Fire And Rescue Service Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 am on 11th December 2006.

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Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker 2:00 am, 11th December 2006

The Business Committee has allowed two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to speak, and all other Members will have 10 minutes.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the ‘Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan consultation document 2007/08’ prepared by the Fire and Rescue Service and calls for any conclusions and recommendations to ensure that present standards are maintained and that the safety of our citizens is paramount over any other consideration.

A Cheann Comhairle, I have an engagement sim-ultaneous to this debate. I will have to make my contribution and then leave, for which I apologise. However, I will be back before the debate is finished.

I acknowledge and welcome the amendment proposed by Mervyn Storey and Peter Weir of the DUP. The sentiments expressed in the amendment are implicit in the motion, so I have no difficulty in supporting the amendment. This is an important debate, and it should not be constrained by party lines. It involves social and safety issues.

The Fire and Rescue Service published its draft integrated risk management plan (IRMP) for 2007-08 on 1 November 2006. The consultation period will end on 31 January 2007. I urge all Members to ensure that they participate fully in the consultation process.

The Fire and Rescue Service integrated risk management plan for 2006-07 states that:

“A fast response to incidents can make the difference between life and death. The Fire Service Emergency Cover (FSEC) process therefore concentrates on the effect of attendance times as the primary driver for reducing risk to life by operational means.

It is also important that the correct number of firefighters attend each incident to enable firefighting operations to be conducted in a safe and effective manner. Collectively this response is known as the ‘speed and weight of attack’.”

I do not think that any Member will find any difficulty in supporting that assertion. However, we now face the difficulty that, contained within the new draft integrated risk management plan, there are proposals that counter that statement. There is a proposal to cut the number of fire engines from two to one in 12 towns across the North, including two towns — Ballymoney and Ballycastle — in my constituency.

Integrated risk management planning is the technology used by the Fire and Rescue Service in the strategic deployment of resources within a brigade area. There have been three previous integrated risk management plans in the North; the subject of today’s debate is the fourth. The consultation document contains a lot of technical jargon. However, for the ordinary layman or laywoman, it would be a straightforward assumption that response times for fire engines reaching the scene of a fire are crucial in saving lives.

The new figures for response times introduced by the Fire and Rescue Service to high-, medium- and low-risk call outs reflect that fact. For example, in a medium-risk call out, the first appliance should arrive within 12 minutes of the call being made. In all call outs, the second appliance should arrive within three minutes of the first appliance’s arrival. It should be remembered that, in many house fires, a second appliance is critical to ensure safety. Indeed, in the case of a call out where a person is reported trapped in a house, the Fire and Rescue Service currently sends three fire engines.

Those attendance times are the core of the argument that the Fire and Rescue Service is wrong to even consider the removal of 12 engines from the 12 towns in the North. The three-minute time lag is crucial to the safety of firefighters and the public. Statistics show that, of all fire incidents, house fires still claim the lives of most people or cause the most injuries.

I quoted earlier from last year’s integrated risk management plan:

“A fast response to incidents can make the difference between life and death.”

Is that quote not as true today as it was last year?

The quote goes on:

“It is also important that the correct number of firefighters attend each incident to enable firefighting operations to be conducted in a safe and effective manner.”

A Cheann Comhairle, these points were accurate on 1 April 2006; they remain accurate now, and they will be accurate in the future. If any fire engines are removed from those 12 towns and their surrounds, the Fire and Rescue Service will not make its own response times, and lives will be put at risk. In Ballycastle in my constituency for example, if the second engine were removed, a second fire engine would not be in attendance within the required 15-minute timescale; and the three-minute time lag between the first and second engines arriving, so crucial in circumstances of serious house fires, could be massively exceeded. Typically, distance times will be 20 to 25 minutes and greater.

The bottom line, a Cheann Comhairle, is that no matter where people live, they have the right to equal access to essential services. Current standards must be maintained, and the safety of citizens and firefighters must be paramount. The proposals contained in the draft IRMP consultation document jeopardise those standards and must be removed.

Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

I have received one amendment to the motion, which is published on the Marshalled List of Amendments.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out “notes” and insert “condemns the proposals contained in”, and leave out all after “Service” and insert

“to remove the second fire appliances from twelve towns in Northern Ireland, thus endangering the safety of both firefighters and the public.”

The process of consultation has already come in for some criticism in this House — and rightly so. The IRMP consultation over the past three years could not be described as widespread, or well informed. If the imperative is to have a public consultation process, an equal imperative is that that process is transparent and accountable. Comments from the Fire Brigades Union describe the process to date as a sham, used to endorse strategic decisions that have been taken in advance of consultation by senior Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) managers. If that is the case, it is to be regretted, and it is something that this House should not endorse.

As a former member of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland, I can say that we should be proud of the local Fire and Rescue Service. Too often it is the Cinderella of the emergency services and fails to get the recognition and resources that it deserves.

This is an issue that should not be used as a political football. It is an issue that should unite all the parties in this House, because the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has, throughout the difficulties that the Province has faced, been at the forefront of ensuring the safety of residents. I wish to place on record our appreciation of the work of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service through 35 years of terrorism wreaked upon the Province and supported by some Members in the House. We welcome the fact that, belatedly, those Members are coming to support it.

The proposals in the draft IRMP will lead to fire cover by postcode. The costs are, as yet, unquantified and the proposals are unwarranted and unsafe, not only for firefighters, but for the public of Northern Ireland.

The Member for North Antrim referred to the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland’s acceptance of the emergency response standards. Those standards set out the requirement for the attendance of fire appliances and, in particular, for the attendance of a second fire appliance.

I remind Members of the fire stations at risk: Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Castlederg, Clogher, Holywood, Kilkeel, Lisnaskea, Maghera, Newtownhamilton, Portstewart and Rathfriland. Members should also remember that not only are the stations listed in the draft IRMP for 2007-08 at risk; it is also proposed to review cover for the city of Belfast. Members cannot suppose that stations in their constituencies are not under threat, simply because they are not mentioned.

I trust that the proposal is not a cynical attempt by the board of the Fire and Rescue Service to change the provision of service delivery. If so, it should declare that openly and transparently. It should put the precise proposals about those stations on the table.

Computer software — the fire service emergency cover system — is used to analyse historical incidents, and census data is used to identify risks in the Fire and Rescue Service area in order to determine the appro-priate response standard. That methodology indicates that in Northern Ireland — as in the rest of the United Kingdom — most fires, fatalities and injuries arise from fires in homes. When standards are met, fire crews are able to function within safety systems and in the knowledge that they can ensure people’s safety. In all risk categories, there is a maximum of a three-minute time-lapse between the arrival of the first and the second appliance. That is to ensure that the response time and the weight of attack are adequate in the risk in all circumstances. That three-minute time-lapse is at the core of the contention.

The IRMP proposals are flawed and dangerous. If the proposals to remove the second appliance from the 12 designated locations are realised, it will not be possible to have a second appliance in attendance within the stipulated time in those areas that have been targeted for cuts. Ballycastle has been mentioned; to that I add Ballymoney, in my own constituency. If those towns have to depend on a second appliance coming from Coleraine, it will take more than the time stipulated in the approved emergency response standards.

In Northern Ireland, all stations reach that response time on 75% of occasions. Those stations that currently lag behind and that fail to meet response times on 25% of occasions will now have those 12 stations added to their number. Instead of an enhanced service providing improved delivery, these proposals will have a detrimental effect on the Fire Service. The IRMP proposals undermine the dwelling-fire-risk assessment that underpins the response standards published and approved by the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland in April 2006. It is not true to say that there are fewer call outs. In certain circumstances, there are fewer mobilisations of fire appliances because of the authority’s decision to reduce attendance to automatic fire alarms. However, it is disingenuous to assert that there are fewer fires. In the light of the ongoing threat from dissident organisations — if there is such a thing as dissident republicans — we must ensure that fire cover and response times are adequate.

