Fire service cuts: Ashburton area protection downgraded and more to follow

Fire Authority stealth cuts put lives and property at risk, argues Tony Morris.

Just a couple of years after Ashburton residents successfully fought to save their fire station, the Conservative controlled fire & rescue authority has stabbed them in the back. In a secret move, Ashburton’s properly equipped fire engine has been removed and replaced with a poorly equipped van.

The so called Rapid Intervention Vehicle (RIV) has previously been dubbed by firefighters as a ‘Really Inadequate Vehicle’. 

Whilst a few fire stations are having their older fire engines replaced with new, fully equipped Medium Rescue Pumps (MRP), others are being downgraded. In recent years, the fire & rescue authority has replaced many proper fire engines with less capable Light Rescue Pumps (LRP). Compared to the MRP, the LRP effectively provides residents with a second class service, whilst the RIV only provides a third class service.

A report told Councillors about these inadequacies nearly five years ago, and the purchase of more RIVs was put on hold after local protests. However, since then they have bought another five, and they seem determined to blunder on and downgrade the protection offered to many communities. The report said: 

“LRP’s and RIV’s do not carry the same quantity of equipment carried by the MRP’s.” 

The effect of downgrading from MRP to a RIV

How many buildings have windows that the 9-metre ladder can’t reach?

I don’t know, but worryingly, neither did the fire & rescue service when they chose the locations for RIVs. They have no idea how many lives are now at increased risk in the Ashburton area, or anywhere else.

DSFRS will claim that not many rescues are carried out with a 13.5 metre ladder (carried on the MRP). How often is irrelevant, they are still carried out from time to time, and no one knows when or where the next one will be. DSFRS excuses will be of no comfort to someone trapped by the next life threatening fire and, if they don’t survive, it will be of even less comfort to family and friends of the victim.

Not only less water, but also less ability to obtain additional water for firefighting

As well as having less than half the water carried on a MRP, the RIVs are less well equipped to obtain additional supplies. With only half the hose on a MRP, more fires will see the RIV too far away from hydrant supplies. How many more? Again, the fire & rescue service failed to check, but a lot more buildings will be too far away. 

Without a portable pump, they cannot reach water supplies that are only accessible on foot. It was only last week when portable pumps were used at two fires. Near Staverton, two portable pumps were needed at a fire that could only be accessed on foot, and at Ilfracombe two portable pumps had to be used to boost water supplies at a major fire.

Even if there is access to open water, the 25% cut in the amount of suction hose carried on the RIV may mean it is still too far away to be used. 

Other equipment no longer carried, or reduced, includes

  • No Roof Ladder – which means firefighters cannot safely access the roof for rescue or firefighting. 
  • No Gas Tight Suits – no protection for firefighters from hazardous materials.
  • No Foam – firefighters unable to fight fires involving flammable liquids.
  • No Winch – this reduces the ability to rescue people trapped in road crashes or in other hazardous situations.
  • No Positive Pressure Fan – unable to remove harmful smoke from burning buildings to improve visibility for rescue and firefighting.
  • Beaters reduced by 66% – With just two carried, and much less water available, the ability of firefighters to tackle wildland fires (field, gorse, grass, woodland etc.) is seriously reduced. 
  • Hosereels reduced by 50% – With just one hosereel, instead of two, this limits the ability of firefighters to stop fires spreading. It also halves the distance that can be reached from the vehicle. On a MRP, the second hose reel can be attached to the first to double the distance that can be reached.
  • Breathing Apparatus cut by 25% – For safety, firefighters wearing breathing apparatus sets must work in pairs, so the cut from four sets to three is, in practice, a 50% cut in operational capability.The real risk

Nearly 8,000 people live in the area covered by Ashburton fire station, with many more visiting and travelling through the area on ordinary roads and the busy A38. The Ashburton crew also regularly go to other areas to provide assistance or to provide cover when local crews are committed. 

There was a perfect illustration of the folly of using RIVs last week, when Ashburton’s RIV ended up in Plymouth to provide cover when all their crews were attending a serious fire. The RIV is inadequate for protecting people in and around Ashburton, so is totally inadequate for the significant risk in Plymouth. There are many taller residential buildings, where someone could easily be trapped beyond the reach of a 9 metre ladder, and there are significant risks in Plymouth, including the nationally important Royal Navy dockyard.

Will your area be next for 3rd class protection?

After the public outcry about fire station closures and the use of RIVs, all but one of the fire stations was saved and the fire engine replacement scheme was put on hold. It now seems that the Fire & Rescue Authority has secretly resumed replacing fully equipped fire engines with inadequately equipped vans.

A Freedom of Information request has already shown that claims they had properly risk assessed this flawed replacement policy were false. Councillors should have taken action against those responsible for the false claims. Claims that are now putting lives and property in greater danger. 

The 5five RIVs recently purchased brings the total to 20, but original plans were for 45. If that is implemented, there will be very long waits for vital equipment that is not carried on RIVs. The map below shows the original planned locations.

As per the plan, RIVs are now at Ashburton, Chard, Dartmouth, Ilfracombe, Kingston, Okehampton, Princetown, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Williton, Wells, and Woolacombe. Not in the plan, Moretonhampstead and Tiverton have also been allocated a Really Inadequate Vehicle. 

Councillors need to act to stop communities in Devon & Somerset being downgraded to 3rd class protection.