Fire Service Submission

1. Introduction

West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS) has published a Draft Action Plan for 2011-12 that aims to reorganise fire services in the County and, in the process, save £1.2 million.

The Plan includes proposals to improve the training facilities for firefighters, invest more in community education and identify savings in the support functions.  These are all things that I welcome.

However, the Plan also includes proposals to close three retained fire stations: Bosham, Findon and Keymer.  Two of these stations - Findon and Keymer - are located in my Arundel and South Downs constituency.  I recently visited these stations to meet the firefighters and learn more about their work.

As the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, I am registering my concerns about the proposals to close Findon and Keymer Fire Stations.

2. My principal concerns

2.1 Risk to life and property

As the County Fire Officer conceded during the public meetings at Findon and Hassocks in August, the proposals contained in the Draft Action Plan would result in a reduction in service for people living in and around the villages of Findon and Hassocks and will result in longer response times.  I am concerned that this could result in a higher risk for those who live and work in these areas.

These are areas with thousands of homes, businesses, schools and industrial sites and further development is planned. Hassocks Parish Council reports that there are around 400 dwellings being built or in the planning process, 1,400m² of commercial development with full planning permission, and that more development is likely to follow.

These fire stations are also close to the busy A24, A280, A23 and A27 which are no strangers to accidents.

The ‘ground' covered by Keymer is described in the ‘profile' document published by WSFRS as low risk and yet the nearby A23 at Pyecombe has been the site of several serious road traffic crashes in recent years.  It is a notorious hot-spot for accidents.  In 2004, a crew from Keymer were first on the scene of the crash at Pyecombe that killed eight people.

There are several schools in the Findon and Hassocks areas.  In the Findon area we have St John the Baptist CE Primary School and Windlesham House School, both of whom have formally expressed their concerns about the proposal to close Findon Fire Station. 

In 1993, the Findon crew was on hand to deal with a fire which destroyed the school hall.  Fortunately, there was no loss of life and the school reopened just a few months later.  However, as the headteacher has testified, the situation could have been a great deal worse if not for the rapid response of the Findon firefighters.

There are three large schools in Hassocks: Hassocks Infant School, The Windmills Junior School and Downlands Community School.  Downlands alone provides for around 1,000 pupils.

There is also a large population of elderly residents, some in sheltered housing and residential homes, such as Nightingales in Findon and Villa Adastra in Hassocks, who are particularly vulnerable to the threat posed by fires. 

The proportion of elderly people will increase as the population ages, and more elderly people will live in their own homes as the NHS shifts its priorities towards community care.

Hassocks Parish Council's design statement published in 2007 shows that almost 34 per cent of villagers are over 60, compared with a Mid Sussex average of 21.6 per cent.

For Hassocks, there will be no full-time cover from Burgess Hill during the evenings and weekends.  According to the consultation document, the change to Variable Crewing will only be implemented for weekday daytimes.  The residents of Hassocks will rely on retained firefighters from Burgess Hill who will have to travel further to reach an incident.  As a local firefighter reminded me in a letter recently, the most dangerous fires in the home often occur at night.

2.2 Demand

There has been a lot of criticism locally that the WSFRS has not taken full account of the demand on the fire stations that have been proposed for closure.  I think we should recognise the real and genuine demand on these crews, whether it is to attend an incident or stand-in for another appliance, and whether it is on the station's ‘ground' or elsewhere.

According to the firefighters in Findon, the crews were mobilised more than 400 times between March 2008 and April 2010 and they have been called out to Worthing, Ashington, Washington, Storrington and Arundel.

According to the firefighters in Keymer, crews were mobilised 200 times in 2009/10.  Crews from Keymer have shown that they provide back-up for incidents much further afield than Hassocks alone.  The station provides cover to areas over the border into East Sussex, including the village of Ditchling.

Famously, a crew from Keymer were the first from West Sussex to arrive at the Grand Hotel in Brighton after it was bombed by the IRA during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984.  A letter of thanks from Margaret Thatcher still hangs on the wall in the station.

2.3 Resilience

At present, the availability of crews and appliances at Findon and Keymer (and Bosham) increases the resilience of the WSFRS to deal with major emergencies in West Sussex.  It is already clear that the crews at Findon and Keymer provide valuable support to their neighbouring stations at Storrington and Burgess Hill and this flexibility will be lost if the stations are closed and the retained firefighters are laid off.  As a result, there will be larger gaps in the County's fire cover.

I also share the concerns of firefighters in Findon and Keymer who fear that emergencies in Brighton and Worthing will take precedence over their villages when crews are mobilised.  I would question whether these busy fire stations will be able to deal with the additional workload.

2.4 Infrastructure

The road network in West Sussex is struggling to cope with congestion and the problem is likely to get worse in the years ahead.  There is particular concern that communities in Findon and Keymer will have to rely, in part, on fire crews coming from the busy and congested conurbations of Worthing and Brighton.