The proposals are not costed, and no figure has been put on any saving. All Members are in favour of efficiency, but that should not be achieved at the expense of the safety of firefighters or citizens.

Any savings will be minimal. The focus of the IRMP should be to enhance the safety of our community. We all, at some time, have had to depend on the Fire Service; I doubt whether there is one Member who has not had to call out the Fire Service. It would be a terrible tragedy if any of us in the Assembly or any of the citizens of Northern Ireland had need of the Fire Service and found it inadequate or incapable of delivering. I commend the amendment to the House and ask each party to support it and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Services.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP 2:15 am, 11th December 2006

Colleagues get many consultation doc-uments; some relate to change in operation and others to improvement in services, whereas some are not interested in improving services but are more concerned with reducing costs and the number of employees. Studying the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service’s draft integrated risk management plan, I find that it does not address any of the foregoing points. Rather, it attacks the service’s capacity to meet its own standards for response times. At first glance, the document appears innocuous; however, on closer examination, its proposals appear fundamentally flawed.

Throughout my comments, I wish to refer to the fire station in Holywood, but they apply equally to the other 11 stations. There are two front-line appliances based in north Down, in the station in Holywood. Under this plan, one of them would be removed and the station downgraded. No savings are contemplated. The recent investment there of £40, 000 in the training of 10 new firefighters would have been totally wasted. That is ironic, as Holywood is one of three centres of excellence in Northern Ireland, and it provides NVQ learning standards to new recruits. Holywood station covers a wide area, from the Knocknagoney Road to the Devil’s Elbow, including a development at Kinegar Exchange that will include the new IKEA store. It is also part of the emergency response plan for the George Best Belfast City Airport. Moreover, it services huge depots in the harbour estate, Palace Barracks and significant fuel storage at Kinegar.

The consultation document is based on a review of the usage of second appliances and does not appear to consider actual demand. For example, at the time of this review, Holywood’s manning levels were 50% of its in-tended establishment, due to staff shortages. This seriously compromised Holywood’s ability to mobilise its two appliances in 2005, and therefore the figures in the document do not represent reality. In the document tables, Members will see that in the years before 2005, Holy-wood’s response was exactly three times the ideal figure.

The proposals from the service’s consultation doc-ument envisage replacing the second front-line appliance with a small fire safety unit, whatever that may be. That would seriously compromise the service’s ability to provide adequate cover. It is difficult to see how the Fire Service could guarantee us predetermined response times. The second Holywood appliance has been in use for many years and has probably been fully depreciated. All the staff work part-time, and the volunteers represent no standby cost at all. Why dispense with such an economic and valuable service?

In summary, Madam Speaker, the loss of a second appliance would be a waste of staff resources in the light of the recent recruitment in Holywood, and it may compromise response times as laid down in the Northern Ireland Emergency Response Standards and Integrated Risk Management Action Plan 2006/07, which was published in April 2006. That loss will also cause considerable concern and criticism in the public arena, as has already been evident.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Will the Member confirm that his concerns are for all the stations mentioned — including Holywood — but, particularly, for Newtownhamilton in Newry and Armagh?

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am concerned about Newtownhamilton, and all of the others on the list.

The small fires unit would represent an additional cost — not a saving — to the Fire Service, and it would restrict current operational resilience. The current manpower level at the Holywood fire station offers a flexible pay-as-you-go resilience for its surrounding areas in times of seasonal and political demands, and its strategic location and manning levels offer a cost-effective opportunity for extra resources in the greater Belfast area. I support the amendment.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Public safety is paramount, and it is essential that fire and rescue services are maintained to excellent standards. The SDLP will be making a comprehensive response to the draft consultation on the integrated risk management plan. We are aware of the vital role that the Fire Service has played over many years and through the Troubles, when there were often added risks beyond those associated with rescuing people and extinguishing fires — and I in no way wish to oversimplify the role of the fire officer. The ongoing attacks on the emergency services and on Health Service personnel must also be proactively addressed and removed.

The draft consultation document is part of a regular exercise, and it is useful in anticipating long-term development. However, I fully understand local concerns about each fire station in the ongoing con-sideration. Public safety must be uppermost in our minds, and integrated planning for all of the emergency services to come together effectively and efficiently is crucial in all situations from the smallest kitchen fire to a major incident. Many of those services come under the umbrella of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Some of the arguments are, naturally, local, and my SDLP colleagues will provide an all-over view, from the local to the big picture. Some arguments are concerned with the question of what is local and what is regional, and with what measures are required to get the most efficient and effective system and the best value for money. Those requirements must be looked at in conjunction with what is best for the wider community, as would be done in a regional Assembly.

I would have preferred the draft consultation document to have contained a lot more information. It would have been helpful to have seen the annual report of the Chief Inspector of the Fire Service referenced to proposals in the draft, and I also would have liked to have seen more details on training and the planning of the geographic workload. The document should also have recommended that the Fire and Rescue Service have the ability to exercise more local control and a greater flexibility of staff and resources. Additional details on costing, risk assessments and analysis would also be of benefit; they are very important. If the Fire and Rescue Service is considering the removal of pumping, a risk analysis must be carried out, and the public must have more information on the risks to them if that happens.

There also needs to be a greater explanation for the reduced number of call outs. Is that due to better education on how to reduce the risks of fires — be it through carelessness with a cigarette or a chip pan? Or, might it be related to the end of the Troubles — as we know it — and reflective of a more tranquil society? We need more information before we can make an adequate response.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I want to take this opportunity to praise the courage, dedication and hard work of all the staff of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in ensuring the safety of people throughout Northern Ireland. For years, Fire Service personnel have put their lives on the line daily to save others. That must be recognised.

I am pleased that the Fire and Rescue Service’s draft integrated risk management plan includes a proposal to conduct risk assessments of buildings that were not included in the 2005‑06 plan. I welcome that initiative and hope that it will help to raise safety standards and save lives. With regard to proposal 3 — the location of fire stations and resources in Belfast — I understand the need for a review of facilities in the light of changes in demographics. However, the review must enhance the service and ensure better protection for the people of Belfast. I hope that, given the increase in population in the city, the Fire Service will consider providing additional appliances in order to save life and property.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

We must be under no illusion that this is about the provision of additional locations for fire stations. Page 12 of the draft proposals clearly identifies current resources and names the stations in the city of Belfast. There is no provision for that to be expanded. Members must be sure that they understand clearly what is being proposed.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I thank my colleague for his intervention. I understand exactly what is being proposed.

Proposal 4 of the draft document looks at the viability of second appliances in many towns in Northern Ireland. Removing second appliances could place the safety of local people at risk. We must do all in our power to prevent their removal. There must be no cost- or corner-cutting measures where people’s lives are involved.

I want to raise a massive problem that faces local firefighters. In recent years, there have been many attacks on Fire Service staff trying to go about their work. It beggars belief that misguided young people — usually children — should launch attacks on firefighters, who are often trying to save the lives and property of people in their own areas. I appeal to parents and guardians to ensure that their children are not engaged in that shameful and reckless activity. I welcome the recent advertising campaign aimed at stopping such behaviour. Those who are caught attacking local firefighters must be dealt with severely by the police and the courts, as they endanger the safety not only of firefighters but, indeed, of the wider community. The issue must be tackled head on. Fire Service staff should not have to run the gauntlet of hatred when they are trying to save lives and property.

