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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Firefighters lash out over cuts

FIREFIGHTERS claim they would struggle to provide cover for Sellafield and West Cumbria if proposed cuts to their crews go ahead.

Cumbria County Council is planning to axe one of two fire engines at Whitehaven Fire Station, along with engines at Workington and Maryport, in an attempt to make savings of £500,000.

However, local firefighters say an incident on November 27, where there was temporary power loss on Sellafield site traced to a substation that feeds the Waste Vitrification Plant Line three (WVP L3), highlights the need to retain all crews.

Firefighters say that an engine was sent to help a Sellafield fire crew deal with the incident. Two retained fire crews were subsequently sent to cover at Sellafield fire station.

However, those two crews were then sent from the site as “there weren’t enough firefighters to cover West Cumbria”.

One firefighter, who did not want to be named, said: “We are struggling with the crews we have now. If the cuts go ahead, we will be able to cover Sellafield or West Cumbria, but not both.

“The incident at Sellafield shows just how short-staffed we are. Further cuts would be a disaster.’’

However, a spokesperson for Cumbria County Council dismissed the claims as “inaccurate” stating: “The decision to release the appliances back to their stations was made by the Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service senior officer on site, in consultation with Sellafield’s chief fire officer, purely on the basis of the requirements of that incident.”

Firefighters are furious at their treatment.

“At a recent meeting, management told us we had a moral obligation to ensure there were enough pumps available,’’ the local firefighter said. “This has angered us because we don’t have a moral obligation. It is the bosses and Cumbria county councillors who have a duty to provide adequate crews to cover any incident.

“The public are being told there is adequate cover. There isn’t, and people need to know it. Management doesn’t want the public to realise that they are terrified of the pumps going off the run.”

Figures show the chances of dying in an accidental house fire increase by 50 per cent during the festive season.

Firefighters say they are also unable to knock themselves off a rota. If they need to tell a manager they are sick or, in the case of retained firefighters called in to their full-time jobs, and they can’t get hold of the managers, then they remain on the rota. “This gives the false impression there is a full crew.” said the firefighter.

Local crews say they being pushed to breaking point by the lack of recruitment of part-time firefighters and the continual cutting of full-time crews.

Figures show the chances of dying in an accidental house fire increase by 50 per cent during the festive season due to an increased use of candles and festive lights, as well as people becoming more careless due to alcohol.

“We have been struggling with the crews we have,” a firefighter said. “We can’t take any more cuts.”

An example of this was last Christmas. On the night of December 21 around midnight, there was a domestic bin fire at a house at Keswick. Unable to fully man a fire-pump at Keswick, a crew was sent from Cockermouth. This took 20 minutes and in the meantime the house was ablaze.

“Luckily, no one was at home,’’ said the firefighter. “Otherwise, they would have been dead. It’s not that firefighters don’t respond – it is the time it takes us.

“Management may say we have a moral obligation, but if we entered a house, to save people, without waiting for back-up, we would be in trouble. If a firefighter was subsequently killed, a crew manager could face prosecution for not following procedure.

“It isn’t just about protecting our jobs. We are flying by the seat of our pants.”

Firefighters are subsequently calling on the public to sign a petition and lobby their county councillors.

”We accept savings have to be made, but the public need to realise this is a crisis,” said the firefighter.

A spokesperson for Cumbria County Council said: “Three CFRS fire appliances attended to support Sellafield’s own fire crews and remained on site until they were no longer required.

“The availability of the on-call fire engine at Keswick is good, they respond to incidents 98.8 per cent of the time. However, it is the nature of on-call crewing arrangements that there will be some periods when the engine will not be available, as was the case with this incident. On-call firefighters are contracted on either a ‘full cover’ or ‘limited cover’ basis, this requires them to be available for duty for at least 120 hours a week or between 30-119 hours respectively.

“Our expectation is that on-call firefighters honour these arrangements. The decision as to whether an engine is available or not is always made by a manager in light of all available information, hence firefighters cannot make themselves unavailable without authorisation from a manager.”

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