Response times to a massive blaze at the Selsey Academy last year were affected by cuts made to West Sussex’s fire service, opposition parties have suggested.
UKIP’s Mike Glennon explained that the fire destroying most of the Selsey secondary school last August had prompted him to table a motion calling for an early independent review of increasing response times for some incidents in West Sussex over the past ten years.
He questioned whether West Sussex County Council cutbacks have ‘undermined the adequacy of retained fire crew levels’, as the first appliance to arrive was from Chichester after 18 minutes, missing the target by four minutes.
He said: “Despite the normal valiant efforts of the fire crews involved there is one vital performance indicator which I believe is key in judging the extent to which our financial cutbacks to our fire service are affecting our ability to maintain the highest levels of safety to residents and that indicator, although I realise few indicators exist in isolation, is response times.”
While the building was luckily empty at the time Mr Glennon said that had it been occupied ‘the implications for loss of life are obvious’.
His motion was defeated by 30 votes to 18 with six abstentions at a Full Council meeting last Friday (March 24).
But David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle), cabinet member for residents’ services, said: “Nobody did anything to help Selsey before that fire. It’s your group [UKIP], you have the member down in Selsey. Not one finger was lifted to improve the number of people on our retained station there. Not one finger.”
He described being ‘astounded’ the motion was not withdrawn after a briefing was arranged with officers, as he explained that even if firefighters miss the response time by even a second it is logged and a thorough examination takes place to see if any changes can be made.
He added: “There is really nothing you could say to the management team that they do not know already because they are on top of it.”
Mr Barling said it was ‘so unfortunate’ the retained crew at Selsey was not on the run during the first few minutes of the fire, and explained they had to ‘ramp up’ how they recruit people including a recent open day at Selsey.
He also argued that a review would simply ‘waste a great deal of money and a great deal of management time and will achieve nothing’, while financial cutbacks ‘even if they did exist’ had ‘nothing to do with the issues we are discussing’.
James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “It is absolutely outrageous for a cabinet member to blame a poor response to a fire incident in any division never mind Selsey or Worthing or Lancing, on the failure of the local member to recruit retained firemen in sufficient numbers.”
He pointed out that at a previous meeting the cabinet member had given an incorrect answer, claiming that ten fire engines had arrived by 8.44am that morning, but had now admitted only seven were there at that time, with another 54 minutes elapsing until the tenth arrived.
Mr Glennon described being ‘amused and irritated in equal measure’ at the response from cabinet members, adding: “No aspersions have been cast by me or anybody about the fire crews. I said it implicitly in my speech. They did their absolute bloody best and some, of that I have got no doubt.”
He criticised Mr Barling for taking a ‘swipe at poor old Bernard [Smith]’, UKIP councillor for Selsey.
Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) who proposed several amendments to Mr Glennon’s original motion, said: “The cuts have indeed increased response times as have the failure to not achieve more retained firefighters through recruitment and retention.”
Meanwhile Andy Petch (Ind, Hassocks and Victoria) said: “I think that the public has a right to know how their service is performing either good or bad. I think publishing the good and concealing the bad isn’t acceptable.”
Peter Lamb (Lab, Northgate & Three Bridges) added: “It’s not wrong to want some independent oversight over a service which is as much of a matter of life and death as the fire service. At the end of the day members do not believe we have been given accurate information on what is actually going on.”
Mr Barling explained that the ‘terrible error’ referred to by Dr Walsh was likely a typographical one by officers as ten appliances had arrived by 8.44am and not ten fire engines.
But he told members there was ‘nothing whatsoever to hide’ and described everything as ‘open and above board’.
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