Hunts hit by proposed fire service cuts

HUNTINGDON Fire Station could lose its dedicated 24-hour crewing as Cambridgeshire Fire Authority looks to save money.

HUNTINGDON Fire Station could lose its dedicated 24-hour crewing as Cambridgeshire Fire Authority looks to save money.

St Neots Fire Station could become a fully retained station, and St Ives could be reduced to a single fire engine, as Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service looks to trim �4.3million from its budget over the next four years.

The cuts at Huntingdon would mean the loss of 20 jobs, and unions have already warned they will oppose any cuts to frontline services.

The authority will meet tomorrow (Thursday) to decide which of 10 priority areas it will explore in feasibility studies, including changes to administrative and non-operational services.

Kevin Napier, secretary of the Cambridgeshire branch of the FBU, said: “There is extravagance and expense in the support mechanism in the force – that is where money can be saved.

“It’s still early days – but we would oppose any moves that would affect frontline services. We must look a lot deeper before we even think about that.”

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The force has already identified �1.8m of savings for the financial years 2011/12 and 2012/13, but needs to cut a further �2.5m for 2013/14 and 2014/15.

In Huntingdon – currently one of only four Cambridgeshire stations to have dedicated round-the-clock cover – up to 20 jobs could go, delivering a saving of �760,000.

The plans would see wholetime firefighters man the station during the day, with retained firefighters responding to the station’s calls out of hours.

Cllr Jeff Dutton, chairman of Huntingdonshire District Council, warned that ill-advised cuts could be “catastrophic”.

“The plans concern me greatly. I’m a firm believer that we should have these services fully on the go all the time.

“It is a life-or-death matter – any delay in getting to the scene of an accident in a reasonable time could mean a loss of life.

“And it’s not just fires, because we have more than our fair share of accidents around here – we’re close to the A14, A1 and A428.

“Huntingdon is very centrally placed for the district, and it’s going to take longer to get firefighters out to remote locations. The further they go, the worse it will be.

“The consequences could be catastrophic, so we need to get in there and start fighting.”

The proposed arrangement for Huntingdon is already in place at three other Cambridgeshire fire stations: St Neots, Wisbech and Ely.

Plans to turn those three into retained stations would cut 26 wholetime jobs, and save the authority �933,000.

Another proposal the authority will be asked to investigate is to remove the second appliance at stations which receive less than 120 calls a year, which would include St Ives.

Mr Napier said: “Any reduction to any station affects the resilience of Cambridgeshire as a whole.

“The growth of St Neots as a town is incredible, with developments at Loves Farm and to the north. St Neots is not a shrinking violet – it’s the biggest town in Cambridgeshire – and we should be looking to increase cover there, not reduce it.”

Mr Napier also voiced concern about the fire service’s ability to recruit enough retained firefighters in the economic climate.

“The concept of the retained fire fighter had already taken a hit, as companies are not in a position to release people all the time in these difficult times.”

Geoff Heathcock, former Lib Dem group leader on the Fire Authority, said looking at sharing senior management would deliver bigger savings.

“We are in the business of protecting the public and the community, and you can’t take risks with people.

“Cambridgeshire is already a low-funded authority, and once the savings have been made, it’s very unlikely the money will be put back.

“If you push the risk too far, you are putting people’s lives on the line.”

A spokesman for the fire service stressed that no decisions had yet been made.

She added: “The feasibility studies will allow the fire service to assess how much money could be saved, and how much that will impact on services. Our priority throughout is to minimise the impact on the public.”