Row over vans ‘unfit to fight blazes’ rekindled

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FIREFIGHTERS at a Yorkshire brigade last night renewed calls for the scrapping of vans bought to replace fire engines after it emerged similar vehicles had already been abandoned by a neighbouring service.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union in South Yorkshire have refused to use small incident units (SIUs) and have issued a “safety critical notice” to commanders claiming they are not fit for firefighting.

Union officials said the vans were equipped with a “jet wash” which was not adequate to put out even small fires, but senior officers said the units were being used successfully elsewhere in the country.

However, North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue yesterday said it had taken a small incident unit on a six-month trial last year, but had abandoned it after just 16 weeks because it was not deemed fit for purpose.

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue is battling to save £10m under Westminster-imposed cuts and the introduction of SIUs is part of a package of measures which also include 140 job losses and station closures.

Firefighters have also been asked to volunteer for a new “close proximity crewing” system, which will see them living at fire stations on four-day shifts, meaning less staff are needed for 24-hour cover.

John Gilliver, the FBU’s branch secretary in South Yorkshire, said the use of SIUs came at a time when full-size fire engines were being removed from stations, leading to a “reduced service” for the public.

He added: “North Yorkshire has tried them out and scrapped them, and firefighters in the Mid and West Wales brigade have also issued a safety critical notice and refused to use these small incident units.

“Under close proximity crewing, our members are being asked to work more than double their hours, which will leave them more fatigued and the pay rise they have been offered amounts to about £1.80 an hour.

“They are also being told to work with this inferior equipment, which combined with the longer hours all leads to a risk to life for firefighters and obviously then a risk to the lives of the public.

“Fire chiefs want to make a massive reduction in staff to save money but those staff who are on duty are expected to go to incidents with only a jet wash to fight fires. It is not acceptable.”

Last night, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue said it had already received enough expressions of interest to introduce close proximity crewing at three stations, showing that the policy was not unpopular.

The brigade said it had been using a SIU for more than two years, and it had not been a problem with the union until more widepsread use of the vehicle was suggested under cost-cutting measures.

Fire chiefs said the vehicles would only be used at small fires, leaving fully-equipped engines free for life-threatening blazes.

A spokesman said: “Small incident units are a vital resource which are already improving public safety in at least 29 other fire services across the UK.

“Our SIU has been used by FBU members without any problems since 2009. We have been extremely tolerant and have attempted to negotiate with the FBU for over a month.

“However, the refusal to use a vital piece of equipment that has passed all safety examinations constitutes a breach of contract which is also influencing the service we provide to communities in South Yorkshire.”

Mr Gilliver said a series of meetings were being held to allow members to decide what action they should take next.

He added: “Fire professionals know that every large fire starts as a small fire. We don’t always know what we will find when we arrive.

“Firefighters will be put at intolerable risk at incidents if they are deployed in these vans.”