Fire crews in Oxfordshire are fighting proposals to reduce manpower from five to three members per crew, a move they say will endanger both emergency personnel and the public.
Jimmy Harris of the Oxfordshire FBU said: “Oxfordshire Fire Brigades Union is disappointed Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service is proposing this unnecessary stance of reducing crews from five to three firefighters.
“Rather than the service rectifying the core issue of improving recruitment and retention of on-call firefighters, it is proposing to lower the standard of emergency response we provide our communities. We believe this will put lives at risk.
“All our training and safe working practices are based around crews of five or four as an absolute minimum. With a crew of three, firefighters won’t be able to effectively apply those safe systems of work and make rescues, which will have dire consequences to members of the public and firefighters.
“The moral pressure of the initial crew arriving to an incident with just three firefighters to act in a dynamic and emotionally charged atmosphere will lead to rash and unsafe decision making.
“Oxfordshire FBU is not prepared to risk the safety of its firefighters and its communities by agreeing policies that demand they work to lower safety standards than that of their colleagues in neighbouring fire services.
“In addition, we refuse to accept residents of Oxfordshire should be subject to a postcode lottery when it comes to the number of firefighters initially attending incidents when they dial 999.
“The reasoning given by management that other services do it, is not good enough.
“In fact, only one brigade in our region of nine other services carry out this dangerous procedure and it’s very limited nationwide because of serious safety concerns.
“Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service and the county council should be focusing on recruiting more firefighters and having sufficient resources available to provide a proper service, rather than making changes to crewing, that will essentially put lives at risk.
“We have seen cut after cut in the UK Fire Service and with the recent rise in fire related deaths, introducing crews of just three firefighters is ill-considered and needs to be stopped before it becomes the norm.
“We have continually stressed our safety concerns to Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service and we welcome its latest stance to postpone the trial.
“Hopefully now further discussions can go ahead to explore how we can work together to improve the retention of the on-call system rather than reducing crewing levels.
“If these dangerous proposals go ahead and go to public consultation we urge communities to voice their concerns and demand a fire service that is fit for purpose.”
In response Rob MacDougall, deputy chief fire officer, Oxfordshire County Council Fire and Rescue Service said: “Oxfordshire County Council Fire and Rescue Service has been exploring how we use our firefighters to respond to emergency calls.
“The service is considering whether to run a trial around the use of an initial limited response model in areas supported by on-call fire stations.
“This could enable us to send the nearest and quickest fire engine to an emergency call with a minimum of three firefighters backed up by an additional crew. Currently we would only send a crew with a minimum of four firefighters.
“Other fire and rescue services around the country are already sending fire engines with three firefighters and have been doing it safely for a number of years.
“Our aim is to provide a minimum of four firefighters on all our fire engines, but there are occasions where this is not achievable, and we believe the initial deployment of three firefighters, supported by further fire engines, could have a significant impact on the successful outcome of an emergency.
“This would have an additional cost as we would be deploying additional firefighters and fire engines and is part of the consideration as to whether to go to trial.
“We have been discussing potential options with our firefighters and will now enter a period of formal consultation with the Fire Brigades Union to assess whether, in certain circumstances, we can safely deploy crews of three firefighters.
“The expectations of what an initial limited response crew will do are different to what we would expect from a larger crew, but they would provide immediate support and be able to improve the safety of the public who have called 999.
“Our aim is to provide the quickest support to those most in need, whilst keeping our firefighters safe.
“ The consultation will make sure we understand the views of all those potentially affected and whether we want to initiate a trial of the initial limited response mode.”
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The attempt to reduce the fire crew numbers comes just weeks after the service was ranked one of the best in the country.
However, it is not the only county fire service to come under threat.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “Across the country, underfunded fire and rescue services are resorting to unsafe crewing levels to cut costs, after the slashing of a fifth of firefighter jobs since 2010.
“Five is the safe minimum number of firefighters required on an engine. A smaller number cannot safely tackle a fire, crew an engine, and rescue those inside.
“Many brigades are falsely claiming that, because similar cuts have been implemented elsewhere, crewing a fire engine with three firefighters is acceptable and safe.
“That is simply not the case.
“Three-person crews endanger the safety of firefighters and the safety of the communities they serve.”
In February the FBU published a report on proposed government cuts of 15 per cent over the next 12 months .
It read: “The cuts are packaged up in the annual Local Government Finance Settlement, receiving virtually no scrutiny from parliament, prompting accusations the government is trying to ‘sneak through’ further austerity measures unnoticed
“The latest settlement was announced by James Brokenshire, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, on January 29.”
The report went on to highlight central government funding for the fire and rescue service will fall by £155 million in 2019/2020, representing a 15 per cent cut from 2016/17 to 2019/20.