Regional fire service plan backlash

THE East Anglian Daily Times today launches a vitally important campaign to safeguard the future of Suffolk Fire Service.Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott yesterday unveiled a blueprint for the future of the nation's fire service, including a clear intention to create regional fire authorities.

By Jonathan Barnes

THE East Anglian Daily Times today launches a vitally important campaign to safeguard the future of Suffolk Fire Service.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott yesterday unveiled a blueprint for the future of the nation's fire service, including a clear intention to create regional fire authorities.

In this area's case, it could potentially mean a fire service for the huge East of England area, including Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.


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Although such regional fire authorities would initially be created in areas with elected regional assemblies, the Government's agenda is clearly to regionalise this life-saving service throughout the country.

One likely change would see control rooms – currently based in each county to co-ordinate responses to emergencies – being centralised to a single command base.

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Last night, MPs and fire officials voiced concern about any such moves, claiming it would not benefit the county's people.

And launching the EADT's No to Regional Fire Service campaign, editor Terry Hunt said: "While there is much positive in Mr Prescott's plans to modernise the fire service, we believe passionately that any move towards regional fire-fighting is quite simply wrong and dangerous.

"Like all emergency services, efficient fire brigades should be run locally, by local people, for local people. Once any level of decision-making is removed from the local level, then, in this newspaper's view, it represents an extremely worrying step.

"In his White Paper, Mr Prescott talks about the creation of regional control rooms, where 999 calls would be taken. Where would calls from Suffolk be routed? It could be as far away as Luton!

"You only have to look at the difficulties which the ambulance service faced immediately after amalgamating to serve three counties.

"On one notorious occasion, an ambulance was sent to Somersham in Cambridgeshire instead of Somersham in Suffolk, where the emergency actually was. That was with only three counties - any regional fire service would be serving six counties."

The EADT is today asking readers to sign a petition form which will be sent to Mr Prescott, leaving him in no doubt as to the strength of feeling in this part of the world.

Outlining the White Paper, Mr Prescott revealed 6,000 jobs could be lost in the fire service over the next few years – although he said none of them would be compulsory.

He explained that working practices would be revamped and there will be big changes to the way the service operates to make it more efficient and prevent fires and arson attacks.

The White Paper, Our Fire and Rescue Service, revealed how fire authorities will be pressed to make "regional management arrangements" to deliver many services, with the Government using powers to make compulsory changes if the voluntary approach does not deliver.

But Richard Spring, the Conservative MP for West Suffolk, said: "This is completely unacceptable - I am bitterly opposed to the idea.

"Increasing local decisions are being made miles away from Suffolk and the people who they affect - they have no control or ownership of the things that are important to them.

"Our firefighters do an excellent, professional job and those whom I have spoken to dread the thought of regionalism."

Peter Monk, Suffolk County Council executive committee member with responsibility for fire service matters, said the authority would be "sceptical" of a regional approach.

"There seems to be an obsession with this and I don't think a regional fire service would necessarily work," he said.

"I don't think it would be of benefit to the people of Suffolk and we would be very wary of it. See what happens when you give roads to the Highways Agency – it isn't as good as when they are run by local authorities."

Mr Prescott said he hoped the White Paper would tackle the "shortcomings" revealed during the nine-month-long firefighters' pay row.

He said details of the planned changes would be sent to all 55,000 firefighters and added he hoped everyone would study carefully plans for the "fresh approach to a fresh future".

The White Paper is the Government's response to proposals in a review by Sir George Bain, made at the height of the firefighters' dispute last year.

Last night, the Fire Brigades Union refused to be drawn on how it will respond to the changes, saying it would not make a knee-jerk reaction.

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