You are so wrong Minister

THE office of the Deputy Prime Minister last nightdismissed fears that a new regional fire control room for the East of England will endanger lives, and claimed that local knowledge plays "a very minor role" in dealing with emergencies.

THE office of the Deputy Prime Minister last nightdismissed fears that a new regional fire control room for the East of England will endanger lives, and claimed that local knowledge plays "a very minor role" in dealing with emergencies.

The comments came in response to a specialist fire service controller, who has joined many of the region's leading politicians who have condemned Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's plans to have a replacement for county response units up and running by 2007.

The centre would spell the end for control rooms in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, although ministers have said independent county brigades will continue until a referendum gives the go-head for elected regional councils, which would then assume control for fire and rescue services.

Writing anonymously, but providing the East Anglian Daily Times with his name and job title, the controller says: "At least one county control becomes overloaded with emergency calls on a regular basis due to the volume of calls received from mobile telephones for relatively minor but high visibility incidents, such as car, grass, field and rubbish fires.

"This means callers who may be trapped in a life threatening situation, such as a house fire or road accident, may end up waiting 10-15 mins to get through. Sometimes, they are passed to the police, ambulance or a neighbouring fire service, or indeed any fire service which is able to accept the call. We have had calls passed to Lancashire.

"We have four operators trying to handle this volume of calls - imagine this multiplied by six, but probably with only twice the number of operators available to answer calls.

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"Control staff in county control rooms have a wealth of local knowledge that assists with identifying where callers are. If you have a fire or accident and need the fire service in future you need to know the road name, the town or village, and the county you are in.

"If you are on a major road you will need to know your exact location - ie between what junctions, in which direction the incident is, nearest town and what county. It will no longer be good enough to say, near the post office. Attendance times will inevitably become longer especially where the address is not clear."

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: "Local knowledge plays a very minor role in the operation of modern fire and rescue service and it is totally misleading to suggest otherwise.

"Control room staff cannot be expected to know every locality within a county and they depend on modern technology to ensure effective location and guidance."

The new control rooms would be equipped with advance direction finding technology, including caller line identification, the ability instantly to trace mobile phone calls, and the location of vehicles.

He added: "Regional control rooms will have an increased level of resilience through a networked approach. A major incident such as nuclear, biological or chemical would need a regional response, not a local one.

"Should one of the control rooms be knocked out, the new system being put in place will ensure calls to be transferred - it's a fallback situation which would mean enable a co-ordinated response."

"Our proposals, will not result in a diminution of response, but will actually improve the ability of the fire and rescue service to deal with emergencies. To suggest otherwise is scaremongering."

The controller continues: "Working in a fire control room, I know for a fact that most callers still think they are talking to the local fire station, when in fact they are speaking to a central control room for the county they are in."

"Part of Mr Prescott's argument for regionalising control rooms is the 'new dimension' terrorist threat with regions able to co-operate more effectively from one control room.

"That is wrong," he declares. "In the South East corner of England including London, there will only be three control rooms. These will cover London as one control, Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge and Bedfordshire in another, and Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Surrey, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

"Imagine 9/11 at Canary Wharf, with London Fire Authority also located in Docklands. Or a biological, radioactive or nuclear bomb in London and suicide bombs at each of the control rooms covering the South, South East, East and part of the Midlands. Who is going to organise the response in London?"

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