Fire chiefs have been accused of putting spin before safety after they admitted recruiting public relations consultants to advise on a controversial plan to cut frontline services. Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service yesterday refused to say who the PR consultants were or how much they were being paid, quoting commercial sensitivity.
But in a statement it said the consultants had been brought in “to ensure the public and our firefighters have an accurate understanding of the financial issues facing us, and how we came to be in this difficult situation”.
A spokesman added: “This is one of those rare occasions when we need to employ outside experts to help us in our work. We need to get the public behind us to help convince the Government that we need more money for Devon and Somerset.”
Critics said the move was “a waste of money”, especially given the strong public opposition to cost-cutting proposals, which include reducing full-time firefighter cover at four stations in Devon.
Firefighter Trevor French, secretary of the Devon branch of the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU), said the money should be spent on frontline services. “They can spin it any way they want but they cannot pull the wool over the eyes of the public,” he said. “It would seem the service is more concerned about spinning than public safety.”
The fire and rescue service has controversially proposed that firefighter cover be downgraded at Plympton, Exmouth and Paignton, with retained crews on standby at night. At Ilfracombe in North Devon, full-time firefighter cover during the day would be withdrawn to be replaced by retained staff on call-out.
In all, 66 firefighters could be affected, although it is unlikely that the fire authority, which meets on February 15, will pursue all the station options. The service has said it has kept 25 vacancies to redeploy any affected staff.
The proposals are part of a package of measures aimed addressing a pounds1.8 million shortfall in the service’s 2008-09 budget.
It has also suggested running a “vacancy margin” to save pounds250,000, changes in training to recoup pounds84,000 and senior and middle management cuts which could save pounds150,000. Moves to change the way aerial platforms are manned, which would save pounds750,000 a year but which have already been rejected by the fire authority, could also make a reappearance.
On Monday, Chief Fire Officer Paul Young laid the blame for the funding problem squarely at the door of the Government. He said: “In our view we have irrefutable evidence to demonstrate that our grant is pounds1 million less than it should be.”
South West Devon Tory MP Gary Streeter said he had been “unimpressed” with the service’s handling of the situation.
“I think it rubs salt in the wounds for the service to talk about cuts because of the budget and then to pay PR specialists,” he added. “That will surprise a lot of people.” North Devon Lib-Dem MP Nick Harvey said that if the fire and rescue service wanted the public to back a campaign to win more Government funding, it should have been launched early last year. “It would have clearly been much more timely to have said this much earlier,” he added.
Mr Young has stressed he has “absolute faith” in retained crews and that the changes should not put the public at “undue increased risk”. However, it was admitted that response times would rise, by an average of three to four minutes, if retained officer replaced full-time firefighters.
Fire authority officers are recommending that members set next year’s council tax precept increase at 4.93 per cent – despite a Government warning that it will be capped if it is not “significantly less” than 5 per cent.
The sum, which is added to the household council tax bill collected by councils and distributed back to the service, would mean residents of a band D property would pay pounds66.58 per year to the service.
Officers at Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority have admitted the proposal is close to being capped, but say they have no choice due to budget pressures.
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