Merger of West Sussex and Surrey fire services’ 999 control rooms gains support

Plans for West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service to join with Surrey to deal with 999 calls came one step closer after being given the nod by a scrutiny committee.

The proposals, which could save West Sussex £1.7m between 2020 and 2022, came five months after a similar agreement with East Sussex was terminated.

West Sussex Fire & Rescue

West Sussex Fire & Rescue

Members of the county council’s environment, health and fire select committee heard from chief fire officer Gavin Watts and assistant chief fire officer Neil Stocker, who laid out the benefits of the Surrey arrangement.

With an 18-month notice period on the East Sussex agreement due to end in February 2020, some 20 options were explored, which were whittled down to six before Surrey Fire & Rescue was named as the partner of choice.

It is hoped the East Sussex team would stay in the control room in Haywards Heath, paying rent to West Sussex but no agreement has been reached.

Mr Watts said the aim was to be up and running by December, giving a three-month period of grace to deal with any problems.

Gavin Watts, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service

Gavin Watts, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service

Explaining the reasons for picking their northern neighbours, Mr Stocker told the meeting that Surrey had access to state-of-the-art technology which West Sussex did not, and which had already been proven to be successful.

This included more up-to-date data accessible in fire engine cabs, and access to CCTV data and highways cameras.

Keen to work with a neighbouring authority, he added that the partnership ‘makes sense’ given Gatwick Airport stands on the border of the two counties.

The final decision is due to be made shortly by Debbie Kennard, cabinet member for safer, stronger communities.

She said: “We are looking to set ourselves for the next decade and beyond with a system that is future proof.”

The partnership would need a one-off investment of £934,000 from West Sussex in 2019/20 to enable the service to transfer to the new system and ensure all the necessary IT is in place.

But from 2020/21, it would bring a saving of £855,160 per year.

Mr Stocker was asked why the service could not remain ‘in-house’, perhaps re-opening in the old fire centre on the Northgate gyratory, in Chichester.

He told members that to do so would need an investment of £2m to reinstate the equipment, and would cost around £1.8m per year to run.

He added: “That is way beyond where we need to be for best value for the taxpayers of West Sussex.”

Mr Watts told members it would be business as usual for the fire service while the changes were made.

He said: “I can absolutely assure the public that when they dial 999 today, tomorrow and indeed next year, they will get the best possible service from West Sussex Fire and Rescue.”

In a statement East Sussex Fire and Rescue said: “The Sussex Control Centre continues to provide a control room service to both East and West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services while proposals for the future are developed and considered.

“There are a number of areas which are part of ongoing legal discussions with WSFRS, including the future of staff currently providing the service.

“No agreement has been reached with regards to rent or a number of other financial arrangements.

“West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service entered into a joint project to deliver a shared Sussex Control Centre with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and has at every stage been an equal partner in decision-making for the project and the arrangement was due to remain in place until early 2021.

“In August 2018, West Sussex County Council informed us it wishes to end the commissioned delivery of the control room service by ESFRS. The 18 month notice period is due to end in February 2020.

“East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is separately developing a number of proposals for its future mobilising strategy which will be fully scrutinised and assessed before being introduced in 2021, when the current agreement for the Sussex Control Centre was originally due to end.

“We will continue to answer 999 calls and respond to emergencies as normal during the transition periods.”