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December 17, 2008

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More savings won’t risk fire-fighters’ safety, watchdog claims

The fire and rescue service in England could save as much as £200m a year without threatening the safety of fire-fighters or the public.

This is the conclusion reached by the Audit Commission, which today published its report examining the service’s performance since the Bain Review of 2002.

According to the report, the best services have saved money without jeopardising standards of cover, by changing shift patterns in line with demand, or cutting the number of staff on duty when fires are least likely. For example, some have reassessed the need for night duty in stations, when call-outs tend to be less frequent.

Savings of up to £150m a year could be found if all fire services followed these examples, claims the Commission. The rest of the savings could be made by using cheaper, smaller appliances, cutting days lost through sickness, reducing false alarms, and working more closely with neighbouring fire services, councils, police forces, and other local bodies.

Audit Commission chair, Michael O’Higgins, said: “There is no doubt that fire-fighters do a great job, but the best services have shown they can respond to incidents more efficiently without jeopardising safety. The rest must follow their example.

“There have been repeated calls for improvement over the last 40 years, but progress has been patchy. In today’s financial climate the fire service, like the rest of the public sector, must rise to the efficiency challenge.”

According to the Communities and Local Government department, the service has helped deliver the lowest level of fire deaths in the UK since 1959. However, the Fire Brigades Union is adamant that the report’s proposals will put the safety of fire-fighters and the public at risk.

Describing the recommendations as “foolish and dangerous”, the union’s general secretary Matt Wrack said: “It is true that you can strip fire stations of their night cover, so long as you are willing to risk lives because fire-fighters cannot get to fires fast enough.”

He added: “We told the Audit Commission that we recently published a report showing that more fire-fighters are being killed at fires than at any time for 30 years. I find it incredible that, in the face of this information, they still put forward proposals, which will place fire-fighters in even greater danger.”

The report, Rising to the challenge: improving fire service efficiency, can be viewed at the link below.

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