The fire service’s ability to respond to major incidents such as the blaze at Primark in Belfast last year will be compromised if cuts to the service continue, it has been claimed.
Jim Quinn, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, made those comments one year after the inferno that engulfed the iconic building on August 28, 2018.
“If they keep going down this road of cuts – they are talking about another machine from Belfast potentially being taken out of commission to allow other stations to be filled – there’s no doubt in my mind that there is a potential, should another big fire like this happen, to make it more difficult to respond as quickly,” Mr Quinn told the News Letter.
He was speaking after the fire and rescue officer in charge at Primark, Area Commander Aidan Jennings, praised the firefighters involved in the Primark operation.
Reflecting on the incident one year on, Mr Jennings said: “I will remember this incident for the expertise, resilience and dedication of firefighters and staff right across NIFRS (Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service) as well as the outpouring of kindness, generosity and public -spiritedness.”
He added: “At the height of the incident over 100 firefighters, 14 fire appliances, including six specialist appliances, were involved in tackling the blaze. Firefighters from as far away as Armagh and Kilrea responded to the incident with both wholetime and on-call personnel being brought in from other area commands to attend the incident and provide resilience in Belfast during this time.”
But Mr Quinn questioned what would happen if such an incident were to happen again in light of recent changes to the service.
“You haven’t got enough firefighters and they’re making all these chops and changes to try and keep enough machines available at any given point in time,” he added.
“They’ve also decided to get rid of two of the high-rise platforms in Belfast being immediately available.”
Mr Quinn’s comments were echoed by UUP MLA Robbie Butler, who served as a fire and rescue officer for 16 years.
“The recent changes implemented in the fire service do, in my opinion, affect the resilience of the fire service and its ability to respond and provide the necessary, professional level of service – especially where you get a major incident,” he said.
The interim fire service chief, however, disputed those concerns.
Michael Graham, chief fire and rescue officer, said: “NIFRS completely rejects that any measures it is currently implementing does not allow the organisation to operate within safe staffing levels and totally refutes any suggestion that we do not put the safety of the public and our firefighters first. The interim measures recently introduced have been risk assessed and NIFRS will continue to provide a safe and effective service.”