The Fire Brigades Union has launched a major national campaign to protect and develop the work of emergency fire control rooms. The moves comes in response to Government attempts to force local fire authorities in England and Wales to shut down 49 existing control rooms and move them to 9 regional control centres.
The union says there is little or no local support for such moves which will be costly and damage the quality of service. It would also weaken the ability of the fire service to deal with major terrorist incidents and computer failures.
The union has produced a hard hitting report in response to Government moves in which it comprehensively demolishes the case for regional fire control rooms. It also attacks Government secrecy in seeking private sector bids to build the control rooms which will not be open to local scrutiny or be assessed by local fire service experts.
It calls on local councillors to make their position clear on the moves before the local elections on 10 June. The union says local councillors and MPs need to be more forceful in their defence of local democracy and against national imposition.
It warns that local council taxpayers will be lumbered with picking up the tab for the on-going costs of regional control rooms for years to come. The Government has consistently over-estimated savings and under-estimated costs based on a makeshift business case on poor quality – and sometimes wrong – information.
The report warns:
• no proper and rigorous costings were done in advance of the decision being made;
• the business case rests on inadequate information which exaggerates savings and under-estimates costs to create a false picture;
• the assessment of the work done in control rooms is based on only a fraction of the work which is actually done, inflating savings from job losses;
• the Government case rests on only counting the number of incidents rather than the number of actual 999 calls which are significantly higher;
• fewer and bigger controls make them an easier targets for terrorist attacks including cyber-terrorism and viruses;
• relying on technology is dangerous as recent catastrophic failures in the national coastguard and air traffic control computers clearly demonstrate;
• there will be a loss of local knowledge including details of local fire and rescue plans, local dialects and place names;
• there will be a loss of knowledge of the specialist technical skills of individuals fire officers;
• the entire project is driven by national government riding roughshod over local wishes;
• the Government case ignores or perverts international experience including New York where there are plans to move towards five more local rather than a single regional-style control room;
• the number and variety of controls builds in strength and resilience which will be lost with fewer and bigger controls;
• neither the police with 99 controls nor ambulance with 44 controls are making such moves because they know they are wrong.
FBU President Ruth Winters, who worked in the Lothian and Borders emergency fire control room, said:
“The Government case is wishful thinking and wrong in almost every aspect. They make claims for savings where none are proven.
“Costs are underestimated to create a false picture. And local council taxpayers will be lumbered with unwanted regional control rooms and left to pick up the long term bills.
“These increased costs will be a drain on the rest of the fire service which is already under-resourced. Money will be drained out of the frontline service to pay for the burgeoning costs of regional controls.
“The Government claim regional controls will be better when they will be worse. They claim they will be more resilient to terrorist attack when the opposite is true.
“Knowledge of the new local fire and rescue plans will be lost in regional controls. Local knowledge of place names, geography topography and specialist skills of individuals will also be lost.
“Emergency fire control rooms are cost-effective, and those who work in them save lives and are highly professional. This is an exercise in the centrally dictated destruction of a system which has been proven to work time and time again.
“The Government is riding roughshod over local wishes. No one wants regional controls apart from a handful of people in Whitehall.
“Even those fire chiefs who publicly support the moves have major private doubts about the whole project. This is the time for local councillors and MPs to make a stand for local democracy and local controls and kill off these crazy plans.
“There plans will make an excellent service worse. We want to see an excellent service made even better and we will fight a strong and long-term campaign to make that happen.”