Potential headline changes to fire service ‘do not shine through’ in new plan

The public are set to be consulted on a plan for the fire and rescue service over the next four years from next month
The public are set to be consulted on a plan for the fire and rescue service over the next four years from next month

‘Potential headline changes and cuts’ to West Sussex’s fire and rescue service ‘do not shine through’ in a new four year strategy, according to Lib Dem councillors.

An updated Integrated Risk Management Plan for 2018-22, which identifies risks and looks at how they are prevented and mitigated, has been published and a six week period of public consultation is set to start next month.

The document was scrutinised by West Sussex County Council’s environment, communities and fire select committee on Friday, with some councillors raising concerns about the level of detail available.

But top fire officers explained how the current IMRP, agreed in 2015, was not fit for purpose and needed to be revised. Any specific details on potential changes would be laid out in future action plans.

A Lib Dem motion, calling for the consultation to be delayed until revisions had been made, was defeated.

Daniel Purchese (LDem, Rustington) said: “There’s a lot of really, really important details if it were to go out to consultation now, even potentially with an executive summary, some of the potential headline changes and cuts which are in here don’t shine through.”

Francis Oppler (LDem, Bognor Regis East) added: “We need to take something that is very good and make it better and sharper and in a form that is palatable for members of the public.”

But Carol Purnell (Con, Selsey) said: “I can’t see why we can’t put it out to consultation.”

Meanwhile Simon Oakley (Con, Chichester East), vice-chairman of the committee, suggested the current level of detail gave potential respondents ‘much freer reign to put their oar in’.

In response Gavin Watts, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s chief fire officer, said: “If we captured everything it would be six times bigger than it is now. What we have tried to do is capture the key points we think the public will be most interested in.”

He added: “These documents by their very nature have to be a moment in time, I think they have to set a very clear direction, they have to make sure they have the public view on our broader approaches to things and if there are detailed shifts that happen and something important that needs to be consulted on then we would absolutely have to do that.”

Mr Watts continued: “There is nothing to hide or sneak through here. We want to be transparent and open and get public engagement so they can have an understanding.

“It’s a complex job and we do not expect the public to have to know everything because they can’t, it’s difficult for us to know everything, but we do think it’s important they engage with us so that they know and understand when decisions are made on the basis of which they have been made.”

Neil Stocker, deputy chief fire officer, explained that performance standards were already in the service’s yearly statement of assurance.

Emergency response standards were last set in 2008 and are set to be reviewed after the IRMP process has concluded.

The latest statement of assurance will be published later this year, while the fire service is also due for an inspection from regulators in 2018.

He said: “What we can’t do in this IRMP, and I know people always want more detail, is presuppose what the public want. This is part of that consultation process.”

Andrew Baldwin (Con, Horsham East) suggested ‘very few people are going to read an 86-page document’, adding: “All they want to know is how these changes will affect them in terms of emergency response attendance times.”

The fire and rescue service’s priorities include reduce the number of emergency incidents and their consequences, working with communities and other second-tier councils to keep West Sussex safe, collaborating with other emergency services, providing customer centred value for money services, and developing a workforce that is professional, resilient, skilled, flexible and diverse.

Mr Stocker also described the need to drive down the number of false alarms, which make up 53 per cent of all calls, plans to use new firefighting technologies and ensure resources are in the right places at the right times.

One of the specific challenges highlighted during the meeting was having enough retained firefighters.

Heidi Brunsdon (Con, Imberdown) stressed the importance of maintaining and retaining the number of retained duty system firefighters.

Mr Watts said: “There is not a clear solution but we have got lots of working going on.”

Meanwhile given the possible takeover of fire and rescue services by the Police and Crime Commissioner is only in abeyance, Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) suggested the county council’s scrutiny arrangements had to be match those available to the PCC.

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