We must all stand together to protect our fire service in Suffolk, writes Matt Gaw

Fire crews tackle the major blaze in the centre of Sudbury

Fire crews tackle the major blaze in the centre of Sudbury - Credit: Archant

Obviously there was that fire in Sudbury where 100 firefighters prevented a major disaster and pulled people from burning buildings, writes Matt Gaw.

And yes, there were those horrible accidents, the house fires, the floods and the animal rescues... But really, what else do firefighters do all day? It must be an endless round of drinking tea, playing cards and breaking up the boredom with Cash in the Attic.

So, surely we can get rid of a few dozen and sell a fire station? We could even turn it into nice flats with character features. That would save a few quid.

Far-fetched? Most definitely, but I’m struggling to think of what other thought process could have led to proposals to hack £1.3million from Suffolk Fire and Rescue’s £22million budget by 2017/18 getting this far.

Because, if you hadn’t heard, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet last week agreed to begin public consultation over the plans that have been described as not so much as cutting to the bone, but slicing straight through it.

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The proposals would see up to 80 jobs lost, the replacement of one of two fire engines in Sudbury with a “rapid response vehicle” and removing one of the three fire engines at Bury St Edmunds. In addition, three of Ipswich’s six fire engines would be withdrawn and the fire station in Wrentham closed.

The controversial move has been justified by Matthew Hicks, cabinet member for environment and public protection, as being in line with “the risk profile across the county”. Meanwhile Suffolk’s chief fire officer Mark Hardingham has made much of the fact that the number of calls to the service has dropped.

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And, Mr Hardingham is right. Five years ago there were about 6,500 emergency calls, while in the last year that number has dropped to just under 4,800. So, case closed? Well, no.

First, such comments disguise the great deal of work our fire service has done to reduce emergencies, working with the community to encourage fire prevention. Second, they also fail to acknowledge that while emergency calls may have gone down, fire deaths, serious injury and fatalities in road accidents have not.

But perhaps the real point here is that the work of the fire service is not predictable, it doesn’t follow clear patterns and trends. It is for this reason that the Suffolk branch of the Fire Brigade Union have said they believe the cuts not only pose a danger to those places where a service will be removed, but also will create detrimental knock-on effects that will be felt by a whole county without vital cover.

Let’s also remember, that according to statistics from Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service’s own integrated risk management plan (IRMP), the service is already failing key speed of response targets. The target of a first fire engine attending a property fire within 11 minutes on 80% occasions in 2014/15? Failed (64.81%). The target of first fire engine attending a road traffic collision within 13 minutes on 80% of occasions? Failed (77.85%). It’s hard to see either Mr Hicks or Mr Hardingham expect response times to improve with fewer staff and engines. Still not convinced? Let’s look at the finances. Could it be that the cut backs, whatever the safety implications, are necessary or, at the very least, fair?

I would argue not. First of all Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is already the cheapest per person in the country. Of course, Suffolk is not densely populated (or at least not yet – surely impending population growth is another argument against cuts) but it is one of the largest geographical counties in the UK. The challenge of providing a life-saving service to 750,000 people spread around the county with 47 fire engines is large – with just 40 engines it could well be insurmountable.

Perhaps the thing that really is frustrating is how easy it would be to resolve this situation. If just £1.80 per person per year was added to council tax Suffolk’s fire service could be maintained at its current level. To be honest, I think many would be prepared to pay this per week.

I, perhaps like many people, have never called the fire service and I hope I never will. But I know I want them to be there and what’s more I want them to be capable and confident of responding effectively and safely. Taking part in this consultation and letting your MP and councillor know your views is not just about saving jobs. It’s about saving lives.

People can take part in the consultation through Suffolk County Council’s website

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