Warning over regional fire control room

EXCLUSIVEBy Roddy AshworthA NEW regional fire control centre could be manned almost entirely by inexperienced staff, a leading operator has warned.


By Roddy Ashworth

A NEW regional fire control centre could be manned almost entirely by inexperienced staff, a leading operator has warned.

Shelley Blewett, who represents East Anglian control room staff for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said only "one or two" current service employees were prepared to transfer to the new centre, planned for Cambridge.

She warned the lack of experience at the centralised control room could cost lives when it begins operating in 2009.

Ms Blewett made her comments after FBU leaders in Essex said their members were prepared to strike rather than see county fire control rooms close.

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The Government has proposed spending more than £1billion nationwide establishing eight fire control centres outside London, while closing 46 county control rooms.

The Cambridge control centre would take calls from Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

But MPs and unions have warned the policy could make Britain's fire service less effective and more expensive, while leading to greater loss of life.

Ms Blewett, a fire control operator based in Brentwood, said she was convinced lives would be lost if the new proposals were adopted.

"Even if they put it in my back garden, there is no way I would work in a regional control centre. I couldn't do it knowing it would cost lives. It would be so difficult to mobilise crews over such a huge great area without local knowledge," she said.

"For example, in Essex there are two Heybridges - one near Maldon and one near Ingatestone - and there are five Debdens. You have to know these things.

"People calling into control rooms sometimes don't know where they are. They might have had a crash in a country lane. We have to work out their location from landmarks or even landscapes.

"We are told there will be new-fangled technology which can direct crews from a postcode - but what use is that in the middle of the countryside?

"Calls are rising every year. It's nothing to get 60 calls for a car fire on the A12 now because everybody has a mobile phone.

"We are told that if one regional control centre is busy, a call will be knocked onto another. That means someone in Essex could be answered by an operator in Newcastle or Devon."

Ms Blewett, who represents control staff throughout East Anglia, said the vast majority of employees had said they would not apply for positions at the regional centre.

"It is literally one or two. Our job is very technical and difficult to learn, and it takes years of experience. The Government seems to think it can run it like a call centre. It is ridiculous. People are going to die. You can't take chances with fire - it waits for no-one," she said.

Keith Flynn, secretary of Essex Fire Brigades Union, said firefighters would avoid strike action, but ultimately would be prepared to walk out if the proposals were forced through.

"Strikes are a long way away. We are hoping we can deal with it before that. We are going to have a long campaign with the membership and with the public," he said.

"However, we cannot rule industrial action out. We believe these plans would result in an increased delay in answering calls and mobilising firefighters. There needs to be a complete review."

Fire Service minister Jim Fitzpatrick, who is a former firefighter, said there was a "compelling need" to modernise and rationalise the control rooms in England.

"The centres will use the latest proven technology, which will not only enable firefighters to respond more quickly to incidents, but improve their safety by providing accurate information before they reach the scene," he added.


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