Site for new 999 centre revealed

A FORMER RAF base – more than 100 miles away from parts of Suffolk – has been earmarked as the site for East Anglia's new 999 fire control room, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal.

A FORMER RAF base – more than 100 miles away from parts of Suffolk – has been earmarked as the site for East Anglia's new 999 fire control room, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal.

The EADT understands RAF Chicksand, the former US airforce base near Shefford, in Bedfordshire, has been identified as the preferred location for the region's centralised control room, due to open in 2007.

The Ministry of Defence-owned site, which is now home to the British Intelligence Security Centre, is 111 miles from Lowestoft, 95 miles from Shotley and 82 miles away from Clacton.

Union officials say the proposal, if agreed, would hit Suffolk and Essex hardest, with the 60 control room staff in these counties unlikely to reapply for a job involving at least four hours of commuting per day.

Graham Noakes, regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said last night: "Not only are the numbers in the new control room going to be dangerously low, we are also going to lose a lot of experienced personnel.

"We have got 42 people employed in the Essex control room. There are about 24 in Suffolk. The logistics of it means they are automatically going to be excluded from applying for that job.

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"Suffolk and Essex will be the hardest hit. Obviously, if they wanted to apply for the job then they are looking at a two hour journey each way at least.

"For our purpose, it really makes no difference where it is because we are opposed to the whole concept. But because of the location of the site it will preclude existing members from applying for the job. There will be no experience to fall back on."

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 fire authorities covering Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Luton and Essex, Southend and Thurrock to provide one centralised emergency response centre.

As a result, there will be job losses at existing control rooms in the region.

The move has sparked widespread concern. Many fear a regional control room will lead to misunderstandings in pinpointing emergency locations because of a lack of local knowledge.

A similar style merger within the ambulance service with a Norwich-based headquarters led to months of confusion.

In one incident, an emergency crew was sent to Somersham in Cambridgeshire instead of Somersham near Ipswich by Norfolk-based ambulance staff unfamiliar with the area.

Peter Monk, Suffolk County Council's portfolio holder for public protection and Liberal Democrat candidate for Wilford, revealed that he had been told by a number of sources that RAF Chicksands had been outlined as a potential site for the new control room.

"They have looked at potential sites and I am told that's the preferred site," he said.

"I've heard it is the focal site because it would fulfil all of the requirements. Even if it's still operational from a military point of view, it still has a lot of the requirements in any case.

"The security and the infrastructure could all be there."

Mr Monk said he was still opposed to the idea of a regional control room, which he believes has not been thought out properly.

"There is dissatisfaction about the whole concept across the whole country let alone the east of England. We know we have an excellent fire service and we do all we possible can not to let anyone degrade that in anyway," he said.

"The major concern is losing the democratic control of our fire service. We all are all proud of the fire service and work together to provide the best service we can. We have had the responsibility of doing that and we say this is being taken away from us."

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said last night: "We are in the pre-election period. No decisions have been taken and that still remains the case.

"We do not know when the announcement is going to be made. Final negotiations are continuing.

"Obviously we are reaching the final stages of negotiations and are on schedule to make an announcement shortly."

Last night, Suffolk West Conservative parliamentary candidate Richard Spring said: "I went absolutely ballistic at the news.

"We are seeing more and more of the authority and support structures for the people of Suffolk being taken away by Government and regionalised.

"This adds nothing to the quality of the provision of services, it adds another level of expensive bureaucracy and gives people in Suffolk a sense that things which are important and familiar to them are disappearing like magistrates courts etc.

"This is a disgraceful decision."

Chris Mole, Labour parliamentary candidate for Ipswich, said: "I would want to see detailed proposals if this is going to go ahead.

"I would want to be reassured that the control team would be using the global information technology to ensure they get people to the right location and in every call as they do with the ambulance service.

"I would want to be reassured that we were getting a better service which is cheaper to the public if this is going to be proposed.

"The union are obviously sceptical about that but other call centre changes can improve public access."

Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat candidate for Colchester, claimed: "I think the way the Government has behaved is that they're putting financial interest before the consideration of safety. Bearing in mind the population of Essex is larger than some countries I can't see what advantage there is in centralisation. This is finance driven, not in the interests of safety of people."

Ivan Henderson, Labour candidate for Harwich, said he had not heard the news, but added: "From what I gather from speaking to John Prescott it's still under consultation. Nothing's been decided. Independent consultants are looking to make sure it's done in the safest and best manner possible."

He said: "I will make sure that whatever is put in place is as safe, if not safer, that what we have now."

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