Sir Ken Knight visited Shropshire today to carry out a spending review at Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service which has already slashed £4.5 million from its £20 million annual budget.
Chief Fire Officer Paul Raymond told the newly retired Government Chief Fire & Rescue Advisor during his visit today (February 12) that it was “almost impossible” to make another £1 million in demanded cuts without an “increased risk” to the people of Shropshire.
Sir Ken, London’s former Chief Fire Officer, is visiting a total of 15 fire and rescue services in three months as part of a Government spending review of English fire services. They include fire services protecting cities, rural areas and those which have seen huge cuts to grant, like Shropshire, and almost no reductions such as Hampshire.
Shropshire’s brigade has been regularly praised for being one of the best run in the country despite having a smaller budget than virtually every other fire and rescue service, said Mr Raymond.
The county has 23 fire stations – 22 of them run by “on call” firefighters and gets a fire appliance to a house fire in eight minutes. But despite its efforts, they are one of the slowest attendance times in the UK due to the high number of remote homes. If rural fire stations are forced to close, response times will be even longer, say fire officers, putting people’s lives at increased risk.
A new report from Shropshire and Wrekin Fire Authority which can be viewed at www.shropshirefire.gov.uk reveals almost a decade of radical financial savings made by the county brigade due to “continued underfunding” and more recent “deep cuts” to Government grants.
Firefighter numbers have been cut by 15 per cent, support staff by 10 per cent with a quarter of senior officer posts gone. There is a pay freeze, the number of fire appliances have been halved on some stations and the remainder are kept on the road longer, and retained crews have been given more work to reduce wholetime firefighter costs. Outsourcing of everything from fire hydrant maintenance to legal costs has been introduced to cut fees.
They have also been "burdened" by the Government with an enforced £300,000 a year payment for the national radio system.
Some essential services are now shared with neighbouring fire services, office staff have renegotiated contracts and “haggled” down outside contractor fees to make savings, including a £100,000 reduction in insurance costs.
Shropshire was one of the first brigades to introduce charges for lift rescues in 2007 saving £5,000 a year, incident commanders were given leased Skoda cars to drive to incidents and second hand cars and vans were bought.
Catering cuts meant the Fire Minister had little to eat during a recent visit to open Shrewsbury’s fire HQ which was refurbished rather than re-built on a new site. County fire chiefs, as usual, also travelled by second class rail to London in December to plead their case to Government about unfair budget cuts for Shropshire.
“Shropshire and Wrekin Fire and Rescue Authority has always had to manage its finances carefully and people can read about all the financial savings we have made over almost a decade on our website,” said Mr Raymond.
By 2015, they will have cut their running costs by 20 per cent – more than most other local authorities.
“We are now faced with even greater cuts and although we will try, it will be almost impossible to deliver these without impacting on attendance times and increasing the risk to local people and the local economy.”
The Government must understand the implications to Shropshire and look at the impact of cuts in such a rural area, rather than just numbers, he added.