I strongly condemn the proposed removal of second appliances from 12 towns across Northern Ireland, including Holywood and Newtownhamilton, which were of concern to another Member. I suggest that, rather than decreasing the number of appliances, we must maintain whatever is required in order to provide the best Fire and Rescue Service for everyone in Northern Ireland. I am happy to support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

I am glad that, as a public representative, I have the opportunity to speak about such an important issue on behalf of the wider community. I always worry when I see consultation documents, from wherever they may come. They are always concerned with reducing resources in Northern Ireland. I believe that the risk management document goes a long way towards doing that.

My town of Londonderry was not one of the towns that were named in the document. However, the important point is that at some time in the future, it could be. My hon Friend from North Antrim Mervyn Storey has already described a situation that could occur in Belfast. Therefore we all should be careful, because these recommendations could have a snowball effect across Northern Ireland.

As many Members have already mentioned, it is important that we recognise the service that all our emergency services have provided, especially through the difficult years here. Many members of those services have made the supreme sacrifice — none more so than those from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. It would be wrong if the House did not recognise the great sacrifices that have been made.

It is tragic that all our emergency services, especially the Fire Service, have experienced difficult times. We can all recall that, a few years ago, members of the Fire Service had to stand on picket lines to try to get a reasonable salary for the difficult job that they do. Everyone in the House at the time supported their actions and what they were trying to do. That action was about getting recognition for what they provide for all citizens in Northern Ireland from the Government and from the Fire Service.

The bottom line is that any reduction in resources to the Fire Service must be condemned. I am glad that the Member who proposed the motion has accepted the amendment, which makes the motion a lot stronger. It goes a long way towards sending a clear message to the Government and to the Fire Service that they must keep their hands off the Fire Service and make absolutely sure that there is no reduction in the resources that it needs to do its job. That clear message must be sent today.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 2:30 am, 11th December 2006

Does the Member agree that there is an urgent need for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to establish the training facility that has been on the long finger since I was a member of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland? I understand that an imminent announcement may be made about the location of that facility. However, a number of fire stations across the country still require new premises. In particular, there has been an attempt over the past three or four years to find a suitable location for the fire station in my constituency of Ballymena.

Does the Member also agree that it is contradictory that the draft plan contains a proposal for a reduction in the number of second appliances when, in January, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service will look for additional recruits, even in those locations from which it proposes to remove a second appliance?

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

I certainly agree with those comments. As I said, my greatest fear is that this is the start of a process that could lead to total and absolute disaster for the Fire Service in Northern Ireland.

I also agree with the hon Member that quite a number of the Province’s fire stations do not meet the standards that they should. Many fire stations also need to be relocated, and that has created difficulties.

This House must send a loud and clear message to those who want to tamper with any of our emergency services: it cannot and should not happen.

We should be building on our emergency services, especially our fire services and resources, which are very much needed. I support the amendment.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Before I call the next speaker, I wish to bring to the attention of Members that this will be the first occasion that the Assembly will hear from Mr Willie Clarke, when he will be making what can be described as his maiden speech. As Members know, the convention is that such a speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Willie Clarke Willie Clarke Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In supporting the amendment I wish to stress the vital importance of ensuring that there is adequate emergency fire cover, particularly in isolated rural areas. It is clear from the response that Sinn Féin has been receiving across the Six Counties that there is widespread opposition to the proposals contained in the annual integrated risk management plan.

The board of the Fire and Rescue Service has recently reiterated the message that the safety of the general public and firefighters across the North remains its number one priority. Those are worthy sentiments, which sadly have little or no basis in fact. There is growing concern about how the review will impact on towns and villages across the North.

In my constituency of South Down, the recommend-ations outlined in the review will result in the removal of one fire appliance from each of the fire stations in Kilkeel and Rathfriland. That will mean that there will be insufficient cover to provide the minimum level of protection that all communities should be entitled to when an emergency occurs.

The review mentions that specialised fire units will replace existing fire units, without specifying in any detail what exactly those units are, or how they are going to provide cover for local communities or indeed the wider population. There will also be specialised appliances housed in Rathfriland but kept on standby to be sent to calls all over the North, meaning the pool of the available staff in Rathfriland will be significantly reduced and less able to deal with local emergency call outs, such as house fires.

The existing large firefighting units can attend both small and large fires and will therefore provide the necessary flexibility that allows them to deal with a wide range of incidents. The smaller units are designed primarily to deal with small fires, but there is no mention of their capacity to deal with large fires or any other type of emergency call such as car accidents. Therefore, the proposals represent a reduction in the levels of equipment available to deal with all but the most minor of incidents.

The Fire and Rescue Service is in the process of creating full-time crews and fire stations in places such as Portadown and Newtownards. Contrast that with what has happened in rural areas such as Kilkeel, Rathfriland and Newtownhamilton and, just as importantly, the surrounding hinterland — the logical conclusion is that those rural areas are being down-graded significantly in order to pay for the upgrade in larger towns.

Given the areas in which the improved cover is being proposed, one might be forgiven for thinking that the people making the decisions are being highly selective about where they are improving facilities. I strongly believe that certain geographical areas are going to lose out as a result of the review. The view in my own constituency is that rural areas across South Down are being penalised and placed at risk in order to ensure a first class service elsewhere.

How do the changes tally with the board’s claims that it would not compromise the safety of the public and firefighters, nor the ability of firefighters to deal with emergencies? In reality, the Fire and Rescue Service is pedalling empty rhetoric in an attempt to put a positive spin on what are unacceptable cuts to our emergency services. Having a second fire appliance is of vital importance and is needed in order to meet the standard required to deal with house fires. Will a householder, whose home is engulfed by fire, be expected to wait in the hope that a tender will make it in time as it travels from a major town many miles away, presuming, of course, it is available at the time of the emergency?

My constituency has one of the worst road infra-structures in the North. In Down district there is not one millimetre of dual carriageway. The Fire and Rescue Service is distorting and minimising the level of risk in places such as Kilkeel and Rathfriland in order to justify cuts to the fire stations in both towns.

Allowing for an arrival time of 21 minutes, instead of the existing 12-minute call out time, would place people at unacceptable risk. Local firefighters, who provide a wonderful service, and constantly put their lives at risk serving the community, may be placed in the position where they are forced to act against legal guidance, if, for example, they attack a house fire without waiting until a second appliance arrives.

Will those firefighters be placed in the impossible position of having to ignore the pleas of families, friends and neighbours to tackle the fire because they need a back-up crew to protect them in case the fire spreads and they risk their lives unnecessarily? Will the senior persons responsible for reducing the numbers of machines simply blame the local crews and say that they should have known the risk or should have waited?

The local provision of machines and people should provide a reasonable safety net for the local community. This reduction in large firefighting machines will significantly undermine the safety of communities. If the number of calls is to be the only yardstick used when making these decisions, then the safety of the community will be compromised. People will be penalised and left with less protection. On the occasions when something unforeseen happens, the Fire and Rescue Service argues that the number of calls attended to is not the only factor on which its policy is based. However, it has yet to mention any other criteria, such as risk.

This is not just a question of pounds and pence; the bottom line is that the Fire and Rescue Service must be able to provide an effective response to all local emergencies. In rural areas there is a very real concern that communities will be left exposed to unacceptable risk. No matter where people live, they have an absolute entitlement to equal access to services. We have given assurances that Sinn Féin will not back any proposals that will result in the withdrawal of fire appliances and endanger people’s lives. Firefighters on the ground — and I have spoken to those in my constituency of South Down — are clearly opposed to any withdrawal of appliances. I urge the Assembly to support the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Madam Speaker, I have been told that the sound is extremely bad in this corner of the Chamber. I suggest that there is some sort of organised situation to prevent the Ulster Unionist Party from being heard. I just want to clarify that that is not the case. [Interruption.]

