Delays of fire at sea cover

PASSENGERS on board a burning ferry off Suffolk's coast would face an agonising wait for firefighters to arrive from more than 100 miles away.And today it was revealed that will be the situation for the next TWO years – despite pledges to restore the county's vital firefighting at sea team.

PASSENGERS on board a burning ferry off Suffolk's coast would face an agonising wait for firefighters to arrive from more than 100 miles away.

And today it was revealed that will be the situation for the next TWO years – despite pledges to restore the county's vital firefighting at sea team.

It would be quicker to get crews to fly across the North Sea from Belgium than to scramble them from Lincolnshire, the next closest maritime fire crew.

The Evening Star launched a campaign after Suffolk axed its firefighting at sea squad to save just £9,000 a year.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has since pledged to ensure the UK has firefighting capacity around its entire coastline to deal with the country's woeful inadequacy to deal with a major ship fire.

But officers assigned to the project have only just started work and now do not expect to be finished until early 2005.

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It is expected to be after that before firefighters in Suffolk are back in action tackling fires on vessels in the busy shipping lanes off the county's coast.

Only ten out of 40-plus coastal brigades still fight fires at sea but shipping lanes get busier each year, with bigger vessels carrying a variety of dangerous cargo and passenger ferries growing in size.

There has long been a fear that there could be a major incident with so much shipping using Felixstowe. There was a perfect example when the P&O Norsea ferry caught fire just days before Suffolk axed its firefighting at sea team.

The MCA's Sea of Change project aims to create a strategy for dealing with major fires at sea and form 12 to 15 squads of 50 officers drawn from coastal fire services who will turn out in an emergency.

Divisional officer Mervyn Kettle, seconded from Cornwall fire brigade as part of a two-man team to carry out the project, said it would take two years.

It was hoped to complete a review of the national and international situation by July, and then to develop a plan of the needs of its region by April 2004.

There will then be consultation on these ideas and it is hoped by early 2005 there will be a final strategic and tactical operational scheme.

The project recognised that not all coastal fire brigades needed to have firefight at sea capability, but it was hoped brigades would team up to provide co-ordinated 24-hour cover.

The MCA says it is essential Suffolk takes part because it already has officers with training and experience and talks would take place soon through the fire chiefs' professional association about reactivating the team.

n What do you think? Write to Evening Star Letters, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or email EveningStarLetters@eveningstar.co.uk

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