Claims the safety of the public and firefighters is at ‘significant risk’ due to a control room merger have been strongly denied by fire chiefs.
Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has been overseeing 999 calls for West Sussex since the merger in December – and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is concerned staff cannot handle the sheer volume of calls.
The union has also branded as ‘reckless’ the decision to bring East Sussex into the merger.
Richard Jones, the FBU’s South East executive council member, said there had been no increase in staff since the initial merger, with more than 9,000 extra 999 calls expected per year.
Mr Jones added: “This is blatantly unsafe and unsustainable.
“Surrey’s emergency fire control room is consistently understaffed and control staff were already desperately overstretched before the merger.
“We’re seeing fatigued staff break down in tears, with the immense pressure causing work-related sickness. The brigade is institutionally unprepared for this merger and it’s causing dangerous operational failures.”
Looking at those ‘failures’, Mr Jones said crews had been sent to 999 calls from the wrong locations and had been sent mobilisation alerts when they were unavailable, causing ‘significant delays in response times’.
The FBU has issued a safety-critical notice to Surrey.
While only an advisory document with no legal weight, the notice raises the union’s serious concerns around the safety of the current control room set-up.
But Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, chief fire officer for West Sussex, said the move to a joint control room had been successful.
She added: “As with any project there is always a ‘bedding in’ period.
“Any issues that have arisen have been quickly resolved and have not affected the way 999 calls are handled, or the level of service people have received, when needing West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service in an emergency.
“We are committed to working hard to address any feedback we receive to continually improve our service.”
A spokesman said the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service ‘strongly refutes’ the FBU claims, adding that West Sussex and Surrey staff had been working together ‘to provide a more effective and efficient response to emergencies across both counties’.
He added: “There have been no reports of any delay to response times to any emergency as a result of the new ways of working.”
The spokesman also said there had been no reports of staff suffering stress-related illness as a result of excessive workloads.
He added: “Analysis of technical difficulties has shown that these have been ‘teething’ issues that have been quickly resolved or worked around, to mitigate any effect on the services.”
The decision to add East Sussex to the merger was made in a meeting behind closed doors earlier this week.
Mr Jones said: “We should not be thinking about adding more pressure until Surrey addresses its under-staffing and operational failings.
“It’s dangerous for control staff, for firefighters, and for the public.”
The FBU concerns were shared by Liberal Democrat leader Dr James Walsh, who said the safety notice was not something that was issued lightly.
Dr Walsh said he had written to Dr Cohen-Hatton ‘seeking reassurance on behalf of West Sussex residents that the situation has been or will urgently be remedied’.