Smaller fire crews would give ‘flexibility’, West Sussex fire chief says

Chief fire officer Gavin Watts. Photo by Eddie Howland SUS-170518-142637001
Chief fire officer Gavin Watts. Photo by Eddie Howland SUS-170518-142637001

Fire crews need to spend less time on false alarms and be able to work more flexibly in smaller teams, the chief fire officer for West Sussex has said.

Gavin Watts answered questions at Boxgrove Parish Council last night about proposals in the Integrated Risk Management Plan, which sets out the direction of the service for the next four years.

He told the meeting that of the 9,000 call outs a year recieved by West Sussex Fire and Rescue, around half were false alarms, whether through ‘good intent’ or automatic fire alarms.

These automatic fire alarms, he suggested, could be deactivated during the day or during working hours when businesses could call 999 in the event of a real fire.

“We don’t want to be going out on these calls any more than we do and for me, these calls interrupt my important work visiting people in their homes, businesses, and if you think about the delining number of calls, my staff need to be trained more.

“It interrupts us doing things and if that [fire alarm] goes off it’s a building covered by the regulatory fire safety order.

“It doesn’t need me to hurtle down the road when it’s been set off by toast or the kettle, so I believe there’s logic in that.”

Asked whether introducing charges for false alarms, he said it was an option but the fire service was focussing on working with companies and ‘repeat offenders’ St Richards Hospital and Chichester University.

While he stressed that no changes would be made to any operational matters until proposals had been fully consulted on but he wanted to give the public an idea of where the fire service was considering change going forwards.

Mr Watts was also asked about proposals in the IRMP to reduce the number of firefighters per fire engine from five to four crew members.

He explained that the fire service had in practice been using crews of four for a ‘long time’ but some incidents could be handled by crews of three and he had to look into that possibility.

“As many hands as possible is the right thing but I’m not about to deprive an area of a fire engine when those four people can turn up and do some very meaningful work.”

He added: “I have twos and threes dotted about. Those people are available, they’re trained and we’re looking at can we use them in a different way to help resource these incidents.

“We want to be as flexible as possible. With these people, they’re incredibly committed and at times they get frustrated that they can’t help out.

“At the moment I round them up into bigger groups but if we tie ourselves to this ‘we can’t go out unless we’ve got four people’ we’re restricting ourselves.”