Nigel Williams, Norfolk's chief fire officer.

Norfolk fire service merger mooted

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
6.30 AM

Norfolk’s fire service could have to be merged with firefighters from another county if government cuts continue to bite. the county’s chief fire officer has said.

Norfolk County Council has already warned that, with the government widely predicted to be planning to further slash how much it gives local councils, it could have to make £125m worth of savings beyond 2014.

That would come on top of £135m worth of savings the council is currently making and which means the fire and rescue service has been forced to make cuts of £4m by 2014.

And chief fire officer Nigel Williams said, if the predictions of further cuts comes true in next month’s autumn statement by chancellor George Osborne, it could lead to difficult decisions over how he runs his fire service.

He said: “My worry is that I do not know what the deal will be for the fire service. The signals we are receiving are that we are set for very difficult financial times in the future.

“Am I nervous? Yes. If I’m asked to take a further £2m, £3m or £4m out of the services that is going to be a big lift. I can’t take out all of my back office staff.

“If we have to work with other fire services by sharing services or amalgamating that might be the future. I have to do what I can to provide the best service I can for the people of Norfolk.”

Elsewhere in East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk brigades are already looking into whether a merger would help protect front-line services from future budget cuts, with a final decision on that proposed merger due in the New Year.

Mr Williams added a lot of work had already taken place to make Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service leaner, including saving money on how vehicles are bought, cutting back office staff and changing the way firefighters are rostered.

Peter Greeves, chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Fire Brigade Union, said: “We are under no illusions. We are as thin as we can get and anymore is going to compromise safety. “It’s hard to say whether a merger is a good or a bad thing at this point. They are doing it across the board in Scotland and in a way it makes sense in that all the services will be singing from the same hymn sheet.

“Whether it would lead to anything detrimental for the public is difficult to say at this stage, but my advice would be to wait to see what happens in Scotland.”

Another cost-cutting measure, which was agreed at yesterday’s meeting, was for firefighters to scale back responses to automatic fire alarms at businesses such as shops and pubs.

Under the proposals, which still have to be rubber-stamped by the council’s cabinet, instead of turning out each time an automatic fire alarm sounded at a range of premises, firefighters would only turn up once there had been confirmation of a suspected fire.

Norfolk County Council’s fire and rescue overview and scrutiny panel discussed the move, which would save the service about £30,000 a year.

It would apply to businesses such as shops, pubs and factories, as well as public buildings and churches, but not to people’s homes, schools, hospitals and hotels.

Mr Williams said some 95pc of all automatic fire alarms attended by Norfolk’s fire and rescue service are false alarms, with a significant number caused by faulty or poorly designed and maintained systems.

With predictions of gloomy news in the autumn statement, the controlling Conservative cabinet of Norfolk County Council this month asked chief executive David White to carry out a root and branch review of the way the council operates.

Council leader Derrick Murphy has said the authority needs to become more commercially aware and find ways of generating income to help plug the predicted savings gap.

And the fire and rescue service is taking that on board, by looking to create a new arms length company which would enable them to raise more cash.

The service currently has a commercial training department which provides services in firefighting, fire safety awareness and the management of fire safety.

But legislation prevents that department making any profit, so the service wants to create a community interest company to provide the services instead.

That would mean the services could make a profit, which would be ploughed back into activities such as fire prevention.

Councillors backed the creation of that company and a draft business case and business plan will now be drawn up.