Norfolk’s chief fire officer warns pressure on service could leave it on ‘knife edge’

Chief fire officer David Ashworth. PICTURE: ANTONY KELLY

Chief fire officer David Ashworth. PICTURE: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Norfolk's chief fire officer has said its budget for next year could leave the service on a 'knife edge' if there are a string of major incidents.

And fears over the service's ability to keep the county safe have been expressed by a former chairman of the County Hall committee with responsibility for the fire service.

UKIP's Paul Smyth said three of four retained fire stations in Norfolk are short-staffed, while whole-time crews were going out with four crew members, rather than the target of five.

That communities committee last year recommended that some £900,000 of cuts to the service over three years should be removed.

But the council as a whole rejected that recommendation last May and the next wave of cuts - £110,000 next year and £490,000 the following year - remain in the pipeline.

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Mr Smyth, who used to chair the committee, today led a successful proposal, by nine votes to eight, that the committee should write to the Home Office chief fire officer to make clear it had previously rejected those savings.

Mr Smyth, who was frustrated in his bid to get the issue debated at full council in December when his motion was not permitted, said: 'The reason that we wanted to take action last year was because of concern that the service was in the buffer. It can cope now, but looking forward we are putting things at risk.'

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Tom McCabe, director of community and environmental services, said the budget did include capital investment of more than £2m, including on new engines and equipment.

And chief fire officer David Ashworth said efforts were being made to tackle shortages with 18 whole-time firefighters due to be recruited.

He said the £110,000 cuts next year were in support staff, not frontline firefighters and that safety for firefighters was a priority.

But, when asked what he thought of the budget, he said: 'It is challenging and there has been historic underinvestment on some areas.

'There will be occasions where it does get very, very tight for us, particularly in areas of high activity.

'Since the summer, we have had some significant incidents we have dealt with.

'We have had sufficient resources, but we are a pay as you go service and when the bills come in you see the budget will be affected more and more.

'If there's such a thing as a standard year, we can manage, but if we are particularly busy it is on a knife edge.'

The committee's budget was recommended for approval by 13 votes, with three abstentions.

It will go forward into the overall council budget, due to be discussed by full council on February 20.

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