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‘On call firefighters a ‘1950s system operating in 2018’ says Suffolk fire chief

PUBLISHED: 07:30 29 September 2018

Mark Hardingham, Suffolk's chief fire officer, described the on-call system as 'a 1950s system operating in 2018' Picture: GREGG BROWN

Mark Hardingham, Suffolk's chief fire officer, described the on-call system as 'a 1950s system operating in 2018' Picture: GREGG BROWN

Up to nine fire engines a day are left unable to be used because of availability of on-call firefighters, it has emerged – one in five of the county’s entire fleet.

Phil Johnston, chairman of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Suffolk branch, said better financial packages were needed to entice new retained firefighters Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTHPhil Johnston, chairman of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Suffolk branch, said better financial packages were needed to entice new retained firefighters Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH

Chief fire officer for Suffolk Mark Hardingham described the service as “a 1950s system operating in 2018” during Thursday’s county council scrutiny committee meeting, where he outlined the struggle for retained firefighters.

Around 85% of the entire fire service in the county is made up of on-call crews, with more being needed to cover shortfalls in availability during the day when most are at work.

“The system relies on people who have other jobs,” Mr Hardingham said.

“If you are lucky the other jobs they have are within five minutes of their station and their employer is happy to release them if their pager goes off, but that is becoming increasingly rare.

“It would be an average eight-to-nine fire engines across the county unavailable because I don’t have the firefighters to crew them.”

The service has 43 fire engines in total.

To help availability the service has been running a pilot to send on-call crews to incidents with just three members instead of four – a decision the Fire Brigades Union has warned is putting lives at risk.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is also continuing to pursue recruitment drives, with around 40 new sign-ups needed each year.

To help keep rural stations open, a team of dedicated reserves are deployed at different stations on a daily basis to bolster numbers where shortages are found.

Mr Hardingham admitted that a spate of fires during the summer months led to him issuing a plea to all on-call firefighters to make more availability where they could.

“We worked hard to get those messages out to people saying ‘can you do everything you can to keep this fire engine on the road?’.

“That’s not something I can call on them to do all the time – we have to be selective when we do that.”

On-call firefighters currently get around £5,000, but Phil Johnston, chairman of the Suffolk FBU branch, said more incentive was needed.

“There are ways of solving that [on-call recruitment problem] but it would have to be a national, financially viable scheme,” he said.

“You would get people more willing to do that but because it’s not that great financially they are not getting a wider range of people.”

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