ILFRACOMBE will no longer have a manned fire station if Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service agrees a plan to save £5.5m over the next two years.
The Marlborough Road base will become a retained station if the proposals are given the green light. The move will contribute a saving of £900,000 towards the targets.
Currently Ilfracombe Fire Station is manned during the daytime but becomes a retained station overnight.
A press conference at the Fire and Rescue Service’s headquarters in Clyst St George, near Exeter, today heard that of the 85 fire stations in Devon and Somerset, 17 retained stations responded to more calls than Ilfracombe last year.
Mike Creek, secretary of the Ilfracombe Trades Council, said the group would fight to save the service. He said: “This is a major issue to Ilfracombe, it’s so important. “The retained lads do a wonderful job but they can’t provide the same swift service that a full-time crew can and that could mean the difference between life and death.
“Ilfracombe has a long history of large fires at hotels and with an increasing number of houses of multiple occupancy these cuts could have a terrible effect. We will support the Fire Brigade Union as much as we can.”
Chief Fire Officer for the Service Lee Howell confirmed there would be no station closures in Devon and Somerset and there would also be no withdrawal of pumps and fire engines from the service.
Firefighters would also no longer attend automatic callouts triggered by fire alarms at non-domestic properties, such as Green Lanes Shopping Centre in Barnstaple, during the day.
At the press conference, fire service treasurer Kevin Woodward outlined how cuts to Government grants mean the service must operate on reduced budgets in the next two years.
“As a fire service we like to think we are protected from the doom and gloom of the country’s economic situation, but the reality is we’re not.
“The public austerity measures have had an effect on us. This is not our doing and not something we want to be doing, but we must balance the books.”
A government spending review in 2010 saw the service take a 25% cut to its budget, although this was put off for two years, meaning the savings must start being made now.
The service’s current government grant is £32.6m a year, but in 2013-14 that will reduce to £29.2m and the following year to £27.1m. Those figures represent half of the service’s funding, with the other half coming from council taxes.
Mr Woodward pointed out that Devon and Somerset has been hit with an overall reduction of 17.6 per cent, the third biggest cut nationwide.
He said: “We had planned for around 14 per cent. We had been led to believe rural services such as ourselves would be looked on more favourably, but as the largest service in the country geographically speaking that’s clearly not the case. We are in a worse position than we thought and will now make representations to the government. But with a tight time frame to do so I think the chances of it making changes in the next few weeks are almost zero.”
He also said there was a chance the service would look to increase its funds by raising council tax. However, it is only possible for the service to do so by 2.5 per cent. In order to cover the lost funding with council tax a hike of 24 per cent would be necessary.
“As tax payers we know how unpopular that would be,” said Mr Woodward. “We would also have to hold a referendum to raise taxes by more than 2.5 per cent, something which would cost us upwards of £1m. I’m not recommending we do that.”
And the picture could get worse, with public austerity measures already extended through to the end of 2018.
“I do need to look beyond the next two years,” he said, “when, depending upon who you believe, the situation could be at least as bad again.”
Chief Fire Officer for the Service Lee Howell outlined the moves that will be taken to make savings.
“We could close fire stations and make redundancies,” he said. “That would be a simple but not very popular or efficient decision.
“We’re not proposing we do that. What we do plan is to change the way we do business.”
Mr Howell said the service had already saved £2m by reducing back office and senior management costs. The service has also held open vacancies, introduced fixed term contracts, increased its reserves, merged its control centres (saving £500,000) and engaged in “income generation activites” such as selling training and expertise to other services.
“We have not reduced our front line,” he said.
He said the service planned to make further savings by investing in fire prevention, a short term cost that in the long run saves money. Thanks to fire prevention work already undertaken the number of fires in the last ten years has reduced by 50 per cent.
He also said the service will have to reduce staff numbers, but that this wouldn’t be done with redundancies. The service plans not to renew fixed term contracts and will reassign firefighters to cover stations which are usually difficult to man.
The current shift pattern will remain for firefighters but back office staff will be rduced by five per cent, saving £1m.
A recruitment freeze will remain in place and new light rescue vehicles, essentially smaller fire engines, will be rolled out. That won’t represent an added cost, said Mr Howell.
“If we introduced a lot of the new vehicles at once it would be an expense,” he said, “but if we just replace vehicles, and that’s normally ten a year, it will lead to a saving.” The move should save £70,000 per vehicle and will also increase response times.
Saving plans also include proposals to invest further in fire prevention and to reduce middle management as well as moves to make the second fire engine at stations in Taunton, Plymouth and Torquay on-call vehicles, leaving just one fully manned vehicle at those stations 24 hours a day.
A trial staffing pattern at Yeovil will also be scrapped, while the move to make Ilfracombe a retained station should save £900,000. It costs £1m a year to run a fully manned fire station while a retained station costs just £100,000 and last year 17 retained fire stations each attended more incidents than the engine from Ilfracombe did.
Mr Howell said: “It’s just not a very busy fire station. But we will continue to provide a safety net for the public and I’m incredibly proud of this organisation for that.”
Chairman of the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service Authority, Councillor Mark Healey, said: “There are many fire and rescue services around the country having to make hard decisions. We wanted to think our way through these and we feel we have. We want to take as many staff with us as we can and I’m very please we’re not shutting any stations or making redundancies. I’m very encouraged.”
A three to four month consultation with the public will begin after the proposals are put to the fire authority on Friday, January 18.
Mr Howell said: "We are not going to rush into any of these decisions and they are all being made with careful consideration."