Tensions ran high at a public meeting in Melton to discuss proposed cuts to Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service.
Concerned residents turned out in force at Melton Fire Station on Friday night to hear about the planned cuts, which include replacing one of Melton’s traditional fire engines with a smaller tactical response vehicle (TRV).
Chief fire and rescue officer Richard Chandler, who gave a presentation on the proposals, was grilled by residents and other attendees who stayed until nearly 11pm to get answers to their questions.
Several residents wanted to know why a referendum hadn’t been held after 87 per cent people who responded to a consultation last year said they’d be prepared to pay more council tax to support the fire service and help make up the budgetary shortfall, with over 82 per cent saying they’d be happy to pay £10.
But Mr Chandler said: “We fed all the information back to the Combined Fire Authority. The authority made a political decision last year that it was too high a risk to go through the referendum process. It would have cost £1m and, if the referendum had been lost, it would have cost another £1m. That’s £2m we couldn’t afford.”
Residents also wanted to know what other money-saving alternatives are being looked at, such as the sale of Central and Kibworth stations and the service’s Birstall headquarters and whether their sale could prevent the current cost-cutting proposals.
Mr Chandler said: “Selling Central and Kibworth will reduce our borrowing but it isn’t going to take the problem away. At best, we’d probably make between £200,000 and £300,000 by selling the HQ but we’re not allowed to take capital money and use it for revenue. We’re currently looking at what the Secretary of State would agree to but, at the moment, we haven’t had any answers.”
Mr Chandler outlined the financial challenges facing the service, explaining that in 2013/14 it received £11.8m from the Government to run the service (revenue support grant) but that it was projected by 2019/20 this grant funding would shrink to £2.4m. He added: “This is probably the best case scenario. By 2019/20 it’s more likely we’ll receive no revenue support grant. It means what we currently have today we can’t afford tomorrow.”
Mr Chandler told the meeting that the proposals currently being consulted upon would save the service about £1.5m a year - in Melton’s case alone saving about £100,000.
One person asked if Section 106 money - provided by developers towards local services and facilities - was being utilised by the fire service.
Mr Chandler replied: “We have to put hydrants in these areas. At the moment it probably costs more to install these than what we get from 106 monies so we’d probably lose money if we forced this policy through.”
The proposed replacement of Melton’s conventional on-call fire engine (minimum crew of four) with a smaller tactical response vehicle (TRV), crewed by two firefighters, was a huge concern raised by people at the meeting.
The changes would leave Melton with just one traditional fire engine and a TRV.
They were told the TRVs would not be ‘sent in isolation’ to a major incident such as a house, school or factory fire in Melton nor be sent to a fire that ‘involved a life risk’.
One concerned woman, who lives in Waltham, said: “Nothing I’ve heard tonight gives me any confidence. If I had a fire at my house where would a second fire engine come from if we only have one in Melton and how long would it take?”
Mr Chandler said he couldn’t give her a guarantee to which she replied: “I had a bit more of a guarantee when I had two engines here at Melton. I’m very concerned where this second engine would come to me from.”
Mr Chandler said: “The TRV is not designed to go to the same type of incident as a larger fire engine. It is designed for smaller incidents, such as smaller secondary fires.
“The TRVs do have a reduced water pumping capability but they will be fully equipped, have a water capacity of between 150 and 200 litres, with foam capacity, and are dedicated four-wheel drive. Our current fire engines don’t have the off-road capability these vehicles have.
“If the TRV attends an incident which it hasn’t got the ability to deal with it will call for back up. If it attends a fire alarm and it turns out to be a bigger incident we’ll get a traditional fire engine to attend. Melton will always have one traditional fire engine available.”
But another concerned resident said: “Melton is the most isolated fire station in the county yet it has one of the biggest areas to cover. The next nearest station is Oakham, which has one fire engine, and is about 11 miles away, about 20 minutes by road. But if you’re driving from Oakham to Melton on a January night it will take you the best part of an hour, not 20 minutes.”
And another added: “How is the TRV going to cover the vast area Melton covers? You’re cutting the number of staff working out of this station so that is reducing the level of cover.”
Mr Chandler said despite Leicestershire growing as a county, calls received by the fire service were still coming down, with the amount of fire engines being used and number of incidents needing a large number of engines also reducing.
The meeting was told that over the last five years Melton Fire Station had received an average of 311 calls per year, about 40 per cent of which were false alarms, with just over 20 per cent of calls to ‘primary fires’ - such as house and factory fires and car fires. Just under 20 percent of calls were to ‘secondary fires’ - such as bin or grass fires - 13 per cent to calls classed as ‘special service road traffic collisions’ and 11 per cent of calls to other rescue incidents.
Fire service data (over the last five years) shows that one fully equipped fire engine responded to 65 per cent of incidents, with two engines responding to just under a third of calls.
The fire service claims there will be ‘no impact on the operational response capability’ if Melton’s on-call fire engine is replaced with a TRV.
Mr Chandler said: “If we implement these proposals we will still be able to respond to every emergency incident that occurs. We’re completely satisfied the safety of our communities and firefighters will not be compromised in any way.”
But addressing members of the public at the end of the meeting Anthony Smith, assistant secretary of the Leicestershire Fire Brigades Union, said: “We have big concerns about these TRVs and the levels of service the public will get. A fire engine has a minimum of four crew and carries a lot of equipment. A TRV carries only two firefighters and a lot less equipment. The difference could be a casualty living or dying.
“We’re also concerned these proposals will increase the risk of harm to members of the public and to firefighters.”
The 10-week consultation on the fire service’s cost-cutting proposals ends on December 4. To have your say visit www.leicestershire-fire.gov.uk/irmp
For more details about the consultation you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (0116) 2872241.