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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

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Firefighters fear lives may be lost as crews shrink

FIREFIGHTERS fear that a drop in crew numbers could lead to deaths.

CEADBUCKLE
safety: Assistant Chief Fire Officer Adrian Buckle

Last week’s Birley Court fire in Whitehaven has highlighted the dangers of employing only four firefighters on a shift (it used to be six), a fire officer has claimed.

He said it was “fortunate’’ the flat, which was on fire last Wednesday night, was empty because with just four crew members, the numbers would have been “inadequate to do everything quickly, and efficiently at a fire of this scale”.

The fire officer described how the engine was forced to pull up on the nearest road, Duke Street, 200 metres away, as the arches leading to the flat were too small to allow the engine to park any nearer the blazing flat.

The four-man crew, which includes a driver and officer in charge, left just two firefighters wearing breathing apparatus to extend the hose reel and drag it towards the building to tackle the fire. They also had to drag a “covering and safety jet” which was also required to be laid out.

“This all takes time and physical effort, and fire and smoke do not make any allowances when it starts,’’ the fire officer said. “The crew and additional crews work under difficult conditions and always perform above and beyond their capabilities.”

Two additional engines were sent from Workington and Egremont, however, time and distance, the officer explained was a “critical” issue. Retained appliances are also ‘off call’ on regular occasions, especially during weekends and holidays.

Three engines are required to attend for a house fire but “vital’’ minutes are lost by the need to rely on crews travelling up to 15 minutes, in the case of the Workington engine. Statistics show a fire doubles in size every minute.

“The Fire Service in Cumbria is being cut back and run on a shoestring,’’ the officer said. “Crews are now constantly operating with four per appliance, with back-up crews travelling from miles away. How many times can it be relied on four members doing the job of five? How long before someone is seriously hurt or dies because of the lapse in times?”

Cumbria’s assistant chief fire officer, Adrian Buckle, said: “Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service introduced four-person crewing in 2011 as part of a range of organisational changes.

“A minimum staffing level of four riders is long established as being a safe system of work, and CFRS ‘on-call’ appliances were historically safely deployed with four firefighters prior to this implementation on a significant number of occasions.

“The service continues to provide a suitable response to incidents and currently there is no evidence to suggest that four-person crewing increases the risk to firefighters or members of the public.

“We consider the safety of our firefighters to be of paramount importance and as such provide extensive training to ensure that they can undertake appropriate actions.”

Cumbria’s Fire and Rescue Service has called for the public to be “more careful than ever” ahead of upcoming strike action.

Firefighters across the county have voted in favour of industrial action in a dispute with the Government over plans to increase the age of retirement to 60. It is not yet known when the strikes will take place but Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service insists it has contingency plans in place in order to maintain its capability during the action.

A spokesman said: “We’re ready for strikes being called and are continuing to prepare the appropriate measures.

“While Cumbria County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service will maintain a response capability during strikes, it will not be our usual comprehensive service so members of the public need to be more careful than ever to minimise the risks of fire and to help us make the best possible use of our resources by avoiding any unnecessary 999 calls.

“When the timing of industrial action becomes clearer, public safety messages with information about how to reduce the risk of fires and the type of fire and rescue service response the people of Cumbria can expect during strikes will be issued.”

Les Skarratts, secretary of the Cumbria branch of the Fire Brigades’ Union, said firefighters had to vote in favour of the action to “protect their pensions from a Government that seems determined to have conflict rather than negotiations”.

Have your say

"The service continues to provide a suitable response to incidents and currently there is no evidence to suggest that four-person crewing increases the risk to firefighters or members of the public."

The people that tell you this were once Fire Fighters themselves and I can pretty much guarantee that they rode fire appliances as part of a 5 person crew and know how crucial that crew is. The early stages of a fire are key to it's safe extinguishment, and obviously early intervention is crucial for rescues. It is a very busy, very hectic and very demanding period and 5 people will work so much more efficiently than 4. Each of those 5 people have specific tasks and roles and to try and state 4 will suffice is just untrue.

Why wait until we DO have evidence that 4 person crews are unsafe? Who's safety and property is this gamble staked upon?

For the record, Retained (part time) crews do regularly turn out with four person crews - but this is because their crews have other commitments such as their regular employment. It certainly ISN'T an ideal state of affairs and Fire Fighters are encouraged to maintain a crew of 5 or even 6. They definitely do NOT plan for crews of 4, they simply get by when they cannot provide crews of 5 or 6.

Posted by Robin on 16 September 2013 at 13:57

Well that's just dandy then, until the scenario comes along where 4 personnel are insufficient to tackle a blaze and carry out search & rescue operations. The idea of a couple of 59 years old firefighters (no matter how fit) in full Self Contained Breathing Apparatus effecting a rescue on an unconscious 20 stones person will no doubt be a sight to behold. If the other 2 FF guys are fighting the fire then who is on the BA tally board? Ah wait a minute or several, no rescue will be attempted until back-up appliances arrive. That's OK then. Come come Chief Fire Officer and Assistants stop spouting the management line that 4 men crews are fine, would you feel so comfortable if it was your property and family at risk? By the way why wait until Industrial Action is imminent before giving advice to Joe Public on how to reduce or avoid the dangers of Fire in the first place? Just floating some thoughts.

Posted by Victor Meldrew (The 1st) on 16 September 2013 at 11:29

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