By Tony Gardner, local democracy reporter
The chair of West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority has warned that “tough decisions” could lie ahead over a lack of government funding – after a meeting heard cover had been reduced at a number of fire stations, including Stanningley.
The comments came as one councillor claimed measures introduced to deal with a shortage of firefighters was like playing “Russian roulette” with public safety.
The authority continues to struggle with stubbornly high firefighter absence rates since the pandemic, similar to many other public sector organisations.
A meeting at Dewsbury Town Hall heard there is currently an average shortfall of 58 firefighters per day across the region. The authority has been stopped by the government from raising its council tax precept for the next financial year.
Authority chairman Darren O’Donovan said: “That can mean some tough decisions. It’s not just a question of buying cheaper tea and coffee. These are major savings that we have had to make over the last 13 years.
“The reason we have had to make those savings is because the government has given us less money. I would imagine we are going to have to make some more savings and make some more difficult decisions.
“The people around this table need to be able to make pragmatic, realistic decisions for the benefit of this service and all of us in West Yorkshire. I am confident that the leadership team and the majority of the people around the room will be able to do that.”
In August, the authority introduced a “making appliances unavailable” policy to cover short notice absences. The changes were partly made to reduce the amount of firefighter overtime.
Figures reveal 75 occasions when appliance numbers were reduced at 15 stations across West Yorkshire.
The authority has described the impact of the changes as “minimal” and said response targets continue to be met.
Councillor Nick Farmer said: “I have been looking at the unavailability and it is a bit like looking at Russian roulette. As far as I am concerned it is a really serious matter.”
- In Leeds, cover was reduced at Hunslet, Killingbeck, Moortown and Stanningley.
- In Kirklees, Dewsbury and Huddersfield stations had appliances reduced at short notice.
- In Bradford, Shipley, Odsal and Bingley stations have been affected.
- Reductions were also recorded at Wakefield, Ossett, Pontefract, Halifax and Rastrick.
A report highlights “significant pressures” on staffing as firefighter absence rates remain higher than pre-covid levels.
Coun O’Donovan said the rates were similar to those experienced by public sector bodies nationally. “This is something that is playing out through every fire and rescue service, through every local authority, through every police service, every prison and every hospital,” he said. “We need to see that in the context that it is. Undoubtedly there are occasions for every fire and rescue service where there are pumps off.
“What is happening here in West Yorkshire is no different to what is happening around the rest of the country. Sickness is a challenge for everybody to get their heads around to provide cover for.”
Last year, the authority agreed to invest £1.5 million in an additional 34 firefighter posts. It was the first time West Yorkshire firefighter numbers had been boosted since the 1970s.
Between 2010 and 2022 firefighter numbers dropped from 1,490 to 900.
Coun O’Donovan added: “It is pleasing to see we are the only fire authority in the country that budgeted in the face of cuts from the government. We increased staffing by 30-odd officers. That is significant and shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Coun Steve Tulley said: “The reason why we have a major issue is because, on any given day, we are 58 firefighters short. We can’t do anything about that. It’s a very difficult situation.
“Decisons have to be made, they are not always nice decisons but this is the budget we have got. I, along with other people, have major concerns about the cuts that we have had to make. But we are where we are. Sometimes I think we we need to take that on board and try to make them work.
“We can only ask our senior leadership team to do what they are expected to do and deploy as they see fit and have faith and confidence in our senior people to do this on a day-to-day basis.”
The report says the average number of shifts lost to sickness is nine per person, per year.
Reasons given for just over 50 per cent of absences was down to firefighters suffering from back or muscular skeletal issues, awaiting surgery or suffering mental health problems including stress, depression or anxiety.
Measures being introduced to address staffing problems include increasing pay rates for more senior firefighter roles. The service has also advertised for emergency response drivers and crew managers from other forces.
Plans are also in place to recruit and train retired or former firefighters who have left the service.