Further cuts to budgets for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service would have a devastating effect, Stormont has been told.
And there have been fears expressed during a debate that lives would be lost unless something is done to safeguard the fire service.
Just last month Armagh I revealed firefighting services in County Armagh looked set to be the latest casualty of budgetary cuts, with a public consultation now underway.
Armagh and Portadown were two of seven fire stations which could lose weekend wholetime firefighter cover – based in station – under the proposals.
Wholetime firefighters are currently based in both stations seven days a week, from 7.30am until 7.30pm.
The changes would see them based in the station on a reduced number of daily hours – from 8am until 6pm.
And that would be Monday to Friday only, with wholetime firefighters based in neither Armagh nor Portadown at weekends.
The retained firefighter service – which were traditionally known as part-time firefighters but providing cover 24 hours a day – would be maintained.
But interim chief fire officer Dale Ashford has warned stations could close altogether.
Writing to the Department of Health, which has responsibility for the Fire and Rescue Service, he warned of the devastating effects a further budgetary cut of between five and 10 per cent would have in the next financial year.
The letter has been obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the Fire Brigades Union.
In it, Mr Ashford warns that stations could be axed and jobs cut back if the budget cuts go ahead.
Ulster Unionist Health spokesperson and Upper Bann MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, speaking in advance of Monday’s debate, had argued: “Last year’s budget reduction, along with a further proposed cut of 5-6% next year, is going to have a major impact on service provision.
“For instance fire stations all across Northern Ireland, including in the major towns of Armagh, Portadown, Coleraine, Antrim, Carrickfergus, Newtownards and Omagh, have all now been identified for downgrading, whilst other desperately needed station upgrades have been put on hold.
“In addition several other towns currently have no full-time cover, despite being identified as being higher risk. There is also a growing problem regarding the inadequate number of full-time firefighters across Northern Ireland
“Over recent years the cost of administration in the Northern Ireland Health Service, including in bodies such as the Health and Social Care Board, has spiralled out of control.
“For example the DHSSPS has spent £200m employing locum medical staff and over the last three years alone the number health administrators earning over £100,000 has doubled.
“Whilst much of the Health Service budget has been mismanaged over the last four years, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has actually had its budget slashed from £81.6m to £69.7m: a major reduction before inflation is even considered.
“Having spoken to many of the men and women in the local service, I fear that a further cut will simply lead to even greater risk to public safety. That is why I am bringing this motion and why I am urging the Minister Simon Hamilton to listen and realise the dangers of what he is trying to push through.”
Ulster Unionist Party MLA Michael McGimpsey had warned that cuts pose a major risk to safety of the public and the personnel working within in the Fire and Rescue service.
The South Belfast MLA said: “The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has an incredibly important role not only in responding to fires, but also vehicle collisions and other emergency situations.
“However what is happening to emergency response times is frightening. For instance there has been a major deterioration over the last five years in how long it takes the first vehicles to arrive on the scene.
“In fires, or in situations where people are trapped in very dangerous environments, time is so important and therefore every moment of delay increases the risk of someone coming to harm.
“I think it is outrageous that our local fire service network has been targeted for major cuts in the way that it has.
“Simon Hamilton may consider our Fire and Rescue Service a dispensable luxury, but I don’t and nor does anyone else. That is why I am putting the gauntlet down in the Assembly on Monday.
“It’s up to all the other political parties now to send a clear signal that the current situation is simply not good enough.
— NewryArmagh SinnFein (@newryarmaghsf) January 18, 2016
“Our Fire and Rescue Service, as well as the selfless personnel within it, not only need to be shown the respect they deserve, but they need to be given the adequate resources so that they can carry out their role in a safe and effective manner.”
There was a unanimous backing in the Assembly to protect the NIFRS from further cuts.
The Ulster Unionist Party – which brought the motion – has called for the Executive to listen.
The Assembly today unanimously agreed our call for the NIFRS budget to be protected from major cuts next year. The Executive must now listen
— Ulster Unionist (@uuponline) January 18, 2016
Pleased with the outcome of the NIFTS debate today, along with Rod O’Hare, Newry and Glen Cleland, Downpatrick pic.twitter.com/LKxsiUCATa
— Danny Kennedy (@DKennedy_UUP) January 18, 2016