Fire chiefs faced more than 200 questioning opponents to proposed cuts to Sudbury’s fire station on Wednesday evening.
Led by an independent chair, Matthew Hicks, Suffolk County Council cabinet member with responsibility for public protection, and Mark Hardingham, chief fire officer for Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), tried to explain and justify the proposal to replace Sudbury’s second fire engine with a rapid response vehicle (RRV).
There was a strong turn out at the meeting in Sudbury Town Hall, with almost unanimous opposition to the cuts.
Having seen a number of fires in recent months, including the devastating town centre blaze on September 6, there was much criticism of the decision on the night.
Firefighters handed over 2,500 consultation responses against the proposal which had been collected over recent weeks.
Many said they felt the consultation was a foregone conclusion but Mr Hicks insisted it was genuine, asking all residents to give their views on the changes.
The county council needs to save £1.3million from the fire service as part of £22.3million overall cuts.
Mr Hicks promised each and every response would be read and considered.
A number of ideas were suggested as members of the public, serving and former firefighters and councillors from Sudbury and across the district were given the chance to ask questions.
One suggestion was to replace the fire engine in Nayland with an RRV.
Nayland often struggles to have an on-call crew available during the week, and a rapid response vehicle requires less firefighters.
Mark Hardingham said his preference was to keep the fire engine in Nayland, saying Sudbury was covered by three fire engines including the one in Long Melford.
He said: “In my view it’s [RRV] still a fire engine and it will still respond to the same incidents it does currently.”
Roy Humphreys, secretary for the Suffolk branch of the FBU, told members of the public that an already stretched service was failing on its targets for arriving at incidents, as well listing how the service was struggling to have on-call availability at many stations in the county.
Mr Hardingham said the service was looking to address the on-call availability problems, hopeful that some of the proposed changes would aid this.
There were also concerns that cuts in appliance numbers in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds could have an impact on the town’s safety if there was another major incident such as that in Market Hill in September.
After the meeting Sudbury town councillor Nigel Bennett, who has previously questioned the lack of information surrounding the RRV, said there still a lack of clarity on what exactly the town was getting.
He said it would be easier for residents to potentially agree to an RRV if they knew what type of vehicle it was, what equipment it would carry and what incidents it could attend.
Instead four pictures of example RRVs were shown.
He also questioned the cuts themselves and whether there would still be further cuts to the service in the future.
At the meeting Mr Hardingham confirmed that some of the estimated £35,000 savings from the removal of the second engine would come from a reduction in the number of staff as some RRVs can be crewed by just two or three people.
Following the meeting Mr Humphreys questioned the safety of this.
“We need enough crew to do all the important things, to work the equipment,” he said.
“Having two engines allows us to do things safely.”
When asked what the increased risk would be to the town and surrounding area Mr Hardingham said: “I would argue everything we do has an impact on risk at some point.
“In the current financial climate is that risk appropriate?
“I wouldn’t be putting these proposals up if I didn’t think they were.
“They are tough make no mistake about it.”
When asked why the fire service had to be cut so severely Mr Hicks explained that the county council was not able to use reserves to fill the funding gap if it was to keep them at the ‘recommended’ 10 per cent.
He also explained council tax would not be increased as is this was a policy the Conservative party had been elected in on.