Perhaps some Members are interested but do not want to hear what I have to say. That is fine.

Emergency services — the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service and even the Police Service — are coming under increasing attack from the public. That is not acceptable in this community, and I want to make that absolutely clear from the outset.

All of this appears to be rural apartheid. Most of the towns that have been targeted serve isolated rural areas. That is the case in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I am concerned about the continued centralisation of services, which is a worry to my constituents, who feel increasingly isolated. We have seen in recent weeks that fire, whether deliberate or accidental, has the potential to kill and seriously injure and to damage property. It can happen within seconds and minutes. Those seconds and minutes are vital; services need to be at the scene quickly.

In particular, I want to cite Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh. If the first appliance is already attending an incident and a call comes in about an emergency in Rosslea, for example, the nearest appliance will be 26 miles away in Enniskillen. That is, at minimum, a 45-minute journey. In that time a property could be devastated, and it could mean life or death to people in or near that property. If there were a serious accident, people could die before the Fire and Rescue Service reached them. That is one of the biggest concerns for me and for my constituents.

In a house fire, noxious fumes and smoke can overcome the occupants before they have time to raise the alarm. An arson attack on retail premises can cause millions of pounds worth of damage in a very short time — almost instantly. That is why it is vital that these services remain close at hand.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP

Does the Member agree that this Government have told us ad nauseam that less is better? We have seen the absolutely disastrous effect of that: less policing has meant more crime; fewer beds have meant longer waiting lists; and now fewer fire and rescue services will mean greater potential for loss of life and increased waiting times for fire appliances to arrive at the scene of road accidents, at which their equipment is needed to cut victims from vehicles.

Costs cannot be the driving force for our emergency services. We must all support the amendment if we are to send a clear message to Government that less is bad.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 2:45 am, 11th December 2006

I thank the Member for her intervention. I certainly cannot disagree with her comments, sentiments and interpretation of what the Government believe. That is the point that I have been trying to make.

I am aware that the Government are also having an internal review of ambulance services, which are equally critical to this community. In recent discussions on the location of health services, various stakeholders widely used the notion of the “golden hour” to attempt to justify where accident and emergency services should be sited. When the Fire and Rescue Service attends fires or other emergencies, seconds and minutes are important.

Therefore cost-cutting for the sake of cost-cutting is not desirable in this community or in any other community, whether here or on the mainland. It is a false economy on the Government’s part.

Like the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), I am concerned by the proposal to remove the second fire appliance from the 12 designated locations. I fear that to do so will negatively impact on the entire community and on the safety of many, not only in isolated rural areas, which obviously I am more prone to support, but in areas such as Ballymoney and Holywood, which are in key locations. Their removal will compromise firefighters, who have a significant job to do in this community. They will be hampered in doing their job successfully if the draft IRMP is implemented.

I do not want the public, or firefighters themselves, to be put at risk for the sake of money. Financial costing is required in every organisation, but there is a tipping point at which safety becomes the overriding issue. That may have to be achieved, even though I do not accept that it should be achieved for financial reasons.

The arrival of a fire appliance in the first few minutes of a fire, road traffic accident or other emergency is vital to minimising the damage to life or property. I note with interest that the FBU, in its briefing paper, has reservations about the way in which the previous three IRMP consultations were carried out. The FBU has raised an issue that other Members and I regularly raise: even when we respond to consultations, and experts respond to consultations, our responses are often not listened to. The Government think that they know better than the experts, but the Government are often wrong.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also wish to add my words of thanks to our firefighters in Northern Ireland for the courage and bravery that they have shown, and I extend that thanks to the rest of the emergency services. It is important to point out that the Assembly gave the first special Assembly award to our firefighters. That is a true reflection of our recognition of all their hard work.

It is important that we note that this is the fourth integrated risk management plan consultation that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has conducted. Each consultation is followed by an action plan, which, in theory, is informed by the responses that have been received. The three previous consultations were not widely responded to; for example, only six written responses were received to last year’s consultation.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There have been concerns at times at the way in which the responses have been counted. There has been a slightly dubious quality to the way in which that has been done. I know of at least one occasion when perhaps hundreds of responses from serving firefighters that were received were counted as one response because they contained a similar point of view and used similar language.

I would take some of the figures that appeared in the responses to the consultation with a small pinch of salt.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that intervention.

It is often said that we in Northern Ireland are subject to consultation overload, which has already been mentioned. However, this is one consultation that we must not ignore, because there is a real danger that untested, untried and un-costed cuts in fire cover will be the result.

To understand the problem with the Fire and Rescue Service board’s draft IRMP, we must understand the present standards stated in the motion. Evidence confirms what many firefighters already know: most fire-related fatalities occur in the home. Only last April, the NIFRS announced its emergency response standards; in other words, the number of fire engines and firefighters mobilised to any type of incident. The Fire and Rescue Service has set itself the target of meeting those response standards on 75% of occasions.

That methodology is accepted as the appropriate means of determining standards across the UK. In fact, the process has identified that, because of growing traffic congestion, the Fire and Rescue Service has difficulties in meeting attendance-time targets, part-icularly in Poleglass and Lagmore in my constituency. However, measures are being considered by the Fire and Rescue Service to address this failure. In the short term, the Fire and Rescue Service will have a fire engine on standby in Dunmurry. In the longer term, there will be a new fire station with the sole purpose of ensuring that attendance times can be met. There can be no doubt that the appropriate attendance in respect of “weight of response” and “speed of attack” must be seriously considered if lives are to be saved in dwelling fires.

The 12 fire stations highlighted for review during the consultation have been designated as being in medium-risk areas. The Fire and Rescue Service’s standards state that, for a house fire, the first engine must attend within 12 minutes and the second within 15 minutes. Many Members have highlighted those times during the debate.

The nub of the issue is that, if the Fire and Rescue Service board’s review of usage of second engines in those locations results in any decision to remove or replace them with another type of fire appliance, it will no longer be possible for fire crews to meet the attendance times for dwelling fires, simply because the second engine will have to be mobilised from a neighbouring town and will be unable to attend the incident within the stipulated 15 minutes.

For well founded safety reasons, firefighters operate within rigid standard operating procedures. Firefighting must be organised and disciplined, otherwise people get hurt. The Fire and Rescue Service’s standard operating procedures require that the range of incidents that it deals with be approached in a methodical manner.

Imagine a house on fire with a family trapped on an upper floor. The first fire engine arrives, and the fire-fighters have a number of questions to answer instantly. Do people need immediate rescue? How many water jets will be required to extinguish the fire and stop it from spreading to adjacent premises? Is a water supply available? Will firefighters need to enter the burning building wearing breathing apparatus? Will it be necessary to put a ladder up to the upper floor? Do any casualties require immediate first aid? Those are just some of the immediate decisions that firefighters are faced with in a life-threatening situation.

There will be five firefighters on that first fire engine. They, and the unfortunate people who are trapped by the fire and smoke, depend on the second fire engine arriving within the next three minutes. Any delay will have a significant impact on a fire and rescue officer’s decision-making process in the critical initial stage of an incident and on whether there will be a successful outcome. If the draft IRMP goes through unchallenged, that second fire engine will be more than three minutes away, and the consequence will be that lives that could have been saved will be lost.

There are three key points that Members must grasp. The first is that the Fire and Rescue Service is proposing to consider whether an alternative specialist appliance would be more appropriate at the 12 locations.

