The Fire Brigades Union has welcomed a warning from DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson that cuts to the fire service leave him “concerned” about its ability to respond to a major emergency.
Sir Jeffrey said the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) has had its budget cut from £81.6 million in the 2011/12 financial year to just £74.1 million this year, despite the population increase over the past decade.
He was speaking after a report on the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London in 2017, when 72 people died following a fire.
“None of us wants to see that kind of situation, but the cuts in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service leave me concerned, as a public representative, about its capacity to respond to that kind of emergency situation,” the DUP MP said.
Further concerns were also raised by DUP MPs Gavin Robinsn and Jim Shannon.
The Fire Brigades Union said in a statement to the News Letter that it “greatly appreciates” those comments.
David Nichol, regional official, added: “The impacts of the budgetary shortfall are being felt across the service at every level.
“On-call firefighters are being asked to do more, and second pumps in a number of on-call stations such as Castlederg are being considered for downgrading.
“Downgrading these stations to single pumps would undoubtedly make the public and firefighters less safe.
“I find it shocking that some of the safety critical day courses for on-call firefighters are under review as a possible means for saving money. They are called safety critical for a reason – they were introduced following lessons learned from tragic events and serious incidents.”
Mr Nichol continued: “In towns and cities across Northern Ireland whole-time firefighters have seen reductions in personnel that have led to increases to delayed response times.
“For example aerial appliances are now no longer primary crewed. This means that the trained personnel would have to leave the fire ground to go back to the station to collect the appliance. This time delay is unacceptable, this appliance should and must be immediately available when required.
“The public and firefighters of Northern Ireland deserve a properly funded service. Lessons must be learnt from tragic events such as Grenfell and we have a duty to ensure that we improve rather than diminish our capacity.
“It is also worth noting that the plans for improvement to fire cover across Northern Ireland have been shelved due to the budget shortfall and indeed what was existing has been cut. The Fire Brigades Union is committed to fight the cuts.”
Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary of the Department of Health, which funds the fire service, spoke last month about “intense” pressure on budgets.
Health trusts are facing a £20m deficit and unions are planning industrial action over pay.
He said: “The department has to live within its budget. We simply don’t have the money to do everything we are being asked to do.”