FIRE chiefs in Somerset could merge with colleagues in neighbouring Avon to limit the impact of multi-million pound grant reductions over the next two years.
Talks are being held to discuss all opportunities for working together, including the possibility of a full merger, after both services had their government settlements slashed.
Devon & Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority has increased its share of council tax by 1.99%, or an average £1.47 per year in light of the cuts, which equate to the third steepest grant reduction of all fire and rescue authorities nationally.
In all, the service will be forced to operate £3.4million worse-off this year, followed by a further £2.1million cut in 2014.
Authority chairman Cllr Mark Healey said partnering the two services could ‘provide real opportunities for improving public safety’ but the Fire Brigades Union is adamantly opposed to the idea, warning that ‘bigger is not necessarily better.’ “It’s a surprise that these talks have been going on behind the backs of the communities who will be affected and the firefighters who work in both brigades,” said Devon and Somerset FBU chairman Bob Walker.
“There has been no assessment of the added risks a mega-brigade will have on the different communities across the South West, who ultimately pay for and deserve a professional service.”
The same scepticism was echoed by Avon FBU secretary Chris Taylor, who asked: “Where is the democracy and accountability?
“We want to know how this will impact on response times and what it will mean for our conditions.”
Cllr Healey stressed that talks were still at their earliest stages and said any form of partnership would need to demonstrate ‘tangible benefits’ for communities and staff.
“We recognise that the service has to change and we, like others, face an uncertain financial future.
“The government direction is clear and our times of austerity are not behind us.
“Working with another service may help reduce our costs, whilst continuing our aim to improve or maintain public safety.”
A draft plan recommending a host of cost-saving proposals – including changing Taunton’s second fire appliance from whole time to on call – is currently out for public consultation where it will remain until April 22. For information and to have your say go to www.dsfire.gov.uk/consultation