LABOUR councillors have warned that drastic cuts to the fire service could put lives at risk.

Brighton and Hove Labour Group has weighed in on a bitter dispute following a series of proposed changes to the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS).

The service plans cuts to full-time firefighters in Lewes, Newhaven, Uckfield, and Crowborough, and intends to downgrade The Ridge station in Hastings so it is only staffed during the daytime.

The proposals include controversial staffing changes which are – according to fire service’s own documents – likely to see slower response times at weekends and evenings in some areas.

The Argus:

The changes have been suggested in what is known as an integrated risk management plan (IRMP), and a consultation is set to run until June 19. The East Sussex Fire Authority will make a decision on the proposals in September.

The consultation process has drawn criticism from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has accused ESFRS of attempting to “sneak through cuts while the public focuses on the pandemic” – an accusation it denies.

Now, the Labour Group of Councillors on Brighton and Hove City Council have called on East Sussex Fire Authority members to halt the planned cuts until the coronavirus crisis is over, and a financial settlement for local government and the fire service has been settled.

In a statement, it said: “As part of the response to Covid-19, fire fighters are already taking on extra duties, such as assisting the ambulance service with their increased workload and delivering much needed PPE to NHS and other key workers.

“Now is not the time to try and implement disruptive changes, including further cuts, to our fire and rescue service.”

It added: “These are unprecedented circumstances, so we reiterate that this is not the time for such a major restructure of the local fire service, or for what many believe are cuts dressed up as ‘risk management improvements’.

“Furthermore, we share the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union that the loss of both equipment and crew contained in the proposals would lead to a reduction in crucial coverage in some areas of the county, and therefore increase the risk to public safety.

“We also believe the comprehensive list of safety concerns the Fire Brigades Union have raised warrant thorough consideration before continuing with the public consultation, let alone with implementation thereafter.

“The Labour Group on the Fire Authority proposed a motion, supported by others, to halt the consultation but were unfortunately unsuccessful.

“We ask the Fire Authority members to recognise that over 23,000 people have signed a petition in opposition to the proposed measures contained in the IRMP, and that local MPs Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Peter Kyle and Maria Caulfield have also asked for a pause in the process.

The Argus: Peter Kyle says the proposed change would be a "step too far" for policing fundingPicture:  Tony Wood

“We now call again upon all Fire Authority members to vote against the East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service Integrated Risk Management Plan 2020-2025 and place a moratorium on any restructure until we fully understand the impact of Covid-19 on the fire service and the county.

“In addition, we ask that any members of the public across Brighton and Hove and East Sussex who are outraged that further cuts to any of our essential services should be either planned or implemented during a time of national crisis – or at all – please email East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service as soon as possible to give them your views at:”.

The Argus:

In April, East Sussex Fire Brigade Union chairman Simon Herbert branded the proposals “dangerous”.

He said: “Firefighters are out on the frontline helping our communities through this crisis whilst still responding to fires and other emergencies.

“Meanwhile, our fire authority has thanked us by beginning the process of decimating our emergency response capabilities and ability to save lives, all from the safety of their living rooms.

“These proposals are dangerous and will seriously damage the availability of fire crews throughout East Sussex.”

But an ESFRS spokeswoman said the changes were "to put resources in the right place, at the right time to deal with emergencies and help prevent them in the first place through engagement and regulation."

The service said: "All community fire stations will remain open and operational, and the service will always mobilise the nearest, quickest available crew, fire engines and other resources to an incident.

"The proposals will increase the core number of fire engines available at the start of the day from 15 to 18.

"No decisions on these proposals have yet been made. The Fire Authority meets in September to review the findings of the consultation, and to agree the next steps."

It sait it has a statutory duty to put in place a revised plan and the current one expires this year.

It added: "The longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be known for some considerable time and the Service will of course assess any new information or requirements which may emerge.

"The draft proposals provide both the Fire Authority and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service with the flexibility to take developments into account over the next five-year term."

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