WMN opinion: Fire services must be maintained in face of cuts
Consolidation, rationalisation, efficiency. After the last few years every businessman or woman in the South West will be more than familiar with pressures on cost – and consolidating either internal or external services has often been the solution.
Back-office efficiencies have no doubt helped many organisations ride out the recession. Now they will be emerging fitter and stronger as the economic cycle begins to show signs of improvement.
In the public sector, though, the hard times are far from over. The Government’s austerity drive continues, and yesterday it was the turn of Cornwall Council to again consider how
to continue providing fire
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services in the face of eye-watering cost cuts.
The council discussed a motion that proposed that if required savings in the fire budget went beyond £2.25m then the possibility of merging Cornwall Fire Service with Devon and Somerset should be explored.
For Cornwall, though, consolidation was definitely not an option. The council dismissed the motion and the fire service must now consider other savings options.
For years any mention of cross-border mergers for any one of a number of regional services in the Westcountry has seen hands raised in immediate horror. Concern is especially acute when merger talks involved any of the emergency services.
The value of local knowledge – particularly in remote rural areas – is immense.
Fire services have “form” when it comes to consolidation. Devon and Somerset itself came into operation in 2007 – a merger of Devon Fire and Rescue Service and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service.
Devon was the result of previous amalgamation in 1973 when Exeter City Brigade, Plymouth City Brigade and Devon County Brigade were united as one.
But in 2010, the Government’s plans to ‘regionalise’ fire control centres were scrapped after an estimated £500 million loss. The plans would have seen local emergency fire control rooms closed and replaced with one regional call centre.
And earlier this year Avon Fire and Rescue Authority considered and rejected a merger with Devon and Somerset.
The Fire Brigades Union warned yesterday that consolidation would threaten public safety.
“It would almost certainly lead to ... a loss of local knowledge when responding to fires, which can be the difference between life and death,” the FBU said.
Today’s technology, such as satellite navigation, has reduced some of the need for local call centres and direct knowledge so considering merger – inthe face
of such demanding cost expectations – was understandable. The important thing, for the vast majority of people, is that frontline services are maintained. Consolidation or merger is now firmly off the menu,
so the challenge for the fire service will be meeting its savings targets while maintaining local services.