Suffolk: No repeat of ambulance fiasco

SUFFOLK: We won’t let you down!

That was the pledge from Suffolk fire service as they outlined plans to merge their fire control operation with that in neighbouring Cambridgeshire.

The proposal brought back fears that controllers unfamiliar with the county could lead to a repeat of the chaos that gripped Suffolk when the ambulance service was originally merged a decade and a half ago,

But this time deputy chief fire officer Mark Hardingham said the technology, combined with an assurance that there would be two controllers from Suffolk on every shift, should ensure there is no repeat of the ambulance fiasco.

That led to launch of the Evening Star’s AmbulanceWatch campaign which successfully led to major improvements to the service across the region.

Suffolk is likely to merge with Cambridgeshire’s control room when the existing control room site in Colchester Road, Ipswich, is sold at the end of next November.

And it has emerged that the merger will also save the county a considerable amount of money.

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Only eight of the current 23 staff would be able to transfer to Cambridge – prompting anger from the Fire Brigades Union.

As the proposals were officially unveiled before being discussed at next week’s meeting of Suffolk County Council cabinet, Mr Hardingham said senior officers were confident there would not be any impact on safety.

Mr Hardingham said technology had improved significantly – and while local knowledge was valuable, the sophisticated systems now installed should prevent those kind of problems.

He added that a controller from one part of Suffolk did not necessarily have knowledge of every part of the county – but it did not affect the operation.

Merging with Cambridgeshire made a lot of sense – the two authorities shared the same basic IT system and when the new regional control centre opens at Waterbeach near Cambridge at the end of 2012 or in 2013 any staff who had been transferred from Suffolk would be well-placed to move there.

Mr Hardingham said: “From a professional perspective, we are sure that the right decision is being made.”

The county had timed the closure of Colchester Road control centre to coincide with the opening of the much-delayed regional centre, but had recently been told this has been put off again.

That left the county to decide whether to set up its own temporary control centre to come into use by next November or to move in with another authority.

The safety of the public and of firefighters was the main priority – but Mr Hardingham said the Cambridge solution made economic sense.

He said: “Basically moving in with another authority will save us money while setting up a temporary control centre would incur capital costs for an interim solution. That would cost money.”

Mr Hardingham said the government had recently indicated that it was still committed to getting the regional centre operational by 2013 – the project has been beset with problems with the computer systems.

That is a project by the Deparatment of Communities and Local Government and because the proposed changes at Suffolk are a direct reponse to it, the government will pay any redundancy costs that are incurred.