Members must not be duped into believing that any specialist appliance will be an adequate replacement for a traditional fire engine.

The term “specialist appliance” refers to aerial platforms, command and control vehicles, and rescue tenders for dealing with road traffic collisions. They are designed, and intended, for specific purposes, and do not carry either the crew or the equipment to deal with house fires. Therefore, whether the Fire and Rescue Service decides that it might be appropriate to locate a turntable ladder in Kilkeel or a rescue tender in Ballymoney, the need still remains for a traditional fire engine and crew to deal with dwelling fires in those areas within the emergency response standards attendance time.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair.)

The second point is that the Fire and Rescue Service has set a target of meeting its emergency response standards on 75% of occasions; that target is arbitrary. Other fire and rescue services in the UK have set targets higher than 75%. That constitutes fire cover by postcode lottery, and our community deserves better.

The third point is that the proposal to replace the designated fire engines has not been costed. The Fire and Rescue Service does not intend to reduce attendance at dwelling fires. The problem is that the attendance of the second fire engine will be slower and less effective. The same costs will still be involved: the fire engines have already been paid for, and the firefighters are already employed. The proposal will result only in later attendance times, and that will be past the point when they could have had any positive impact in a life-threatening situation.

The question must be asked: what does the proposal achieve? A cynic might deduce that the proposal is someone’s bid for the post of Chief Fire Officer, by impressing figures in the sponsoring Department. The proposal is certainly not in the interests of the Fire and Rescue Service’s effectiveness and efficiency, and it is most certainly not in the interests of safety.

Mr Deputy Speaker, it is the duty of elected repre-sentatives to oppose any cuts in the Fire and Rescue Service that will increase the risk to our community. The Fire Brigades Union is encouraging all parties to respond in writing to the consultation, highlighting the dangers. As Carmel Hanna has already said, the SDLP will be doing that, and I encourage other Members to do the same. I support the amendment.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I am glad to see that we are all on the same wavelength on this issue.

We are told that the proposal for up to 12 fire stations to lose their second appliance is an attempt to streamline the Fire and Rescue Service. A table of usage has been published, which I presume is meant to illustrate how usage of those appliances has decreased in those 12 locations. However, there are some problems with the table; one is immediately apparent to me, as I am sure that it is to other Members.

I want to use the example of Holywood, which my colleague the Member for North Down Mr Cree has already mentioned, because it is close to my constituency. Holywood may lose its second appliance because of a decrease in its usage. However, the second appliance in Holywood is used more often than the first appliance in Castlederg; I know that my colleague Mr Buchanan will have something to say about Castlederg. There is a similar situation in places such as Newtownhamilton and Rathfriland, where usage is slightly down. If Holywood is taken as an indicator of intent, Castlederg may not only be in danger of losing its second appliance but also its first appliance. That is the logic of that table.

How does that achieve the aim of the integrated risk management action plan? The aim is stated as:

“working towards … community safety … to reduce injuries and deaths across a wide range of life threatening emergencies”.

The proposed action plan does not make sense in fulfilling that objective. In 2005, Holywood’s second appliance was used in 57 life-threatening situations. In 2004, the figure was almost treble that, at 147 life-threatening situations. We cannot look at one year’s reduction, one year’s victory, and place the lives of the people under the remit of that brigade in danger by jumping the gun and taking away a vital service provision. We cannot cut corners. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be a victim of a fire, or even to have witnessed a fire, and experienced the speedy response and life-saving actions of crews working in tandem knows that the removal of that option lessens the chance of survival. Not only is there a danger to the general public but there is a danger to the brave men and women of our Fire and Rescue Service, who rely on one another for their very lives and the lives of others.

They move as a very well oiled team. To take away a section of the team is to disrupt the system, piling too much pressure on one team, and leading to a higher chance of a tragic outcome. This is not scaremongering: fewer firefighters equals greater risk. I fully comprehend the need for streamlining and increased efficiency, but this attempt to cut back in these circumstances is incomprehensible. If the Fire and Rescue Service is to gain control of fires and to save lives and properties, it must do so at full strength.

I do not wish to be facetious. However, if it were suggested that the oxygen tanks carried on firefighters’ backs should only be half-filled in an attempt to save money, on the premise that, on average, a full tank of air is not used each time, people would be up in arms. They would be exasperated at the idiocy of the suggestion, yet they are faced with a lifesaving resource being shunted to save money. That is unacceptable.

I am not advocating that two teams should always be in the fire station on the off chance that there might be a fire. However, it was invaluable to have the engine and back-up available to respond to the 57 situations that required assistance in Holywood. I could understand a cutback if the vehicle had never been used, but as it has been used once every two and a half days in recent years, and once a week last year, the proposal seems nonsensical. I cannot fathom the rationale behind these plans. Try telling the 57 victims of the fires attended by the back-up team working alongside the first engine that that back-up was unnecessary, despite it having saved their livelihoods, even their lives. If the Fire and Rescue Service is to provide the required response, it must do so with every conceivable aid at its disposal. To attempt to cut down on that cannot be sensible and should not be supported.

Northern Ireland has many fire stations with a large number of staff at the full-time stations and a large number of full-time and retained staff at the other stations. There is also a voluntary station. Those teams are responsible for 660,000 homes. Statistically, 2·5 people live in each home, and it is the job of firefighters to ensure that their lives will be saved should the unthinkable occur.

We must also consider the possibility of a factory fire similar to the one that an English fireworks company suffered recently, in which two fire officers lost their lives. If several brigades were to respond at once to such a fire, they might leave the constituents of the Fire and Rescue Service’s home remit unprotected in the event of a fire or a road traffic accident. That is where the added security of a second appliance is priceless. Although Holywood would suffer the initial loss of a back-up team, Ards, Bangor, Castlereagh and neighbouring towns, which have relied upon that back-up and have been secure in the knowledge that it was there, could also feel the effect of its loss.

Decisions such as this affect not only one station or brigade; they can have a ripple effect. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripples can be far-reaching depending on the weight of the stones thrown. This document suggests that the stone is a weighty one indeed.

Therefore I support the amendment to the motion. I urge that the recommendation to remove these 12 appliances be taken no further and that the consultation process and our full support be pledged to the sustenance of these much-used and essential pieces of equipment and team members. To do other than that is to endanger the lives of the men, women and children of the Province and to heap potentially even more danger and destruction on the men and women of the Fire and Rescue Service, who sacrificially serve us.

The bottom line is that if funding is needed to support this, it must be found. Funding can always be found for abstract, less worthy and less essential causes. It simply must be the issue in this case; money is the driving force behind these absurd regulations. I can think of no other reason to attempt to cut back the number of appliances.

It is not up to the Fire and Rescue Service to choose between saving lives and saving money. In fact, that should never register as a choice. Fire and rescue services should not be diminished or decreased; on the contrary, they should be enhanced and expanded. To make that happen, all Members must support the amendment.

Photo of Paul Berry Paul Berry Independent 3:00 am, 11th December 2006

I rise to support the motion and the amendment. The amendment, placed in Mr Storey’s name, strengthens and enhances the motion. I do not say that from a political perspective, but because an important, clear and concise message must be sent to the Minister, the Chief Fire Officer and the chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

I served on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee during the period of devolved government — I know that other Members in the Chamber today also served on that Committee — and we continually sent a clear message to the Department, the Minister, the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland and the Chief Fire Officer that services needed to be maintained and strengthened, not reduced. Time after time, they came up with all of the concoctions of the day to reduce services, and the current IRMP document is another part of that agenda.

