Amid widespread praise for the heroism of firefighters in Dunmurry on Wednesday evening, the Fire Brigades Union has warned that public safety is being put at risk by money-saving cutbacks.
The union said it was “pure luck” that firefighters using specialist aerial equipment were available to respond so quickly and ensure there were no serious casualties from the fire.
Staffing levels at the fire service have reduced substantially in just a few years.
In the 2011/12 financial year, there were 890 whole-time firefighters in the service, according to the annual report for that year. In a savings plan produced in October this year, the equivalent figure was listed as 803, a reduction of nearly 10%.
Jim Quinn, executive council member for FBU Northern Ireland, said the fire service budget in 2011/12 was £81.6 million, and had been cut to £72.2 million this year.
He claimed that budget reduction has meant specialist equipment known as ‘Aerial Ladder Platforms’ (ALPs), used to tackle fires and rescue people at high-rise buildings, have been stripped of their dedicated crews.
The union representative also claimed ALPs are no longer always immediately available as firefighters also have to crew a different type of appliance at the same time. If crews had been busy at another incident, he said, this might have caused a delay in manning the ALP used in Dunmurry and potentially cost lives.
“Firefighters did an excellent job ensuring no lives were lost and bringing the fire under control quickly,” Mr Quinn said. “However, this would not have been the case had the ALP crew been at another incident using a different fire appliance. It could have been a very different, much more tragic outcome if such a delay had occurred.”
Mr Quinn continued: “This incident should act as a wake-up call to ensure specialist firefighting equipment is immediately available. We were lucky no one died in the fire last night; next time we may not be so fortunate.”
He added: “The FBU in Northern Ireland are seeking an urgent meeting with the chief fire officer and will demand that this decision be reversed. It also calls on the Department of Health’s Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, to release funds for this before it’s too late.”