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Replacing fire engines with 4x4s 'would risk health and safety'

PUBLISHED: 12:17 28 June 2019 | UPDATED: 14:19 02 July 2019

A new fire car in Norfolk livery, with interchangable rear section PICTURE: Contributed

A new fire car in Norfolk livery, with interchangable rear section PICTURE: Contributed

Elizabeth Groom

Plans to use modified 4x4 units instead of fire engines at five Norfolk fire stations could risk firefighters' safety, according to a union secretary.

The modified Toyota Hilux vehicles are smaller and more manoeuvrable than regular fire engines, but carry less equipment and crew, can rarely respond to incidents without the presence of a 'traditional' fire engine.

Ben Jones, Norfolk secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), claims the new units are 'not a viable replacement' for the existing engines.

He said: "The service needs more resilience and capacity, not more cost-saving cuts that have nothing to do with the risks and needs of our communities.

"These vehicles will only ever be able to mobilise in support of a real fire engine, as they will not have the capacity to meet the brigade's standards. To respond to incidents alone would risk the health and safety of the firefighters who serve their communities."

Greg Preston, assistant chief fire officer of Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, said: "These vehicles are designed to support main fire engines, and would not be sent alone to incidents.

"While the units are cheaper, we are not making these changes to cut costs. Undoubtedly, this is a large change, but our fleet is up there nationally with its flexibility.

Fire stations in Norfolk, with arrows marking stations set to gain a 4x4 unit IMAGE: Norfolk County Council under Open Government LicenseFire stations in Norfolk, with arrows marking stations set to gain a 4x4 unit IMAGE: Norfolk County Council under Open Government License

"The 4x4s are more adaptable and have more capabilities than normal fire engines. They can carry more specialised equipment, which is more useful for the threats posed by climate change and growing populations.

"The five stations receiving these units will in effect operate with one main fire engine and a support car, which enhances its capabilities. The main engines have been upgraded to carry nine crew, along with the five crew the support vehicles can carry."

The cars will be in place at Cromer, Diss, Fakenham, Sandringham and Wymondham before the end of the year. Fakenham councillor George Acheson said the council was 'dismayed'.

One of the regular Scania fire engines PICTURE: ArchantOne of the regular Scania fire engines PICTURE: Archant

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He added "It seems short-sighted to take equipment away from a growing town, with a central location and a 99.7pc availability rate, proving it has the workforce to cover what smaller towns can't. We have a waiting list for reserve firefighters in Fakenham, and you can't say that about everywhere".

Sandringham has already lost one of its fire engines, with the parish council discussing the 4x4 at its next meeting. Diss and Wymondham stations are set to lose one of their pumps, but both town councils were unaware of the changes when contacted.

The 4x4s were first specified in 2010, when the force's integrated risk management plan (IRMP) said it should provide "specialist rural firefighting vehicles which not only deal with fires, but can also go 'off-road', deal with land fires more effectively and work in shallow floods".

In 2014, the IRMP planned for six off-roaders, each holding five crew and one tonne of equipment. At this stage, Dereham was set to lose an engine as well, but this was later changed.

The FBU has said this is not what is being delivered. "It is becoming clear that these 4x4s will not be able to meet the operational criteria, which was already a far cry from the 'smaller fire engines' the public were actually consulted on six years ago."

A traditional fire engine alongside one of the new 4x4s bought by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Services PICTURE: ContributedA traditional fire engine alongside one of the new 4x4s bought by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Services PICTURE: Contributed

Mr Preston refutes this, saying the vehicles were properly consulted on and are still the best deal for a changing service, dealing with changing threats. He said: "For instance, we have a similar vehicle in Thetford for tackling heath fires, and these units will be more useful for floods.

"We normally get warning of environmental threats, so we can change the equipment the cars carry to best deal with the problems at hand, without taking them to a workshop."

Last week, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services criticised the planning of Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, stating no risk analysis has been done since the IRMP of 2014.

The inspector's report said: "For the last four years, the service has not based its annual financial planning on risk and demand. Instead, it uses its previous budget with changes for inflation.

"This means its current IRMP is based on dated information. The service cannot be sure it fully understands current and future risks, and it cannot be sure it is allocating resources appropriately."

The service was assessed as 'good' in some areas, such as affordability, skill set and responsiveness, but it was also criticised for occasional perceptions of bullying. Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service is the fifth-largest non-metropolitan force in the country but remains notably cheaper to run than many other forces.

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