Some of those people are a law unto themselves. Everyone involved must receive a clear message from the Chamber today. Much that has been said in the debate has been helpful to the firefighters across Northern Ireland, and I place on record my gratitude to them for their tremendous work and dedication over the past 35 years or more.

It is a shame that we, as Assembly Members, have to plead with the Department and the Minister for present standards to be maintained. Shame on the Minister, the Department and all of their officials that Members have to make such a call today. As the motion states, and many Members have affirmed:

“the safety of our citizens is paramount”.

I, like other Members, condemn the proposed changes and the removal of second appliances from 12 towns across Northern Ireland. One of those towns, Newtownhamilton, which is in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, sits right on the border. It is a shame and a disgrace that the Department and the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland are even considering removing appliances from rural areas. The Chief Fire Officer must sit up and listen to what is being said.

Although Members mentioned individual fire stations, the bottom line is that regardless of whether one fire appliance is removed from one station, or each of the 12 stations loses a fire appliance, the loss of one is one too many. It is disgraceful that they are considering the removal of one fire appliance, never mind 12.

The proposed reduction in services is nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise. I commend the Fire Brigades Union, which has continually lobbied strongly, not for its own agenda, but for the firefighters and all citizens across the community. Members must ensure that they send a strong, clear message that any reduction in service is uncalled for and totally opposed and that any reduction to the current service is unacceptable. Time after time, in my experience, the Fire Service’s senior officials have come up with plans on how to reduce services. The bottom line is that no party will accept the reduction of services in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.

Again, I put on record my support for the motion and the amendment. The Minister, the Chief Fire Officer and the chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland must receive a clear and concise message today.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I too rise to support a worthy motion that has been well debated in the Chamber today. The loss of 10% of Northern Ireland’s firefighting appliances, as proposed in the draft IRMP document, will undoubtedly have serious and detrimental consequences for communities across Northern Ireland. They expect and deserve a service that is fit for purpose and that can be called upon whenever an emergency arises. When a member of the community calls the Fire Service, it is because of a life-threatening emergency or the danger of property being destroyed.

There are two key factors in making safe and effective responses. The first is attendance time — the time it takes for a fire engine and crew to arrive at an emergency incident. The second factor is the number of fire appliances and firefighters needed to deal with the emergency in hand. However, the proposals in the draft IRMP document will undermine those key factors and will undoubtedly result in lives being lost.

In April 2006, new Northern Ireland emergency response times for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service were clearly highlighted in the IRMP document. However, those times cannot be met if there is to be any cut in appliances at the 12 threatened fire stations in Northern Ireland.

I want to refer specifically to Castlederg fire station, where there is a proposal to cut back from two engines to one. There is no doubt that that will pose a major threat to safety in that rural community. Castlederg is 20 miles from Omagh and 15 miles from Strabane. It would take up to 25 minutes for a second engine and fire crew to come from Omagh or Strabane to Castlederg. To go from Castlederg into the rural community, wherever in that community the emergency might be, could take up to another 10 minutes. That is far beyond the stipulated requirement laid down in the emergency response standards. A fire emergency or road traffic accident will result in certain death or destruction.

The threat posed to the already dwindling emergency services cover in rural west Tyrone, one of the largest rural areas in Northern Ireland and an area of high deprivation and poor roads infrastructure, is outrageous and creates a life-threatening situation. Such penny-pinching and money-saving proposals run contrary to the provision of sensible and effective fire cover. They are ill-judged, ill-timed and downright dangerous. Not only will the lives of the public be placed in greater danger, but so will the lives of the fire crews who so courageously deal with emergency incidents.

Rather than improving this invaluable emergency service, the proposals in the draft IRMP document, if carried through, will result in its destruction. I condemn any cuts in the Fire and Rescue Service throughout Northern Ireland. I support the amendment.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé iontach buíoch díot as an deis seo a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an leasú don rún. Sa chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo mheas ar na seirbhísí éigeandála a chur in iúl: an tseirbhís póilíneachta, an tseirbhís otharchairr, agus an tseirbhís dóiteáin.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I add my voice to those in favour of the amendment. First, I wish to place on record my admiration for the work of all the emergency services — the Police Service of Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service; and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. Quite often they operate under very difficult circumstances and show incredible courage and bravery in the face of frequent life-threatening situations.

I am sure that every Member of the House will join me in condemning those who attack members of the emergency services as they go about their important business of life-saving and protecting public safety.

Just as we expect the emergency services to come to our aid when the safety of the public is under threat, we have a duty to go to their aid and to support them when their safety and their ability to uphold public safety is threatened, as it is by these draft proposals. Some of the proposals in the draft IRMP document will threaten the safety of firefighters and the general public.

The document opens up the possibility of replacing the second fire engine in 12 towns throughout the North of Ireland, one of those being Newtownhamilton in my constituency.

Newtownhamilton is an isolated community that occupies a pivotal position in relation to Newry, Armagh, Keady and Crossmaglen. It is hilly country where the road system does not allow easy or speedy access. This is an area where there are frequent gorse fires during the summer and where a second fire engine is absolutely necessary. The Fire and Rescue Service tells us that in some cases second fire engines may be replaced by specialist vehicles.

However, specialist vehicles by definition are of limited use and in no way serve as an adequate replace-ment for a second fire engine. By its nature, fire requires a speedy response if life and property are to be protected. The removal of a second fire engine from those 12 stations will mean that response times in those areas could become longer, with the effect that the health and safety of the public will be placed at risk.

If the proposals are adopted, an outbreak of fire will require a second fire engine, and there will be an increased response time, which will put the public and the firefighters at risk. For this reason, it is clear that any proposal to remove second fire engines from the 12 stations will place the public and firefighters at risk. I call on all parties and members of the public to oppose the proposals. I commend the motion to you.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP 3:15 am, 11th December 2006

I apologise for my absence when the motion and the amendment were being moved during the earlier part of the debate. I understand that the amendment has been accepted, which I welcome. My constituency colleague, Mr Buchanan, has referred to one of the areas that is a particular concern of mine in my home town of Castlederg.

However, Members should remember that it is not that long since the Fire Service was renamed the Fire and Rescue Service. The rescue ability depends on what is described as the “speed and weight of attack” of the particular emergency that the service has to deal with.

Furthermore, there are other emergencies apart from fires. Fire appliances turn out frequently to road traffic accidents. It is totally irresponsible of the relevant authorities, whose prime responsibility should be safety, to put forward a proposal that will diminish the effectiveness of a public service.

The new proposal will put lives at risk. I am particularly concerned that it will endanger lives in my constituency. I am sure that other Members have highlighted their particular concerns.

We are talking about an integrated emergency service. The appliances were not located randomly; they were placed in those areas to serve the needs of the surrounding communities. To remove any of that cover now or in the future is totally irresponsible, and I welcome the motion and the amendment.

Standards of emergency response are based on the current distribution and logistical arrangements that the Fire Service operates under. The three-minute time lag, which is how long it takes for the second appliance to arrive after the arrival of the first, is based on the current layout of where our appliances actually are.

I referred earlier to the “speed and weight of attack” towards any incident that the Fire Service deals with.

That weight is based on the number of firefighters, as well appliances, who attend an incident. The safety of those who arrive on site with the first appliance would be compromised if they did not have the appropriate weight of attack — or weight of support — when they arrive at a situation, and the safety of crews must be considered.

When crews arrive on site, they are concerned about the safety of the public, and saving and maintaining the integrity of property and other assets. That cannot be compromised. I wholeheartedly support the motion and the amendment, as accepted. I hope that those responsible will remember what it is that we are talking about — a Fire and Rescue Service. Let us not compromise that.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I apologise for my non-attendance at the earlier part of the debate. I was at a meeting about a meeting about a meeting. [Laughter.]

