Fire engine availability sinks to a third in some parts of Norfolk

Scenes at St Mary's Church in Beachamwell as fire crews tackled the fire.

Scenes at St Mary's Church in Beachamwell as fire crews tackled the fire. - Credit: Sarah Hussain

Parts of Norfolk are covered by their local on-call fire engine for as little as a third of the time as the service struggles to recruit enough firefighters.

Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) has five fire stations staffed by full-time firefighters around-the-clock; King's Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Earlham, Carrow and Sprowston. Two stations - Thetford and Dereham - are staffed in the day.

But 35 of the county's 42 stations are staffed by on-call firefighters. They are people with other jobs who live or work within five minutes of the station. They have 40 pumps which are meant to be available 90pc of the time.

This has led to fears over times it might take to get to fires and fears the service would struggle to cope if more than one big incident happened at the same time.

But data leaked to this newspaper shows just 12 of those 40 engines hit that target between the start of October last year and mid-January this year.

In Loddon, the engine was available on average for just over half the time. For the week of October 4 it could have responded to a fire just 28pc of the time. 

In Terrington, Great Yarmouth and Swaffham the on-call fire engines could also respond to fires less than 70pc of the time. Swaffham was the nearest station to the fire at St Mary's Church in Beachamwell this week which 10 fire pumps were called to.

One fire service source said: "The day that Norfolk has two large incidents at the same time could be disastrous. 

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“To have 20 to 25 fire engines unavailable at any one time is a common occurrence. The risk to firefighters and to the public is growing.”

Scenes at St Mary's Church in Beachamwell as emergency services responded to the fire.

Scenes at St Mary's Church in Beachamwell as emergency services responded to the fire. - Credit: Sarah Hussain

The pumps at Attleborough, Harleston, Stalham and Hunstanton were available for the most amount of time, according to the figures, with more than 95pc availability - almost twice that of Loddon. 

Tristan Ashby, a former Norfolk on-call firefighter, who is now chief executive of the Fire and Rescue Services Association, accused NFRS of “giving up” on some areas. 

“Are you telling me they can’t find four people in Loddon to be on-call firefighters?” he said. “You should be trying to keep that pump available 24/7 otherwise you are letting people in that area down.

“You can do things like turn the station into a place where people can work their other jobs.  

“It can be a very rewarding job. You can be at work or watching Eastenders and then five minutes later you are on a truck. It is pretty unique and unbelievably rewarding.”

Tristan Ashby

Tristan Ashby, a former on-call Norfolk firefighter and chief executive of the Fire and Rescue Services Association - Credit: Tristan Ashby

But he added: “One of the problems is that management puts so many restrictions on what you can and can’t do – there are so many courses you have to attend. It is not about the pay, it is about being able to take the time off work to do it. 

“They need to make it easier for people to do.”

NFRS said it could not publish figures on local engine availability because of “national security”. However, each year they publish an overall percentage for the availability of all on-call pumps. That was last reported in April 2021 showing there was coverage 90pc of the time. 

It said last year that it was “focusing on a range of actions” to increase coverage including recruiting more on-call firefighters. 

Head of operations at NFRS Richard Dromey said: “Norfolk has one of the highest availability rates of on-call firefighters and we are very proud of the commitment our on-call staff give us to ensuring the safety and protection of Norfolk."

But one NFRS worker said: "The availability of on-call firefighters is something every service in the country struggles with. Norfolk is no different. The demands placed on an on-call firefighter are huge. 

“They must commit a great deal of their spare time away from their families to complete all the necessary training and courses throughout the year. 

“Management says that the risk is acceptable, that fire cover is robust; the service is agile. However the service is often one large incident away from serious problems."

Richard Dromey, NFRS

Richard Dromey, head of operations at NFRS. Picture: Stuart Anderson - Credit: Archant

Mr Dromey said that availability of on-call pumps fell in December and January because of staff sickness and Covid control measures.

But he added: “We have the ability, through a dynamic mobilising system, to move fire crews around the service to not only respond to all types of incidents, but also to ensure there are no gaps in fire cover. This approach is taken by many rural services and ensures our county remains fully protected."

He encouraged anyone interested in becoming an on-call firefighter to get in touch via www.norfolk.gov.uk/oncallfirefighter