FEARS for the future of the fire service were highlighted when it was revealed neither Petworth nor Midhurst fire engines were able to respond to two 999 calls.
They had to be answered instead by fire engines from Arundel, Horsham, Littlehampton, Chichester, Selsey and Haslemere.
Now there have been calls for drastic action to recruit more firefighters instead of going through with plans to axe one fire engine at each station.
Former firefighter Tony Morris has spoken out against the proposed cuts: “It’s extremely worrying no-one was available on the day. Had that fire not been contained, the delays in getting there could have meant a fair chunk of Petworth could have been damaged.”
He said retained firefighters were treated ‘very badly’ in West Sussex. “They have trouble recruiting because they don’t treat them properly. The service does not acknowledge the demands placed on the firefighters.”
Shortly before 9.30am on Friday (September 12), fire ripped through the basement of a three-storey building in Petworth, severely damaging the Basmati Indian restaurant.
Less than half an hour later, there was a two-car crash just outside Petworth at Foxhill, but there were not enough firefighters at Petworth or Midhurst to crew their engines.
Mr Morris, who has launched a scathing attack on the West Sussex fire service, said the incident on Friday had knock-on effects for other areas.
“Who was covering Selsey when its fire engine went to Petworth? It has a population of thousands, with one road in and one road out.
“They would have been dependent on a crew from somewhere.”
Mr Morris stressed the blame lay, not in the laps of the local firefighters, but with the strategy and recruitment process.
“Firefighters join up to help their community, but are often sent to the other side of the county because of crew shortages. Of course they lose interest. The fire service should make them feel important, not treat them like second-class citizens.”
Crew manager at Petworth fire station, Mike Still, said the service was ‘winging it’ on a daily basis and not using the staff available.
“The retained system relies on people being available outside their full-time job,” he said. “We have three people coming up for retirement at Petworth, but there is no long-term policy to recruit people in retained stations. The service needs to save money long-term.
“But on day-to-day crewing the service is winging it – they make it up on the day as to where they are going to put the pumps.
“And it has no real idea how to utilise the staff it has got. It’s a vicious circle. The less the engine is going out, the less you’re earning.
“The retained system in its present form is finished.
“The whole system, process and management needs to change.”
This comes as a West Sussex County Council committee is set to meet today to discuss whether Midhurst, Petworth and Storrington stations should each lose a fire engine – resulting in a saving of £63,000.
Adrian Murphy, operations manager at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We moved Selsey to be on standby at Petworth. When the call came in, the engine was just north of Halnaker and they were on the scene in 15-16 minutes. This was the second time in three years we’ve had a simultaneous call in Petworth, and I think our systems worked.”