Yorkshire brigades may share fire chiefs

Two Yorkshire fire services facing huge budget cuts could share their top managers as part of money-saving plans currently under discussion, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.

Both South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue and the Humberside brigade have seen their chief officers depart in recent months, with lower-ranking staff currently “acting up” in the top job.

It is understood that members of fire authorities which govern services in both areas have been in discussion about the situation, with the option of appointing one chief officer on the table.

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Humberside’s long-serving chief Frank Duffield left his post at the end of April, as did South Yorkshire chief Mark Smitherman. Mr Smitherman’s deputy Steve Swarbrick stepped down in March.

None of those officers were replaced, assistant chief officer Jamie Courtney taking over temporarily in South Yorkshire and deputy Richard Hannigan doing the same in Humberside.

The two brigades have been charged by the Government with making combined savings of £16m by 2014 and both have announced redundancies among support staff and other cost-saving measures.

Union officials in South Yorkshire confirmed they had been told about the possibility of a merger of top management to fill what they called a “power vacuum” at the top of the organisation.

Fire Brigades Union branch secretary John Gilliver said: “The fire authority chairman told us they are looking at the possibility and the Government is saying we have to look at shared services.

“At the moment the workforce is being affected because it feels like nobody is in charge at a crucial time for the organisation. We don’t know who is steering the ship or for how long.”

Earlier this week the union criticised temporary promotions at the Humberside brigade after it emerged that officers who have stepped up will collect an extra £130,000 in pension between them.

Chief officer pay has become an increasingly significant burden for fire authorities in the region over recent years, as salaries, benefits and pension packages for top managers rocketed.

Last summer the Yorkshire Post revealed that, before retirement, Mr Smitherman was earning £165,000 a year, and up from less than £120,000 in 2007.

Under Government austerity measures all public sector organisations have been told to senior review pay and look for savings.

Chairman of Humberside Fire and Rescue Authority John Briggs said: “There have been talks but I am not going into detail about what has been said.

“Our chief left and we decided to promote temporarily from within because we didn’t know what would happen with central Government. Now Ministers have placed it back in our hands.

“Of course we have an interest in talks. We will continue to talk to neighbouring authorities.”

Other public sector organisations in Yorkshire have already set a precedent for sharing senior staff, South Yorkshire and Humberside Police recently appointing a joint human resources director.

Jim Andrews, chairman of the South Yorkshire Fire Authority, refused to comment specifically on the prospect of the two brigades sharing a chief officer.

But he said: “The vacant position of chief fire officer does present an opportunity for the authority to look at all viable options. Members are currently reviewing these options and we will look to make a decision in the near future.”