Fire Service personnel were in Armagh to argue the case for a reduction in local firefighter cover – just hours before it was confirmed pensioner Geordie Tuft had died in a blaze at his Loughbrickland home.
Union officials sat across the table at the meeting in the Palace, part on an ongoing consultation on local cover, arguing against any cutbacks.
As Armagh I earlier revealed, changes are proposed to – in the words of NIFRS – “manage firefighter resources, given the changing risk profile of Northern Ireland”.
Fire personnel had spent the day and late into the evening at the home of Mr Tuft, after what is believed to have been an accidental blaze claimed the life of the local celebrity, a much-loved and regular contributor to BBC Radio Ulster’s Gerry Anderson Show.
Mr Tuft is survived by his son, Eddie, and was a much-loved brother to Nan, Violet and Alwyn.
News of the pensioner’s death was coming through shortly after the meeting broke up at the Palace, when all parties rejected and voiced opposition to the proposals.
Armagh and Portadown are two of seven fire stations which could lose weekend wholetime firefighter cover – based in station – under the plans.
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.
The same pattern will also be applied in Coleraine, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Newtownards and Omagh.
Meanwhile, Enniskillen, Downpatrick, Dungannon and Strabane would benefit from additional wholetime firefighters, whilst at the same time maintaining the retained cover 24/7.
The move to cut back services locally has been met with an angry reaction.
DUP Councillor Gareth Wilson said councillors were united on the issue at the presentation last night.
He told Armagh I: “In terms of council presentations, in over 10 years on council I never recall a presentation whereby we had service providers – NIFRS – and a union – the Fire Brigades Union – at the same table, at the same time.
“It certainly made for an interesting exchange, with NIFRS outlining the particular nature of the review of services and the union reps then giving a different take on the quoted statistics in direct response.”
“Councillors on the environment committee were all of the same view that the service should remain capable of responding to incidents regardless of the time, location or nature of the incident that arises.
“I made the point that accidents or house fires don’t occur to the clock or calendar and, therefore, whilst service reorganisation may have good points in terms of improvements to service delivery, the concerns raised by the union representatives on other matters of the review must be fully discussed with staff through the union.”
The consultation follows a risk assessment, identifying the ‘risk levels’ in all 67 station areas over a five year period.
According to NIFRS, this assessment has clearly identified that, in 11 station areas, the risk levels and resources are “not effectively matched”.
Newry and Armagh Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan said the cuts to staffing hours would have a “detrimental impact on response times”.
“The budget reduction will have a devastating impact on society,” he said.
“Cuts to staffing hours in particular will have a knock-on effect on response times in a service where every minute counts.
“The Minster for Health must ring-fence the budget to protect these vital frontline services. The Fire and Rescue Service play a life-saving and vital role and we need to adequately assess and understand the potential impact these proposals could bring. The current Section 75 consultation process appears to be nothing more than a box ticking exercise.
“It is outrageous that the Department is suggesting that a full Equality Impact Assessment is not required and have instead issued a paper exercise that clearly is not sufficient enough.”
The public consultation period is ‘live’ and the closing date for comment is this coming Monday, March 7. Consultation documents can be accessed on NIFRS website http://www.nifrs.org/consultation/ or hard copies are available by contacting NIFRS’s Equality & Inclusion Unit, on 028 9266 4221.