Over 80 jobs are to be cut at the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service.
The posts are being axed in the latest round of budget plans for the service.
78 of the jobs will be firefighters with another 4 to go in the control room, across the next 3 years.
Bosses have insisted that the plans are “safe” and rejected calls to avoid job losses by meeting a £3.7m budget shortfall through use of cash reserves or the £5.2m earmarked to build a new station in Hebburn.
Chief Fire Officer Chris Lowther said that doing so would create a “cliff edge” and force a swathe of compulsory redundancies in the future, adding that the proposed job losses will be met entirely through planned retirements. He added:
“If we don’t manage that process as we are now, avoiding redundancies through our retirement profile, then what would happen instead if we artificially inflate the revenue budget with capital reserves is there will be a point in the future – let’s pick April 2022 – where we would have to make 80 firefighters redundant overnight. I will not do that as chief fire officer.”
“My job is to provide value for money for the public purse and I need to create a sustainable fire and rescue service, not only for now but also for the future.”
“We need a new fire station at Hebburn so that, in five and 10 years time, the public continue to get the best possible service they can.”
“If we use reserves to prop up the revenue budget then we would not be able to afford that new fire station.”
The Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service has already lost 131 firefighters and six fire engines due to budget cuts since 2010, which have reduced its spending power by £11.3m.
The service holds £28.5m in reserves, but only £3.9m of that is available to spend and is held to meet unexpected cost pressures.
Mr Lowther has now warned that any further funding reductions will put the safety of the public and his firefighters at risk. He added:
“I have said in the past and I will say it again – these proposals are safe. But there is clearly an impact of the staffing reductions we have had since 2010. There are less firefighters out there doing prevention work and fighting fires, so while this is still safe it is less safe than it was in 2010.”
“What I will say is that if the trajectory of budget cuts continues the same after 2022, there may be a point where I have to sit in a room like this and speak to the press to say that I no longer consider the response to be safe. But I want to be absolutely clear – it is my professional opinion as chief fire officer that these proposals are safe.”
“The concept that Alan [Robson, assistant chief officer] and I would put something forward that is not safe for our firefighters is something which I reject fully. Firefighter safety and public safety are at the forefront of what we do, but we do have to set a balanced budget.”
Under the plans – which are expected to be rubber-stamped next Monday – no stations will close and no fire engines will be lost, although some will be relocated and crewed differently.
Stations in Wallsend and Hebburn will be reduced to a day crew service only, with cover between 8pm and 8am to be provided from Tynemouth and South Shields respectively.
Mr Robson said that the service had to target its scarce resources to higher-risk areas such as the east and west ends of Newcastle and the Hendon area of Sunderland.
As such, some fire engines will be relocated into central Sunderland and Newcastle from Washington and Gosforth.
Firefighters’ shift patterns will also be changed — increasing the length of a night shift to 16 hours by bringing the shift handover time forward from 6pm to 5pm.
Mr Robson added that the number of firefighters available across Tyne and Wear at any time will reduce by just four – from 100 to 96 – as the number of on-call firefighters will increase by 12.
It is predicted that the latest cuts will increase response times to a ‘level one’ risk incident by 17 seconds for the first fire engine, 35 for the second, and 27 for the third.
The job losses are expected to save £3.3m from the service’s budget, with bosses seeking further means of improving efficiency to cuts costs.
A Fire Brigades Union petition against the plans currently has more than 1,300 signatures on change.org, with the union claiming the cuts will “put firefighters and the general public at an increased risk, whilst at the the same time building a new £5m fire station that we believe isn’t required”.
“Firefighters desperately want to avoid these cuts as they will result in a reduction of 82 firefighter posts with reduced cover right across the region.”
“If the authority vote to spend the reserves earmarked for a replacement fire station they could delay the cuts until 2023, when they may not be needed at all.”
Mr Robson said that no final decision has been made on whether to build a new station in Hebburn, with the cost of the project still being examined.