Fire chief backs control-room plan

Having just three fire control-rooms instead of eight will help provide a "safer service", the Chief Officer of Scotland's national fire and rescue service said.

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Alasdair Hay said moving to a new set-up with fewer control-rooms will ensure any delays in responding to incidents are "absolutely minimised".

He also insisted that the "professional knowledge" control-room staff have of local areas would be "effectively transferred into the new infrastructure we're putting in place".

Mr Hay was questioned on the closure plans by MSPs on Holyrood's Justice Committee after the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Board decided in January that five of the country's fire service control-rooms are to shut.

The centres which handle emergency calls at Aberdeen, Inverness, Dumfries, Fife and Falkirk will close over the next three to five years, leaving Edinburgh, Dundee and Johnstone as the three control centres for Scotland.

Mr Hay said the eight control-rooms had been inherited from the eight fire services, which were merged together to form the single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service last April.

"What we have to do is we have to put in place a control-room infrastructure that supports a single Scottish fire and rescue service," he told MSPs.

Mr Hay stressed the changes would "not compromise the safety of the communities we service nor compromise the safety of our firefighters".

He told MSPs that while staff in the current control-rooms could see what fire engines and resources were available in their old regional force area, the new system would allow staff to see what was available anywhere in Scotland.

The Chief Fire Officer said this new set-up would "be a far more resilient infrastructure because at this moment in time each of the eight fire and rescue control-rooms see the resources available to them in their legacy fire and rescue services".

He continued: "What we want to be able to do is put in place a control-room infrastructure where they can see all the resources available, they can mobilise any resources from anywhere in Scotland at any time.

"In this way we don't have artificial boundaries, what we have is the appropriate resource being mobilised immediately by the control-room that identifies where the risk actually is.

"I think that will lead to us having a safer service. By working on a single mobilising platform any opportunity for there to be confusion there or delays will be absolutely minimised."

He stressed the "professional knowledge, the skill, the expertise of the staff that work within those control-rooms ensures that they are in integral part of an effective fire and rescue service".

But he said the changes would be made "in a very controlled, very methodical way, to ensure that the professional knowledge that the staff have is effectively transferred into the new infrastructure we're putting in place".

Steven Torrie, HM Chief Inspector of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said the creation of the singe service had meant firefighters being sent to incidents outside their old regional areas.

He said prior to that it had been "reasonably unusual" for fire crews to cross borders between force areas, adding: "The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has started to change that and there's a lot of appliance mobilisation taking place across previous borders."

But he said that having eight separate control-rooms with "eight different groups of people trying to co-ordinate assets across the country" created an "additional risk of some sort of operational failure, some loss of control".

John Duffy, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said more detail was needed on alternative jobs for control room staff.

"What we need to do now is get further into the detail, because people need to know their security for the future. They need to know what options will be available for them."

He said there would be jobs available to people currently working in the Dumfries control-room but at present the "black and white of what those jobs are" is unknown.

"That's unsettling for those members and I understand that, but they need to appreciate that because of the timing of it, we have had to put the cart before the horse, and we are now very actively working on specifics for those individuals, and beyond those, for members in other control-rooms affected by the change," he said.

The committee also heard concerns that slipping timetables and a lack of communication from senior leaders left many staff feeling uncertain about their future.

John Hackett, regional organiser at Unison Scotland, said: "People don't know what the future holds, and for them personally, without knowing the future direction of the service, it is difficult to say whether this (reform of the service) has been a good thing or a bad thing."

Mr Hackett told how uncertainty and delays over job evaluations and job matching were causing low morale.

He said, for example, a review affecting 228 staff, which had been due to complete in December, had still not been done.

There is also a sense among staff "that all the jobs are being sucked into the central belt", Mr Hackett said.

He also told MSPs there are fears among some employees, such as those working in catering and cleaning, that aspects of the service could be privatised, although there is no evidence of this.

"There is no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment," he said.

Mr Hay pledged: "I will look at the practices we have within the service to make sure what we are doing is treating our staff, the people who work in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, as equitably and fairly as we possibly we can."

He added: "We have to recognise we're going through a major transition process at this moment in time and it understandable staff are anxious about the changes that are going on.

"What we are trying to do is make sure as early as we possibly can is set out for staff what the the direction of travel is and where we are going to end up at the end of that.

"We're absolutely sympathetic to staff, we understand their anxiety, and what we can do in the short, medium and long-terms to quell that anxiety we will do."

Fire

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