recent months, especially in poor weather.

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But with a plan going ahead for a regional fire control room to serve the whole of East Anglia by 2008, it is unlikely the Government will authorise the funding of a new system, costing millions of pounds.

This leaves Suffolk Fire Service with the burden of paying for repair work to the current system for the next four years, sparking concerns over funding and the safety of crews and the public.

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Vince Jell, Suffolk chairman of the Fire Brigades Union, said: "It's reaching the end of its life span, it's up for renewal. It's going to cost a small fortune to replace or keep patching it up until the new regional control room comes in.

"If you plan to patch it up, it will become more and more unreliable. It might break down, then the only communication available is mobile phone, which would certainly be a few steps back."

He added: "The crews use those radios for assistance messages. The health and safety of crews could be compromised. People's lives will be put at risk as well. It's a very worrying situation to be put into.

"We do have problems with the radio scheme at the moment, particularly in bad weather conditions, but it hasn't broken down completely yet."

Under a plan being imposed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, each of the nine European-style regions of England will have to set up its own control centre by 2007.

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, the portfolio holder for public protection, said the Government needed to realise extra funding was required to keep the radio system going over the next four years.

"If we are going to be the last control room to go ahead in 2008, then we have to actually maintain the radio network for those years," he added.

"The Government are saying we are going to have regional controls. They will have to provide us with the money to carry on going.

"The main thing is we are not going to let the people of Suffolk be under any threat. We will do what's necessary, but are not in a position to put a complete new scheme in.

"I'm sending out warning shots saying 'You might not want to spend this money, but you have got to'."

Mr Monk said the fire service did not have the funds at present to be able to continue "patching" up its radio system and needed financial assistance from the Government.

"It is not available, but once we put in for capital money they will say 'Why are you spending this for a short period of time?'

"One thing we're not going to let happen is let it fall apart, but our worry is we will be putting in money effectively for what could be the short term."

East Anglia is the penultimate region to get its new control room, with it not expected to be operational until the final quarter of 2008.

Mr Monk said that left Suffolk Fire Service with further difficulties in retaining staff. "We have got staff who effectively are going to be wondering whether they have a job if we have a regional centre," he added.

"Wherever it is, there is not going to be jobs for everybody, but in the build-up to that you have to retain your staff. No-one is going to hang around, it's going to have a negative impact on their job prospects.

"We are going to have to convince people to stay with us because we need them, but at the end of the day they might not have a job. Methinks that you might be in the meantime thinking it's better for me to go into something else now."

No-one was available last night for comment from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

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