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Cuts to Newham fire engines 'best plan to deal with terrorism threat' says commissioner

PUBLISHED: 08:12 02 December 2015 | UPDATED: 13:25 11 December 2015

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: Polly Hancock

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

The head of the fire brigade has defended plans to axe two of Newham's fire engines saying London will be less able to cope with a Paris-style terrorist attack under alternative cost-cutting proposals.

To see the full graphic, click here

Fire commissioner Ron Dobson said he was “very confident” the brigade could handle a major fire or terrorist incident at the Olympic Park or Westfield shopping centre if two of Newham’s engines are permanently taken out of service.

Scrapping the engines from Plaistow and Stratford fire stations and 11 others across London will save the brigade £11million a year.

But alternative plans to fill an £8.1million budget black hole next year are also being considered. These would involve introducing “alternate crewing” - where one team of firefighters is responsible for manning a standard fire engine and a specialist fire rescue unit.

Will we be tweeting 999 calls in the future?

In the social media age the more tech-savvy of us are as likely to use Twitter to complain about a late train or lost shopping order as we are to pick up a telephone.

So could emergency 999 incidents ever be reported by tweet? London fire commissioner Ron Dobson thinks so.

“To be honest we’re starting already in emergency services to think about what happens in the future when people start to report 999 incidents via social media rather than by telephone,” he said.

This is just one reason why the London Fire Brigade believes a £283,000 upgrade of its website is vital. The cost has been a contentious one given the brigade’s need to find £8.1million savings next year.

“The fact of the matter is our website desperately needs to be updated in order to help us get our messages across to help people stay safe,” said Mr Dobson.

“We live in a social media age and the London Fire Brigade has got to reflect that.”

The website was last updated in 2008 and is not accessible on mobile devices.

Mr Dobson, who oversaw the brigade’s response to the London 7/7 bombings, said: “My worry with alternate crewing is that the crews that I would like to provide our response (to a Paris-style attack) would be from fire rescue units and if they were alternate crewed then, potentially, if the pump attached to the station has been mobilised first then we wouldn’t be able to send the specialist crew to attend until the other engine comes back.”

Asked if alternate crewing would leave the brigade less able to deal with a terror incident, he said: “Potentially, yes. If those units are alternate crewed it would undermine our ability to respond.”

He has put forward two proposals to axe 13 fire engines kept in storage for the last two years for use during strike action. Some of the savings would be reinvested in extra staff for fire response units.

But the chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority’s (LFEPA) resources committee, Andrew Dismore, has tabled a third option to find savings through alternate crewing and return the engines to use.

“The 13 engines that we’re talking about have actually been away from the frontline for two years,” said the commissioner. “During that time we’ve managed to continue to achieve our fire attendance time targets at a brigade level and in the majority of boroughs.

“Given that the number of fires in London has continued to fall quite significantly during that period, the number of fire deaths and fire injuries has continued to go down, my conclusion is the best way to balance our budget is not to replace these fire engines into service but to take the savings.”

The brigade has been asked to shave £13.2million from its budget next year and has already identified £5.1million of cuts that do not affect the frontline, leaving an £8.1million black hole.

If the 13 engines are taken out of service they will be kept in storage for the foreseeable future until the threat of strike action is removed and the savings will come from the £907,000 yearly cost of crewing an engine.

The Fire Brigades Union is staunchly opposed to the loss of engines and says lives may be put at risk if fire response times increase.

But the commissioner, who joined the London Fire Brigade in 1979 and has held the top job since 2007, said all 142 of London’s fire engines are available to cover Newham.

“If there is an incident in Newham then fire engines from around the borough would come and deal with that as well,” he said. “Every day of the week, we deal with incidents that require resources from outside the borough to attend.”

He continued: “I would not do anything that I felt would undermine our approach and continuing success in reducing the number of fires and making London safer.”

Both options will now be put out to public consultation lasting eight weeks.

Four meetings will be held across London and, for the first time, the brigade will organise online public meetings.

London Assembly Member Gareth Bacon, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “If you want your voice heard I urge everyone to visit our website and tell us what they think.”

To take part in the consultation click here

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