Tensions were running high on Tuesday as residents and fire chiefs locked horns over proposed cuts to Sudbury fire station.
Around 50 people packed into a Sudbury Town Council meeting in the town hall, where the proposal to replace one of the fire station’s engines was the hot topic.
Mark Hardingham, chief fire officer for Suffolk, and Suffolk county councillor Matthew Hicks, cabinet member for environment and public protection, took tough questions from councillors and members of the public on an upcoming consultation which will ask participants to consider other options for the station including the purchase of a rapid response vehicle.
Mr Hardingham said: “We have a challenging set of proposals, but in no way are those proposals to the detriment of the firefighters I lead on a daily basis.”
Sudbury’s mayor Jack Owen used the example of the devastating fire on Market Hill just two months ago to argue for keeping both appliances.
He said: “Statistics don’t fight fires, firefighters fight fires, and we have a statistic that stands right in front of us where 20 people lost their homes and there were three businesses lost. We are very fortunate that we didn’t lose a life in that situation.
“I would be interested in how you think they would have been able to deal with that incident. I would suggest that they would have had major difficulties.”
The consultation, which was approved by Suffolk County Council’s cabinet on Tuesday and launches on November 16, will ask participants to consider options to replace Sudbury’s second appliance including a rapid response vehicle.
These smaller vehicles can take the shape of 4x4s or vans, can be crewed flexibly and can carry equipment tailored to local need.
Mr Hardingham said rapid response vehicles are already in use in other parts of the country and estimated it could save £35,000 a year for the fire service in Sudbury.
He added the town was in the ‘unique’ position of having Long Melford fire station 2.8 miles away, giving ‘a good level of cover’ across the area.
However, he admitted that if proposals for the rapid response vehicle were rejected, Sudbury would keep its second appliance.
Cllr Ellen Murphy questioned the need for a rapid response vehicle in the town, adding: “Is it all cost effective? £35,000 a year is not a lot in saving a life.”
Cllr Nigel Bennett flagged up a lack of clarity in the proposals, asking: “How can the people of Sudbury respond to the consultation when it is not clear what we are getting as a replacement?”
Cllr Nick Irwin said: “If I had all this information and I was chief fire officer, I would know exactly what I wanted in our rapid response vehicle.
“I believe we have two rapid response vehicles already – they’re called fire engines.”
Members of the public including ex-firefighters spoke out against the proposals, questioning how a rapid response vehicle could compare to a fire engine, asking why more alternatives had not been offered, and lashing out at the perceived reliance on on-call firefighters.
Resident Steve White said: “There is too much treatment of emergency services as commercial enterprises. They are an insurance policy for everyone in this room.
“We are not in the business of money, we are in the business of saving lives and everyone should pay regard to that.”
Cllr Hicks said the county council was trying to find savings of £1.3 million in the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service’s £22 million budget.
He said: “In Sudbury we have nothing but aboluste praise for the fire service. They are held in incredibly high esteem.
“We will be encouraging the residents of Sudbury to participate in the consultation process. Nothing in the decision is set in stone.”
Mr Hardingham added: “I wouldn’t recommend this if I didn’t think there was some value in it.”
Cllr Hicks assured the public this would be ‘a real consultation’ and said he and Mr Hardingham would be visiting more town and parish councils in the coming months.
The consultation will end on February 22, with the proposals expected to go back to Suffolk County Council’s cabinet in April or May for a decision to be made.
Mr Hardingham said if the decision to get a rapid response vehicle is agreed, a formal working group would be established to discuss issues such as how it would be crewed and what equipment it would carry.
He estimated that, should everything be approved, a rapid response vehicle could be in place in Sudbury by the end of 2017.
Find the consultation online at www.suffolk.gov.uk