I am confident that the Members who spoke before me were critical of any attempt to reduce the level of service provided by the local fire stations in the 12 towns referred to in the draft integrated risk management plan.

Coming from South Down, it is only natural that I am concerned about the proposed 50% reduction in services in Rathfriland and Kilkeel. I recently met with, and listened to the concerns of, representatives from the Rathfriland station. I wish to go on record in support of their opposition to the proposed reductions.

Kilkeel and Rathfriland fire stations cover an extensive rural area, a very large tract of which is mountain area with gorse, farmland and hill land. Indeed, when gorse fires break out, I have often witnessed through my window the apparatus coming out immediately from Rathfriland, sometimes backed up by those from Newry. That second appliance can be key to fighting a mountain or gorse fire, and any attempt to do away with that would defeat the whole purpose of firefighting.

I referred to my meeting with representatives from the Rathfriland station. Rathfriland is a two-pump station, with a firefighting team of 20 members: three teams of six and two reserves. I imagine that that is the picture at most of the other 11 stations designated for cutbacks. We must listen to and take our brief from the people that man the fire stations. They are the pro-fessionals, and any attempt to think differently from them would be wrong. Members need only look at the threats to services. Since the Assembly first met, threats to services have often been discussed in the Chamber: threats to the Health Service, education, the Planning Service, the Water Service and the Ambulance Service. It is now proposed that the Fire and Rescue Service — Mr Hussey reminded Members of its dual role — be added to that list.

The Assembly must go forward. I do not often say such words, but those listening to this debate must ensure that this service is not be allowed to come under threat — especially in rural areas. We must listen to the Fire and Rescue Service and to those on the ground who fight the fires, rather than Ministers who do not know the countryside in this part of the world.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to Members of the House, for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I was a party delegate at the Programme for Government Committee.

One of the fundamental requirements for any rural or urban community is a well-equipped, well-staffed and adequate integrated Fire and Rescue Service. The proposals in the draft plan will not provide that, and they will leave rural communities in danger and peril. A cursory examination of the published consultation document — the subject for discussion today — reveals that the real intention of the Fire and Rescue Service is to reduce the service to the community through the proposed withdrawal of the second fire tender from 12 fire stations, many of which are located in extremely rural parts of Northern Ireland.

Questions immediately arise as to the rationale and purpose of such restrictive proposals. What is the real purpose of the consultation document?

Why does the Fire and Rescue Service propose to remove the second fire tender from those 12 stations, including two in South Down — one in Kilkeel and the other in Rathfriland? Why put the knife into rural communities? Why does it want to undermine services to rural communities and put the people there at risk and in grave jeopardy?

Is it not the case that the Fire and Rescue Service faces difficulties recruiting part-time firefighters in some areas? A campaign is to be launched in the new year for certain parts of the rural community. Would it not be better to adopt a more positive approach to the Fire and Rescue Service, rather than that of the knife and the proposed implementation of cuts? Where in this document does the Fire and Rescue Service express concern for isolated rural communities?

I encourage young people to join this worthy profession and continue the good work undertaken by their forefathers, who protected this community through some difficult and trying times and put their own lives in danger to afford safety to others. Their work should be applauded, and the best way to do that is for young people to be encouraged to join up and fight to protect rural communities. The recruitment of young part-time firefighters must be on a fair and equal basis. No restrictions must be placed on where full-time, part-time or senior officers reside — reports in previous years have indicated that that practice was promoted by the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Surely, with regard to part-time retained officers in particular, where they actually live is important?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree with the hon Member, but it has been the case that full-time senior fire officers have been dictated to as to where they reside. That is wrong, because their expertise could be required immediately in emergency situations, and my comments probably bear out what the Member previously said.

The Fire and Rescue Service must withdraw its plan to remove the second tender from the 12 fire stations. Looking at my own constituency, Kilkeel and Rathfriland are isolated rural communities, as Mr P J Bradley has already pointed out. Members probably know that themselves. The fire station in Kilkeel services a distinct mountainous rural community where speedy responses are vital in emergency situations. The needs of local communities, and the seasonal demands of the tourist and fishing industries, must be taken into account to ensure that, in those cases, the second tender is retained.

Accessibility, adequacy, availability and community requirements are the central criteria to measure any fire and rescue service. If the service does not match those requirements, then the Fire and Rescue Service must ensure that they are met through the retention of the second fire tender and the improvement of the service throughout Northern Ireland. We have fought long and hard for essential services for rural communities, and one of those essential services is a sound and equitable fire service. If necessary, this matter should be referred to the Programme for Government Committee for full and detailed discussions to ensure an adequate Fire and Rescue Service.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 am, 11th December 2006

I am the seventeenth contributor to this debate, so most issues have been covered — or have they? Perhaps not. Each Member has spoken with great affection about his or her own area and the loss of the second pump, and I agree with that. However, it is only when one looks at this daft idea with a more holistic approach that one begins to realise how serious it is.

Mr Storey drew attention to the potential losses in his constituency, North Antrim. There are losses in east Derry as well and in Mid Ulster. In the tourist area of Ballycastle and Portstewart, where the population quadruples in the summer time, the loss is serious. Twenty miles inland, Maghera fire station services a large rural area where there is a lot of forestation. Parts of that area are also subject to flooding. Members referred earlier to road accidents; God knows there are enough of those. When one considers all these factors, the picture becomes even more serious. That area is also on the north Atlantic air route. No one wishes to predict another Lockerbie or Pan Am disaster, but emergency planning must take all factors into account. Had it not been for the work of the Scottish Fire Service after the Lockerbie disaster, many more would have lost their lives. That too is a consideration.

All this is about cost effectiveness. From my experience on the Public Accounts Committee, I can assure the House that financial problems relating to the Fire and Rescue Service’s board and the Fire and Rescue Service have nothing to do with the brave men and women on the ground who fight fires. I have no wish to embarrass Mr Storey, but the problems are with the Fire and Rescue Service’s board itself, its predecessor, and how it spent money. Mr Storey made reference to the Boucher Road training centre. What sensible fire agency would have bought land and spent millions of pounds on it, only to discover that fires could not be lit there? That is madness. Other matters, about credit cards and so on, we can pass over.

After the debate, what will happen? There are some people listening in the Public Gallery, but I doubt if any of them are members of the Fire and Rescue Service’s Board. If Members are sincere, and genuinely concerned about the 12 fire stations threatened with the loss of a second fire appliance, they should redouble efforts to ensure that the Assembly continues. It must take responsibility for emergency services, ensuring that communities are not threatened by the bureaucrats and well-paid consultants who take millions of pounds out of the public purse every year but come up only with daft ideas over which the public have no influence. Thousands of people have already signed the petition against the proposals in this consultation document. Members can lend support to local communities by working together to ensure that the Assembly continues in order to stop the madness that has gone on, not only in the Fire and Rescue Service, but in every other aspect of life.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I rise to wind up in support of the amendment. I am glad that for once the Assembly speaks with one voice. The Member who moved the motion accepts the amendment, and all parties support the motion as amended.

Only a limited number of points need to be dealt with, but I wish to deal with them briefly before I move on to the substance of the amendment. Carmel Hanna pointed out a lack of clarity in the report. I believe that to have been deliberate. It was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the need for adverse comment, to try to — forgive the pun — pour cold water over the report and try to ensure that the level of public concern is reduced. I agree with Kieran McCarthy and others, who called for stiffer penalties for those who attack the emergency services.

