Saving lives while also saving public money - the arguments behind the changes at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service

A fire crew demonstrates the use of new equipment
A fire crew demonstrates the use of new equipment
  • Chief fire officer says public has nothing to fear from changes to service
  • Experienced firefighter says organisation has to adapt to the times
  • Union gives reluctant welcome but warns proposals will not make people safer
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Technology has revolutionised many aspects of modern life.

It’s completely changed how we communicate, what we do to relax, how efficient we are at work – the list goes on.

But when it comes to saving lives, should this change be embraced? Or are we right to be hesitant to accept modern ways of working?

One area that has seen sweeping changes, driven fundamentally by a desire to save public money, is the fire service.

Yesterday, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service sealed its proposal with the Hampshire Fire Authority to help it save £4.1m by March 2019.

Over the next few years, it will be bringing in new technology, changing its vehicles and the way it works, and also cutting about 200 firefighter jobs.

Dave Curry, chief fire officer, says the public has nothing to fear from the changes.

He said: ‘It is really important that as part of these proposals we are introducing new technology, which is a completely different way of fighting fires.

‘We will be at the advance and the cutting edge of any fire and rescue service in this country.

‘I am absolutely certain and confident that it will not compromise the safety of the public or of my firefighters.

‘The new technology we are investing in will make us one of the most effective fire services – not only in this country but also across the world.’

Mr Curry said the new technology would require less maintenance, and it would make tackling fires easier, despite it requiring fewer firefighters on smaller vehicles.

He said: ‘We are introducing a first response vehicle. They will, on a normal daily basis, be crewed by four or five firefighters but they will be able to be able to be mobilised and equipped with two firefighters.

‘They have the most advanced technology, these ultra high-pressure lances, which are able to tackle a fire and reduce the temperature of a fire from 600C to 60C in about 30 to 40 seconds.

‘They create a survivable atmosphere for the occupants and the firefighters.

‘The first response can get one of these lances into the room, start to cool it and then follow-on appliances will be able to vent it, then enter in a more traditional way and make any rescues that are necessary.’

Firefighters will also be following a new way of working, called SAVE, which stands for scan, attack, ventilate and enter.

This will be assisted by thermal-imaging cameras, lances, huge fans and new firefighting uniform.

Long-time firefighter and Southsea station manager Charlie Harris has worked for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service for 36 years and it’s not the first time he has seen changes.

He worked at Copnor fire station, which no longer exists, for 12 years from 1983.

The station was first earmarked for closure in 2002, and a long-running campaign, which saw thousands of residents protest, won the station a five-year reprieve before it finally closed in 2008.

All the staff and the equipment were moved to either Southsea, Havant or Cosham, after trials proved that response times could be met without the need for the extra station. Cosham was then upgraded.

Mr Harris also saw Waterlooville station change from a retained station to a fully-operational station, only for it to drop back to retained when the calls dropped off. He’s also witnessed the expansion of Winchester station, which is now 24/7.

‘Changes are happening all the time,’ he said.

‘We look at stuff all the time, as and when the community and the demand changes.’

Not only has Mr Harris seen station changes, he’s also had to deal first-hand with changes to equipment.

‘When I first joined in 1980, computers weren’t around so everything was in files,’ he said.

‘Most of the documents you had were hand-written.

‘But most of the changes have happened on the appliances, with power steering and power brakes.

‘They were different types of machine before. You could call them vintage now.’

Mr Harris said the old appliances were difficult to drive, and sometimes required huge strength just to manoeuvre.

He also said that the equipment firefighters carry, such as their breathing apparatus and oxygen tanks, were incredibly heavy and cumbersome.

‘He said: ‘The cylinders were made of steel and they were very heavy, they weren’t ergonomically designed, they were just flat across your back.’

Uniform has come on leaps and bounds too, with Mr Harris’ original uniform being made of thick wool, before it changed to plastic, now it comes in hi-tech material which keeps the firefighters as cool as possible, while enabling them to move.

‘The plastic leggings were great for keeping the water off but pretty useless in a fire – they just melted,’ he said.

‘You would also get very sweaty. It’s greatly improved now, and that assists us in doing our job. It makes our lives a bit easier so we can concentrate on the bigger picture of getting to the casualties quickly and saving lives.’

It’s not just changes to the fire service’s equipment that’s had an impact on the lessening need for firefighters.

Changes to everyday household items, such as the disappearance of electric bar heaters and chip pans, have helped to cut down on the number of incidents.

Mr Harris said: ‘All these things have come together, coupled with better education of people and systems, to help bring down the amount of fires.’

He said that fewer people smoking, and better fire detection devices, plus stricter building controls, have added to the decrease in incidents.

He said: ‘All these things have helped to reduce the number of fires but unfortunately we do still have incidents.

‘Just last week there were two children killed in a fire in Huddersfield, which was tragic.

‘There are still fires in the home, although it has been proven that there are less and less.’

He added: ‘This new equipment is just extra tool in the box to enable us to do our job more efficiently.

‘Things do move on, and until they have invented i-Robots then firefighters will still be needed.’

THE UNION’S VIEW

The changes have been reluctantly welcomed by the Fire Brigades Union.

Gary Jackson, from the union, spoke at yesterday’s decision meeting and said the union did not back the cuts, but it acknowledged they had to be brought in because of a cut in government funding causing a £12m deficit.

He said: ‘The union had to take a pragmatic approach in challenging times but we won’t accept that the people of Hampshire have been duped by a diminishing cover.

‘We’ll not be able to provide the same level of service and people need to know that so they can make their own decision when they vote on who runs their fire service.’

THE CONSULTATION

A 12-week consultation was held about the fire service proposal.

Five public meetings were also held across the county that were attended by more than 400 people.

In total, 1,467 people completed a questionnaire, with 1,331 submitted online and 136 by paper copy.

The main concerns raised were two riders crewing the first-response capability, the reduction of crewing in the lower activity period and uncertainty around vehicle equipment

But 40 per cent of the respondents supported a tax precept increase of more than 1.99 per cent while 38 per cent supported an increase of 1.99 per cent

And less than one-in-five supported a smaller or no increase.

1,072 people signed an online petition organised by the Aldershot Branch of the Labour Party and a further 3,500 people signed an online petition against the proposed changes for Southsea Fire Station organised by the Portsmouth Liberal Democrats.

A petition organised by Cllr Peter Chegwyn against the proposed reduction of wholetime firefighters in Gosport attracted 257 signatures.