Safeguarding our Fire Service

The risks of fire and its consequences are rightly in the news at the moment, as people come to terms with the fact many of the places where we live and work might not be as safe as we had once thought.

As we debate what actions can and must be taken, it is the continued existence of the brave men and women of the Fire Service, who endured the horrific conditions at Grenfell Tower, which enables us to retain some sense that if the worst happens we won’t be on our own.

While the country is happy to praise the Fire Service, the Government remains unwilling to pay them. The ongoing pay cap on public sector worker pay, as supported by Crawley’s MP at the most recent vote, leaves many of the best of us facing increasing financial hardship. That people are willing to put their lives at risk for ours is an incredible sacrifice, we shouldn’t force them to suffer for it.

It is not as though their conditions are great to start with. Cuts by local authorities leave fewer and fewer engines and crews available to do all the essential work we demand from them. In Crawley, we have suffered particularly harshly over recent years, losing one of our three engines and all of our retained firefighters. Across the county the picture is even more frightening, as drastic reductions in the capacity of West Sussex Fire and Rescue force us to depend increasingly upon teams from outside of the area, who are in turn undertaking similar cuts of their own.

The work which Tony Morris has put into monitoring the growing difficulties of our local dire service, drawing upon his considerable expertise, should be praised and yet the results point to a frightening increase in the likelihood that when you need of a fire engine in West Sussex one won’t be there to help (you can follow the campaign online at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468972996713053).

Fighting the cuts to West Sussex Fire and Rescue was probably the most significant and ongoing campaign I participated in during my four years on the county council. While I like to think that we stayed the local authority’s hand on further cuts for fear of the noise we would make, at most we managed to avoid an underfunded service sinking any further.

While WSCC’s finances certainly aren’t in a good way, not all of which can be blamed on central government, and consequently can’t be expected to fund everything at the level they once did, one issue did leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth. Crawley was promised a new fire station by West Sussex back when Henry Smith was the council’s leader, before they pulled the funding, and I wanted to find a way to deliver on the county council’s promise.

I put together a financial model for delivering a new fire station without increasing the strain upon WSCC’s resources. This involved Crawley Borough Council providing free land at a much better location, the existing sites being sold for development, money set aside for improving the existing station being redirected and ongoing savings from operating a more energy efficient building. It was costed, it would have helped to save lives and it would have improved conditions for firefighters, who could disagree with that? Anyway, to cut a long story short, the Tories voted it down and then claimed we tried to stop improvement works to the old fire station building. There’s the difference between people who want power to make things better and people who just want it for its own sake.

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