I join with all of those Members who paid tribute to the emergency services, particularly in this case to the Fire and Rescue Service.

I take issue to some extent with the remarks of Willie Clarke and Tom Elliot — both of whom obviously have concerns within their own communities — who saw the report as a question of rural interests against centralising urban interests. It is a question of services being withdrawn across Northern Ireland. One has only to look at proposal 3, which implies a direct threat to the future cover of Belfast. That should be something that unites us: it is not just a threat to rural interests but to rural, urban and suburban interests. At risk are small towns across Northern Ireland, rural areas and inner city areas. We must all speak with one voice.

Patricia Lewsley graphically indicated the practical ramifications of the recommendations. Like her, I question the motivation behind the report. Jim Shannon mentioned the “ripple effect”; that issue needs a strong focus. John Dallat highlighted the impact that seasons have on a number of fire stations, but that point has not been considered. However, I disagree with him slightly about consultants. Unfortunately, and to its great shame, the report comes from within the Fire and Rescue Service itself, rather than for once being produced by outside consultants. That makes it more worthy of condemnation.

There are a great deal of weasel words and ambiguities in the report, and the purpose of the amendment is to deal with those. At no stage are reductions, job cuts, or increased threats to safety mentioned. The report uses euphemisms and talks about review of services, and on one occasion weasel words such as “review resource usage” are used. If that is not code for cutbacks, I do not know what is.

Therefore it is important that Members, by way of the amended motion, send out a clear signal to the Fire and Rescue Service that parties are united in their opposition to the proposals.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Does the Member agree that there is a serious issue regarding the timing of the proposals? The report clearly states that after 31 January the Fire and Rescue Service:

“will review our proposals in light of all the comments received”.

Those decisions will be made at a meeting of the board of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in February 2007. The report does not refer to any further consultation on the final proposals that will emerge from this document.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

That highlights all our concerns as to how real the consultation should be. It is only by sending a clear signal from this Assembly that Members can put a spoke in the wheel of the process.

The previously mentioned principal proposals are based on the consultation document’s fourth proposal , which deals with and names 12 towns throughout Northern Ireland. According to the document, the intention is to review, replace or reduce the number of fire appliances from two to one in each location and to replace them with small fire units.

The Fire and Rescue Service needs to be asked a range of pertinent questions about those small fire units. For example, will they be able to offer the same level of cover as the existing appliances? If they are replacements for current front-line appliances, will the Fire and Rescue Service guarantee appropriate cover from other areas within the agreed response times? If two major fires are reported at the same time in the same area, what will be the potential for those units to attend? Will they lead to a reduction in manpower? Will they offer the same opportunity for strategic cover as the existing appliances?

Leslie Cree has highlighted a range of issues. The proposals run contrary to many of the actions that the Fire and Rescue Service has already taken. Forty-thousand pounds were invested in recruitment in the past 18 months in Holywood fire station; however, that investment runs contrary to what actually happened in that station. That is not a unique case, however.

The response times of the second fire appliance will be the key issue. As indicated, where there is a house fire that does not threaten anyone’s life, or no life is reported as being at risk, a minimum of two fire appliances are required to attend. Patricia Lewsley gave an understated example of people being trapped upstairs; when that type of information is known, three fire appliances should be present. With the best will in the world, and even if a fire appliance were being driven at breakneck speed, there is no way that any fire engine could be in Holywood within three minutes.

There is a particular problem with Holywood’s reduced cover, as has already been stated. In these days when we are living under the threat of international terrorism — and when airports in particular tend to be targeted — it is a disgrace that the George Best Belfast City Airport is being left with inadequate cover.

Jim Shannon mentioned the ripple effect of such changes, and that has not been brought out sufficiently in the debate. Any action taken in the 12 stations will impact on their surrounding areas in two ways. I will take Holywood as an example, but it would apply equally to any of the other 11. If a fire in Holywood required a second appliance, one would immediately have to be brought in from Knock or Bangor. What would happen if there were a fire in Castlereagh or Bangor shortly after one of their appliances was brought in to provide extra cover in Holywood? Their local fire stations would be unable to respond effectively, because they had automatically lost one of their appliances to assist in Holywood. The people of Castlereagh and Bangor would be in danger. The effects will be felt not just in Holywood and Newtownards.

In the past, when there have been one or two fires in Bangor, for instance, Holywood fire station has provided cover, as Knock fire station has done for its surrounding areas. Firefighters might be unable to deal with a fire in Bangor because they cannot get support from Holywood. What is true of Holywood is also true of the other 11 stations at which cutbacks are being made. There is a clear knock-on effect.

The draft consultation document’s recommendations will leave firefighters in one of two situations: they will be unable to cope with the fire and have to wait longer than what is acceptable for a second fire appliance — which will inevitably place lives at risk — or the response of the local fire station will be such that firefighters will disobey their health and safety regulations and go in and try their best to save lives when they are understaffed due to the reduced cover. Therefore the firefighters will put their lives at risk. If the proposals are allowed to go through, people’s lives will be put at risk.

In the Chamber, Members often talk about life-and-death decisions. Today, we are faced with a clear-cut example of such a decision: people will die if the recommendations are implemented. That is why Members must send a clear message that the proposals are unacceptable, and I want to hear a united voice in the Assembly saying no to the proposals. I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo thacaíocht don leasú a chur in iúl chomh maith. Is maith an rud go bhfuil gach duine sa Seomra ag caint d’aon ghuth ar son an leasaithe.

I support the amendment, and I commend my colleague Philip McGuigan, a Member for North Antrim, for tabling the motion. I am also happy to acknowledge that the amendment put forward by Mr Storey and Mr Weir added value to it. The key points have been addressed across the parties, and the motion has attracted widespread consensus and unanimity. There is, therefore, no need to engage in unnecessary repetition.

I want to be personally associated with the comments of my West Tyrone colleagues Derek Hussey, who spoke about his home town of Castlederg, and Tom Buchanan who supported him. I wish to be associated with their comments on this matter, although not perhaps on every matter.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I think that the feeling is mutual.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Yes, I think so. Are you keeping well yourself, Peter? [Laughter.] All Members acknowledge that the proposals are driven by a cost-cutting agenda.

The safety of our citizens is not being treated as the paramount consideration as others. As my colleague Peter Weir mentioned, the Assembly is speaking with one voice on the issue. When the Assembly speaks with one voice, as democratically elected representatives, its Members expect to be heard and responded to. Is anybody listening? They must listen. If the people’s elected representatives speak with one voice, in a corporate sense, there is an onus on the Departments that are responsible for those issues to sit up and take notice.

I shall conclude by drawing attention to depart-mental guidelines on rural proofing. As other Members have pointed out, the proposals will have a dispro-portionate and negative impact on rural communities throughout the North. That begs the question of whether rural proofing of departmental policies means anything. At lunchtime, I had a meeting with senior civil servants about the concept of rural proofing. What is it? Does it apply? Does the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have any interest in rural proofing? I understand that rural proofing is the process by which Government policies are examined carefully and objectively in order to ensure that they treat rural dwellers fairly and, in particular, to make sure that public services are accessible to people, on a fair basis, regardless of where they live in the North.

I ask the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Fire and Rescue Service to pull back from those proposals. I also ask the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to do its work and ensure that its sister Departments do not take decisions that will have an unduly negative impact on rural communities. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly condemns the proposals contained in the ‘Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan consultation document 2007/08’ prepared by the Fire and Rescue Service to remove the second fire appliances from twelve towns in Northern Ireland, thus endangering the safety of both firefighters and the public.

Adjourned at 3.48 pm.