Home Page Factory fire highlights good and bad about fire service cuts 18/03/11

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

In a week when momentous world news has resonated locally – How good are the sea defences at Sizewell? How much more expensive can diesel and petrol get? – Haverhill’s mini-drama of last weekend may well pass almost unnoticed.


But the timing of the factory fire in Boundary Road could not have been better for those protesting against the proposed cuts at Haverhill Fire Station.


The previous Thursday evening it became clear that those opposed to the change in crewing arrangements had become almost an endangered species. Either that or they were not coming into view because they reckoned it was a done deal.


The public consultation meeting on that evening drew just six members of the public, when the organisers had brought in 90 chairs, to hear that there was on average just one call per weekend that needed attending and only one or two a year that might involve anything life-threatening.


Two days later we see a huge cloud of black smoke drifting across the town on a Saturday lunchtime. Fortunately it turns out not to be close to any residential property.


And that in itself is a double-edged benefit, because it raises the fundamental question of what the fire service is for. Is it only to save life, or is it also to reduce damage to property?


I believe fire services in general – I have no idea whether or not this applies to Suffolk’s in particular - have a policy that once they have made sure there is no danger to life at a residential property blaze, they will generally just contain it away from other properties and let it burn itself out.


However, where business premises are involved they will make a greater effort to protect property. I don’t know if this is anything to do with insurance, but most things in life nowadays, it seems, turn out to be so.


So how do we evaluate that extra couple of minutes or so which it would take for the on-call firefighters to turn out at the weekends?


One argument would say that Saturday’s fire at a factory, happening at a time when staff were not at work, only serves to highlight the fact that the danger is reduced at the weekends.


However, in this case there was an adjoining business premises which was saved by the prompt arrival of the full-time firefighters.


So, if life is the only priority, then the risk is demonstrably less at weekends, although it is still there because staff at factories, and particularly small businesses, often have to work through their weekends to get orders completed.


But if saving business property is a second priority, then Saturday’s events are very relevant, because a few minutes’ delay could have proved extremely costly.


The issue of how the decision might affect Haverhill’s businesses was raised at the public meeting, and it was interesting to hear it brushed aside with disdain by Suffolk County Council’s portfolio holder for public protection, Cllr Colin Spence.


He had never heard of any business taking into account the local fire crewing arrangements when deciding on its location, he told us.


Nevertheless, if we had a series of fires like Saturday’s after the new arrangements came in, and adjoining properties were destroyed, and it got about that this was a recurring danger in Haverhill, it might just have an effect on business growth.


But that is a heck of a lot of ifs, and I think that scenario is even less likely than someone dying in a weekend road accident who could have been saved by speedier attendance.


This is a risk which the fire service has examined closely, and chief officers say they are happy with it. It would be no greater here than in Newmarket or Sudbury or anywhere else where these proposed arrangements are already in place.


Our natural reaction is to snap back at them: "Well, if someone dies as a result of your decision, I hope you can sleep o’ nights!”


But, of course, they can, and they would, because they are dealing with that level of risk management all the time. Every time someone dies in a fire or a road accident, the emergency services attending have to deal with the thought: "Could I have done more? Did I fail in anything I did or did not do?”


Luckily, most times they can answer in the negative and move on. When they can’t it usually ends in an inquiry.


The same will be true of this decision – and I think it extremely unlikely the fire authority or the county council will change their minds, and certainly not in the wake of Saturday’s incident.


If there were to be a series of tragedies – I don’t think one would be enough – which can incontrovertibly be shown to result from this change, then they would, as they have admitted, think again. Otherwise, we’ll just have to lump it.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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