Report condemns fire control merger

A MOVE to merge England s 46 fire control rooms into nine regional centres has already cost more than £21million in consultants fees alone – enough to pay the wages of hundreds of firefighters. The entire project, which will cost about £1billion, would p

A MOVE to merge England's 46 fire control rooms into nine regional centres has already cost more than £21million in consultants' fees alone - enough to pay the wages of hundreds of firefighters.

The entire project, which will cost about £1billion, would provide a new six-county, regional control centre for the East of England at Waterbeach, between Cambridge and Ely, as well as eight others equipped with new technology.

The scheme has always been unpopular with firefighters, but a new independent report condemns the plan as dangerous and questions the long-term cost savings the Government has promised.

The report, by the Institute of Public Finance and commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union, adds that only having nine centres in the country presents a security risk - and a risk of disaster if there is a systems failure. And it warns that the move could put up Council Tax, or mean a cut in services.

Firefighters, who have condemned the plan from the start, say their fears are justified and the new control centres should not go ahead.

The move was challenged in Cambridgeshire by one of the people authorised to make it work. Councillor Mac Maguire, chairman of the regional board for the proposed six-county control centre covering Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

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Yesterday (Tuesday) Cllr Maguire, who in 2004, described the project as "totally stupid" said he was still unconvinced by the Government's financial arguments and the efficiency of the technology "remained to be seen".

He said the decision had been imposed on fire authorities. "We could have explored merging with the ambulance and police, or linking with counties like Northants where we have a common boundary but our freedom to do this has been taken away."

Cllr Maguire, who lives in Sawtry, added: "This is something that is being done to us. Why nine control rooms, why not 18 or 22? But now we have to make sure it works as well as it can. At least the control room is in our county."

Cllr Maguire said the authority had been assured by the Government that each fire authority would see savings and there should not be any increase in Council Tax.

As reported by The Hunts Post at the time, a demonstration against the merger by firefighters from the six counties was mounted in April, 2005 outside Fire Service Headquarters in Hinchingbrooke, Huntingdon.

Paul Clarke, branch secretary of Cambridgeshire FBU, told The Hunts Post this week that figures from Hansard (an answer from Angela Smith, Minister for Fire in the Department for Community and Local Government) show the cost of consultants - £21million overall and £11million in 2005/06.

"The £11million spent over a year equates to £30,000 a day; firefighters earn £25,000 a year," he said.

The FBU also believes the idea of spending £1billion on a new IT-based mobilising scheme, is flawed. "Other Government projects using untested IT have been a disaster. There is no evidence that lives will be saved."

Mr Clarke added that the 46 control centres were working well without any changes: "Buncefield [oil storage depot] was the biggest incident in peacetime Europe and it was handled by one control room in Hertfordshire and July 7 was handled by one control room in London."

However, the scheme, devised by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to make

control centres more resilient after the September 11 tragedy, is still likely to go ahead.

The Department for Community and Local Government says the benefits include: having control centres networked to each other, satellite positioning equipment pin-pointing the appliances nearest the incident with the correct equipment, technology to enable staff to mobilise appliances with data-transmission, providing maps showing the quickest route to the incident, traffic conditions, building plans and hydrant locations.