The future of the East Sussex fire control room remains unclear, as councillors complain of being “rushed” into a decision on a multi-million pound outsourcing deal.
At a meeting on Friday (October 25), councillors sitting on the East Sussex Fire Authority chose to defer making a decision on whether to outsource its control centre operations to Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
The proposals, expected to cost a total of £11m, had been recommended by senior fire officers and would see East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS) enter into a three-way partnership with both Surrey and West Sussex.
The decision would also impact on the roles of control room staff, based at the fire service’s current control centre at Haywards Heath fire station. Around 24 roles would be affected, according to a fire service spokesman.
Many councillors, however, felt they did not have enough information about the alternative options available – including whether ESFRS could run its own standalone control room in Lewes.
‘Change is often uncomfortable’
Among those to raise concerns was Liberal Democrat county councillor Carolyn Lambert, who called for the authority to defer any decision until this option could be considered in more detail.
She said: “I think we all accept that change is often uncomfortable, but in this case jobs are at risk and there are serious technical and financial concerns around, what [chairman] Cllr Roy Galley rightly said is, the most important decision this fire authority will make this year.
“We are talking about a huge amount of money at a very difficult time and I am concerned that we are looking at investing the amount of money we are without being in full control of our own resources.
“I would like to pause this process because I really don’t feel we have sufficiently bottomed-out the issue of a standalone control centre for East Sussex.
“There is insufficient detail at the moment, I think, for us to make this kind of serious decision.”
Cllr Lambert also raised concerns about Surrey joining with West Sussex and East Sussex at the same time and the disruption this may cause.
She also raised concerns about the financial positions of the other authorities (both of which are governed as part of their county councils) and whether this would see East Sussex lose out financially.
Similar views were shared by other authority members, including Labour county councillor Phil Scott who also moved a motion to defer the decision for further investigation of a standalone control centre.
Senior fire officers, however, warned against a deferral to look again at alternative options.
Standalone service could cost more
Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark O’Brien said: “In terms of a delay at this stage, there are significant cost, operational risks and staffing issues to do that.
“We have followed this process over the last 12 months with a significant number of officers and significant support from external colleagues. These are the options that are currently available to consider.
“While the [external consultant] Mott McDonald report has suggested that they are all feasible, what they are not – at this stage – is viable as options to put in front of you.
“There are some concerns about the current cost that is on the table; the £11m. But if we were to go back now and come forward with an option to that looked at a single standalone service for this authority, that £11m would very quickly turn into £14 or £15m.”
This would be because of the cost of an external procurement process, Mr O’Brien said.
He also warned that a delay posed risks in terms of the stability of the existing fire mobilising system – both in terms of the existing IT system and the company behind it.
A delay also ran the risk of a breakdown in industrial relations and staffing levels due to further uncertainty, he said.
Mr O’Brien said: “My professional advice is it will cost more, it will take longer and there is a risk to our current operational delivery.
“Even with all of that being done, I would not be coming to you and recommending an in-house option over the benefits that can be delivered, operationally, through a multi-service arrangement.”
Councillors, however, felt they could not support this option with the information at hand with Liberal Democrat county councillor Sarah Osborne putting forward a motion to defer making any decision at all until members could meet informally with officers to decide a course of action.
In moving this motion, Cllr Osborne said she felt the decision was being “rushed”.
This view was backed by Green Party councillor for Brighton and Hove City Council Steph Powell, who said it felt like authority members were being ‘bamboozled’ into making a decision.
Cllr Powell said: “I do feel put between a rock and a hard place. I feel bamboozled into making this decision here today and I’m sure my colleagues feel the same.
“I will support any amendment which suggests we come back with full information, and full costings please, on a standalone hub, because what were presented with today was simply unacceptable.”
These comments drew some fire from ESFRS Chief Fire Officer Dawn Whittaker, however.
Ms Whittaker said: “We will take whatever directive you need, because in order to allow fair and due governance and to make the right decision you need to feel you have all the information to do so.
“It will still not be an easier decision, because of all of the things you have articulated, in terms of the dichotomies, will continue to exist.
“The tribulation of making a decision which has financial implications, technological implications [and] people implications is tough and I appreciate that.
“[But] it saddens me when I hear members say they feel ‘bamboozled’ into making a decision we have been debating for 18 months.
“With the utmost respect to all those members who haven’t read all those previous papers and the background papers, I must say in defence of my officers that there has been a huge amount of information about it.
“I totally and absolutely accept that it is complex and if in anyway we have convoluted, overdetailed or not given you clear and concise information, then I take responsibility personally as the Chief Fire Officer.”
Final decision delayed
In light of these comments, Conservative county councillor John Barnes put forward a motion which would have seen the authority to defer a decision but narrow its options to either joining with Surrey and West Sussex or a hybrid option.
The hybrid option would see a separate control room retained in East Sussex with the IT systems supplied by an outside organisation.
Both Cllr Osborne’s and Cllr Barnes’ motions were defeated when put to the vote, however. Neither Cllr Lambert’s or Cllr Scott’s motions made it through to the vote, having been withdrawn in favour of Cllr Osborne’s.
A third alternative option, put forward by fire authority chairman Roy Galley (Con), was also defeated. It would have seen work progress on outsourcing to Surrey FRS, but would not bind the fire authority to a final decision until further information was provided.
A fourth and final motion – with wording suggested by Ms Whittaker – was put forward by Cllr Phil Boorman and seconded by Cllr Carolyn Lambert.
It directed officers to provide more detailed information on both a standalone control room and “the operational benefits and governance arrangements that would be in place” on joint outsourcing deal with Surrey and West Sussex.
This work is to be done by the end of November in time for further meeting to be held on December 5. It is anticipated that a decision will be made at this meeting.