2.5 Localism

Retained firefighters are paid volunteers who give up their time to serve the local community and help to keep people safe.  They are trained and equipped to the same high standards as their full-time colleagues.

Whilst we should never underestimate the crucial role of full-time professionals, retained firefighters form the backbone of the fire service in rural West Sussex and in the UK.

60 per cent of fire engines in England are manned by retained firefighters.  54 per cent of fire stations in the UK are manned entirely by retained firefighters.  Overall, due to our dependence on retained firefighters in rural areas, they provide cover for 90 per cent of the UK's land mass.  The fire service simply could not function in its current form without them.

I think we should be promoting retained firefighters, not reducing their role.  They provide a huge proportion of our fire cover at very low cost and they carry out valuable education work in the community.  Retained firefighters build strong links between the community and the fire service.

We should also ensure that retained firefighters are actively recruited and that we work hard to hold onto them.  Findon was "off the run" for 21 per cent of the time last year (2009/10), largely because of a lack of manpower.  The same problem meant that Keymer was "off the run" for 28 per cent of the time last year.  I am aware that there have been campaigns to attract more recruits, and in the past I have offered to support the Fire Service with this.  However, the firefighters I met at Findon and Keymer assure me that there is no shortage of people coming forward.

2.6 Costs

Although the Fire Service believes that not all of the costs have been factored in, the consultation documents state that the closure of Findon and Keymer Fire Stations will save £117,000 and £122,000 respectively [1].  These savings form part of £1.2 million that the WSFRS needs to save overall as part of these proposals.

The savings from the closure of Findon and Keymer Fire Stations would be relatively low, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the County's annual fire budget.

I believe that we should be looking for innovative ways to make better use of retained fire stations and crews, perhaps through working more closely with the police and ambulance service, or with First Responders.  We should also open up fire stations to community organisations and use them as a resource for educating people about the importance of fire safety.

2.7 Value for money

The County Fire Officer has said that firefighters spend only around 3 per cent of their time dealing with emergencies.  This reinforces the fact that retained fire stations offer excellent value for money, because firefighters are only called upon when they are needed.  As the West Sussex Retained Firefighters Union has said, they provide a "pay as you go" service.

According to the fire service nationally, the 18,200 retained firefighters in the UK provide "an efficient, cost effective and reliable service".  Without the retained firefighters, the fire service could not continue in its current form.

I support efforts to reduce unnecessary costs and drive up efficiencies.  But we should not be taking resources away from the frontline.  The focus should instead be on stripping out bureaucracy, reducing central overheads and sharing services to make the fire service more efficient.

2.8 Public opinion

In Findon and Hassocks there have been packed village hall meetings, marches and petitions signed by thousands of people.  It is clear that retained fire stations are valued highly by local people.

As the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, I have received a large volume of letters and e-mails from my constituents, all expressing concern about these proposals.  No-one has written to me in support of the proposals.

Local people appreciate the role played by their local retained firefighters who provide cover in the event of an emergency.  My constituents have also told me how much they appreciate the community work undertaken by their local retained firefighters, whether it is through a visit to check fire alarms, a talk at the local school or a stand at the local fete.

One constituent who wrote to me recently said:

"Findon Fire Station is part of the village community; the retained firemen are well-known to many of us and their presence in the village is reassuring; most have families in the village and this adds to the sense of community they bring. They also provide educational services to the whole community and they are always willing to advise and attend at local events."

The proposals to close Findon and Keymer Fire Stations are also being opposed by local councillors.  Hassocks Parish Council has lodged a response to the consultation declaring its "strongest opposition" to the plans.

I think these proposals risk alienating local people who may lose confidence in their fire service.

3. Conclusion

I appreciate that these are decisions for the County Council, not for Parliament.  However, I am raising these concerns at the request of, and on behalf of, my constituents.

I do not believe that the WSFRS and the County Council have made a convincing case for the closure of the retained fire stations at Findon and Keymer.

I appreciate that savings need to be made and I support the County Council who will have to make some difficult decisions in the months ahead.  I do not question these proposals lightly.  However, the overall amount of money that will be saved by closing the retained fire stations at Findon and Keymer is relatively low.

The current situation reminds me of the debate over the proposed downgrading of our local hospitals.  When the West Sussex Primary Care Trust was eventually persuaded to go back to the drawing board, they found a better way to deliver the savings while protecting the local services.  I believe that the Fire Service should do the same.

These stations and their crews provide great value for money and they build strong links between the community and the Fire Service.

Faced with the current resources challenge, the right response is to strip out bureaucracy, reduce central overheads and find innovative ways to deliver services.  The last response should be to close local services.

I believe that these proposed changes are a step in the wrong direction.  I therefore urge the Fire Service and the County Council to think again and find better ways to make savings.


[1] Consultation website - FAQs

Christopher N Howarth