Battle Fire Station meeting - Emotions run high

THERE was standing room only as residents from the Battle area packed in to the Memorial Hall to make an emotional plea to members of the Fire Authority - save our fire station.

Authority members Councillors Phil Scott, Michael Wincott and Stuart Earl, sitting alongside East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s deputy chief fire officer Gary Walsh, listened to a series of passionate speeches from the public explaining why downgrading Battle’s fire station would put lives at risk.

ESFRS is looking to shed between 50 and 80 jobs across the county from its current operational staff as part of a bid to save £7 million.

One option being consulted on is the downgrading of Battle Fire Station to retained status, which will result in the town’s nine wholetime firefighters losing their jobs.

Alternatively, the fire station would retain its wholetime cover, but at the expense of The Ridge Fire Station in Hastings, which would lose one of its vehicles.

Many have criticised the decision to pit the neighbouring towns against each other.

Rother District Councillor Kevin Dixon said: “The consultation is not a real consultation.

“It is no more than an X-Factor-style vote between Battle and The Ridge.”

One angry member of the public asked Gary Walsh why ESFRS was looking at making such ‘savage’ cuts to make the required £7m savings when the service has £10m sitting in its reserves.

DCFO Walsh replied that some of the money was there for contingency, while some was earmarked for specific projects, including replacing breathing apparatus and building accommodation for firefighters at The Ridge, should Battle be downgraded.

£1.5m was earmarked for “transitional support” to help staff who had been made redundant by the service.

DCFO Walsh added: “The thing with the resources is they are there for one off expenditure.

“You cannot necessarily use that for expenditure for long periods of time, like hiring staff.”

Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hastings and Rye, Sarah Owen, said: “All the Fire Authority has in front of them is cuts to frontline staff.

“Perhaps you can update us on when you are going to change your management structure rather than say ‘I’m looking into it’?”

DCFO Walsh said that ESRFS had saved “just under £700,000” by reducing senior management posts, while the number of flexible duty officers has also been cut.

Two previous attempts to downgrade Battle Fire Station ended in failure after the plans were rejected on ‘operational grounds’.

County and district councillor Kathryn Field, who was an outspoken campaigner against the previous two downgrade attempts, said: “Why are we standing here this evening talking about downgrading Battle Fire Station for the third time when we know it would not work?

“Since the last time, the firebrigade now have a statutory duty to attend road traffic collisions.

“We are being asked to downgrade the fire station when they now have even more to do.”

Many of those present at the meeting expressed their disappointment that only three of the invited 18 members of the East Sussex Fire Authority turned up on the night.

Cllr Field said: “I remember the last time I had one of these meetings and the chair of the Fire Authority turned up and took the flack.

“I would like to know that he sat here and listened to what the people of Battle and the surrounding areas and Hastings think.”

Cllr Stuart Earl said that no one on the East Sussex Fire Authority wanted to put lives at risk.

The independent councillor said: “We will listen to what is being said to take it to the board.

“I’m fully aware that the A21 is one of the most dangerous roads in the country and we are fully aware that the retained service at Battle struggles to meet the demands of going out.

“I must not comment myself now and say which option I favour, but one thing we do not want to do is see anyone put at risk unnecessarily.

“It is vital we listen to what you want.”

Cllr Phil Scott added: “Part of our role here tonight is to listen very carefully to what you say and take that message back loudly and clearly on June 5.”