TODAY the county’s fire service has begun to roll out its biggest transformation for more than four decades.
Fire fighters this morning began working to completely new shift patterns as part of the major shake-up to West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.
The changes stemmed from £1.6m cuts to the fire service’s budget, which were voted in last October by county councillors under a wave of controversy and public anger.
But a year after first being proposed, fire chiefs are keen to look forward, saying staff are eager to begin their new duties, and insisting the service people expect when they call 999 in an emergence won’t be downgraded in any way.
Assistant chief fire officer Gavin Watts, when asked what the changes will mean to West Sussex residents, said: “None whatsoever. They will dial 999, ask for the fire service and get the fire service.
“Whatever resources are required for any particular call will be sent out, that hasn’t changed at all.
“The positive thing this has made us do is really think long and hard about our business.
“The world is ever changing and we have to change to reflect that.”
In the Observer area there are changes to Midhurst and Petworth stations, as well as Bognor and Chichester.
Midhurst and Petworth are perhaps the most affected. Both are known as ‘retained stations’, meaning they are not staffed at all times just like the stations at Selsey and Wittering, and include retained, or part-time firefighters from the area.
Both Midhurst and Petworth are losing a fire engine, going down to one each, while both Chichester and Bognor fire stations are being reduced from 28 full-time officers each to 25.
A new high-tech, off-road vehicle will be based at Midhurst, which is not aimed at replacing the lost engine, but will allow more officers to head to a local call and contains the latest fire-fighting technology.
Midhurst too will see its old engine replaced by a brand-new one, while Petworth will be given a water carrier with a 18,000 litre capacity from Littlehampton.
The measures introduced from today include significant changes to staff working patterns.
Instead of the old system of crews working nine-hour days or 15 hour nights, new 12-hour shifts for both day and night have been introduced this week.
“It’s been a big culture change, and with that has brought some doubt and uncertainty about what it means to them personally and professionally,” officer Watts said.
“But we are no different to any big organisation in that we have to change with the times, and what’s important is that the new system is different from the one first proposed because our staff have been involved in the process.”
Engaging with the community over fire prevention remains a key focus for the service, alongside responding to 999 call outs.
Employing retained officers remains a real challenge for every fire service up and down the country.
In West Sussex a team of 16 full-time officers make up the new crew optimisation group, which will support retained officers around the county as and when they are needed.
The significant reduction in West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service of £1.6m and the subsequent changes continues to be met with objection.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) opposed the cuts from the start and believes it will put firefighters at greater risk.
Francis Bishop, brigade secretary, said: “The FBU has argued against these changes, but to no avail.
“The Union argues this places firefighters at greater risk that they are at present, and means the service they provide to the public of West Sussex will be compromised.”
West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is also looking for new retained officers at all its stations in the area, from Midhurst, Petworth, Chichester and Bognor to down at Selsey and Wittering.