Axing frontline jobs will cost lives, warns union

FIREFIGHTERS are warning people “will lose their lives” as a result of savage cuts to fire services across Yorkshire that will see at least 400 front-line jobs lost and more than a dozen fire stations close across the region.

With South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue poised to become the latest of the region’s fire authorities to agree deep cuts to front-line services when it holds a crucial meeting on Monday, union officials have told the Yorkshire Post there will be a “massive impact” on the safety of the public.

Leading union activists are now openly talking of the possibility of industrial action, raising the spectre of the 1977 and 2002 national fire strikes when Green Goddesses were called out onto the streets as firefighters fought for better pay and conditions.

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The scale of the current cost-cutting is without precedent in recent times, with all four of Yorkshire’s brigades bracing themselves to lose between a fifth and a quarter of their Government funding over the next four years. West Yorkshire expects to lose £18m; South Yorkshire £10m; North Yorkshire £4m and Humberside up to £8m.

Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary and an MP in Leeds – where some of West Yorkshire’s most dramatic cuts will be felt – said the Government had made “no assessment of safety” when cutting fire service funding.

The Fire Brigade Union (FBU) is warning of severe consequences.

FBU regional secretary Ian Murray said: ”People will lose their lives. You cannot get rid of 400 front-line firefighters out of maybe 3,500 across Yorkshire without that having an impact in emergencies. It is absolutely unbelievable that they are doing this.

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“Since 2002, the number of front-line firefighters has gone down and down.

“We’ve come to the point now where there are no more cuts to be found – yet they’re still going ahead.”

The £40m-a-year which Yorkshire’s brigades expect to lose by 2015 contrasts starkly with the estimated £50m wasted by the previous Government on the defunct regional fire control centre in Wakefield, built in 2008 but still standing unused and empty after the Coalition scrapped the entire disastrous project.

Unions also point to money wasted at brigade level, highlighting the £2m South Yorkshire spent on four Combined Aerial Rescue Pump (CARP) vehicles in a bid to free up resources elsewhere. They have been beset with problems and have even burst into flames.

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Nonetheless, South Yorkshire says it has no choice but to press ahead with further efforts to save money, with its £60m-a-year budget to be cut by £10m.

On Monday, authority members will meet to discuss proposals to close four fire stations and replace them with two, cutting a further 70 firefighters’ jobs on top of 70 which have already gone.

Three fire engines which provide cover when staff are training will be ditched, and staff shift patterns will be shaken up dramatically so that crews ‘live’ in the station for days at a time to be on-call when their normal shifts end.

The brigade itself is open about the fact it has been forced into the proposed cut-backs by the removal of one-sixth of its budget.

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“We do not want to make these changes,” said Steve Chu, communications manager for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue.

“We have already committed to cutting management and admin costs by 25 per cent – but that will only save a maximum of £3m. So we have to find a further £7m from somewhere else.

“As professional officers we have to make some recommendations based on the funds that are available to us. We are very happy to listen to any alternative ways people think we could save £10m from our budget. But if it is not these proposals, then it will have to be something else – the money is just not there.”

Comment: Page 14.