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Lifesaving service axed

PUBLISHED: 19:07 07 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:36 03 March 2010

VITAL minutes will be lost -placing hundreds of lives at risk as ship sail along the Suffolk coast - when the county's firefighting at sea team is scrapped later this month.

By Georgina James

VITAL minutes will be lost –placing hundreds of lives at risk as ship sail along the Suffolk coast - when the county's firefighting at sea team is scrapped later this month.

The specially-trained volunteers, who are made up from the county's fire brigade, were needed just this week on Monday when a fire started in the engine room of the P&O Norsea ferry which was carrying more than 600 passengers.

Thankfully on that occasion nobody needed to be evacuated and the fire was contained with the Suffolk brigade's help, but it served as a stark reminder of the crucial value of such a potentially life saving service.

The specialist team comprises of 35 members from Ipswich, Felixstowe and Lowestoft, and nine are needed for any call out. The decision to axe this service has been reported to save about £9,000 in training costs.

Sub Officer Roy Mitchell based at Lowestoft and who has been part of the firefighting at sea team for about eight years said: "I think it is absolutely disgraceful and every member of the team is disappointed. I hope they are proud of themselves.

"All for the sake of approximately £9,000 a year the powers that be have scrapped it. Firefighting at sea is not a statutory requirement, but then neither is rescuing cats from trees, or even attending road accidents.

"The worst fires in the world often happen onboard ships and when we arrived at the latest incident, I imagine the passengers were quite reassured to see 16 professionally trained firefighters turn up to help.

"As from the 19th of this month, Kent and Lincolnshire will be responsible, but with the amount of traffic on the increase, they will face a logistical nightmare as they have their own area to serve.

"Hopefully pressure will now be put on the government to fund this special service."

But in defending the decision Suffolk County Council said it came down to choosing between saving lives at sea or those on the mainland for which they are responsible.

Peter Monk portfolio holder for public protection at Suffolk County Council said that it was difficult to put a cost on the saving of this service but the main reason for the decision to axe it, was to protect both the safety of firefighters and tax payers.

He said: "The main priority behind our decision was that we were not prepared to see a reduction in cover for the people of Suffolk.

"It's sod's law that the incident in the North sea on Monday should happen 17 days before this service is to be disbanded."

But it was the second fire on board the Norsea in quick succession - lLast month's funnel fire began just 15 minutes after the ferry set sail from Hull and that blaze was extinguished by the ship's crew 30 minutes after being discovered.

Another major fire of the past was on the Nordic ferry, which suffered a fire in the engine room five miles off Felixstowe in 1988. It had to be towed into shore, with nearly 300 passengers and more than 60 crew had been stranded on board.

And in May, the Princess of Scandinavia ferry limped into Kristiansand, Norway after suffering an engine room fire off the Scottish coast with 900 people on board.

But Mr Monk continued: "If someone's house was on fire and we did not get there quickly enough because we were attending a fire on a ship in the North Sea, we would be called to task by the press and the public. Hospitals do not fly nurses out to sea."

In defending the decision made by the panel, which comprised of members of the fire brigade union, brigade officers and volunteer crews, Mr Monk said that the service was not a statutory requirement and that the decision was unanimous and accepted by the entire panel.

"Everybody was in absolute agreement that firefighters should not be deployed for something that we are not required to do."

Divisional officer Mark Sanderson based at fire headquarter, Colchester Road, Ipswich, expressed his sadness at the decision but said he and the firefighters concerned understood the reasoning why.

"As leader of the firefighting at sea team I have observed that individual team members would like to see their skills being used to fight fires at sea.

"The sea teams were consulted and they do respect the decision taken by the elected members and understand the reasons behind it."

Chris Turnock, assistant chief officer at Colchester Road spoke of his regret as a former fighter at sea but said having a firefighting at sea team has always caused a dilemma for the fire service.

"We have always tried not to use firefighters who are on duty but that can not always be avoided.

"As a professional firefighter I am naturally disappointed that in the future we will no longer be able to provide this service.

"The authority had no real option other than to make this decision as they have no statutory duty to provide firefighting at sea. "Obviously there were funding pressures and their priority was their statutory obligation on the mainland.

"However, as a result there will be a lesser level of service for those people who use the coastline."

Mr Monk also explained the decision was not purely a financial one. He said they considered the risks of transporting the firefighters to the ship, the dangers of them being onboard and using equipment they weren't familiar with.

He added: "Every firefighter from Ipswich, Felixstowe and Lowestoft is fully trained to attend fires on ships in the dock area."

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