Thursday, 12 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Fire Service Staff
In February 2005, the retained firefighters in Bray fire station staged a day of protest over major concerns they had about the operation of the service in the area. They had a number of concerns, including the vetting of calls. One of the main concerns was the manning levels in the station. Bray fire station is a two-pump station, which means there should be 15 firefighters but there were only ten at that point. Two years later, on 26 September 2007, two of the firefighters who had taken part in the day of protest died in the line of duty serving the community of Bray. Sub-officer Brian Murray and firefighter Mark O'Shaughnessy died fighting a serious fire in the Little Bray area. Prior to his death, Mr. Murray had said that unless the serious issues in the fire service were addressed, lives would be lost. Little did he know that two years later he and one of his colleagues would lose their lives.
Fourteen years after the protest at Bray fire station and 12 years after the deaths of Brian Murray and Mark O'Shaughnessy, there are still very serious issues with the fire service in Wicklow. A recent response from the chief fire officer in Wicklow, Mr. Aidan Dempsey, shows that the current manning level in Bray fire station is ten firefighters, of whom two are on long-term sick leave. A service that is supposed to have 15 firefighters has only eight firefighters to provide cover for a population of nearly 40,000. In the case of an emergency call-out requiring a two-pump turnout, which Bray is supposed to provide but cannot do so owing to a lack of staff, the retained firefighter service in Greystones must be dispatched to Bray. This takes additional time and leaves the whole Greystones and KilcooIe area without a service if an emergency occurs. The management of the fire service in Wicklow is playing a dangerous game with people's lives. Lessons have clearly not been learned from the horrific events of 2007 that saw two families lose their loved ones.
There are serious issues with the operation of the retained service in Bray. New recruits cannot be retained because the station is so busy as to make it virtually impossible for a firefighter to hold down a full-time job and be on call at the same time. In addition, the housing crisis makes finding accommodation within a five-minute radius of the station, as required, is a major challenge. The population of Bray and north County Wicklow is expected to increase considerably in the next two or three years. The area also has a high number of high-risk building such as nursing homes. The only way to protect lives and address the serious problems in the fire service in Wicklow is to provide a full-time fire service in the Bray area. We have, however, a crazy situation in which 30 separate fire authorities operate in the State, each of which is managed and funded by a local authority.
Despite needing a full-time fire service, Bray does not have one because Wicklow County Council cannot afford to provide one. What will be done to immediately address the serious problem with manning levels in the fire service in Wicklow? We need a full-time fire service in the Bray area based on need and risk as opposed to what can fit into the local authority's budget. This can only be achieved when the Government implements the findings and recommendation of the 2002 Farrell Grant Sparks report to create a national fire authority. Only then will we have a properly funded fire service that does not have to rely on resources from financially stretched local authorities. When will the findings of the Farrell Grant Sparks report be implemented?
I thank Deputy Brady for raising this issue in which he has had a long-standing interest.
I thank all our fire fighters throughout the length and breadth of the country and acknowledge their hard work, service and commitment. Last Friday, I was fortunate to attend a service marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of my local fire station. Firefighters do tremendous work and the Government is committed to supporting the fire services and the essential and invaluable services they provide in any way we can.
With regard to the fire service in Bray, the provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. Under section 159 of the Local Government Act 2001, each local authority chief executive is responsible for the staffing and organisational arrangements necessary for carrying out the functions of the local authorities for which he or she is responsible. It is, therefore, a matter for each individual chief executive to apply for sanction from the Department and, once approved, to recruit and assign staff to specific divisions within the relevant organisation. In the case of Bray, responsibility lies with Wicklow County Council. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government supports fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding support for equipment and priority infrastructure projects.
I understand that Wicklow fire service currently employs 91 people across ten fire stations at Bray, Greystones, Wicklow, Rathdrum, Arklow, Blessington, Dunlavin, Baltinglass, Carnew and Tinahely. In the case of Bray fire station I am informed by Wicklow County Council that a series of early retirements in 2018, resulted in a reduced number of firefighters, as Deputy Brady noted. I understand that Wicklow County Council has been moving to address this issue through the recruitment of four new firefighters in Bray and has attempted to do so for the past 18 months.
A risk assessment completed by the council in March 2019 in relation to the level of staffing at the fire station found that almost half of the firefighters in the station had been recruited relatively recently. For safety reasons, therefore, and to allow the firefighters time to gain experience, a decision was taken by the council not to recruit further new firefighters for the station at that time. Bray fire station currently has a crew of eight and is operational as a station with one fire engine. I am informed that there have not been any issues turning out a full crew to all incidents and there has been no impact on public safety as a result of that reduction. This is due to the fine work of the personnel in Bray fire station, which is augmented as and when required by colleagues in the station in Greystones nearby. It should also be noted that further back-up is available to Bray, if required, from the two full-time crews in Dún Laoghaire, which is also relatively nearby. The additional recruitment of firefighters for Bray fire station is scheduled to commence again in January 2020, which is just a number of weeks away.
I thank the Minister for her response which clearly outlines all the issues and problems we have. Fire services are the responsibility of local authorities as opposed to a national fire authority. We need one body to implement policy and address the needs of an area based on risk.
I outlined all the difficulties with the fire service in Bray. These problems did not emerge in 2018 but go right back to 2005 when firefighters in the town took it upon themselves to walk out of the station because of manning levels. The number of firefighters was low at that stage and 14 years later, here we are with the same problems, issues and concerns. Nobody is questioning the skills, training and expertise of the firefighters. It is the State that is failing by not putting in place what is needed. We need a national fire authority. Retained fire services might have been suitable in rural areas 30 or 40 years ago but the Bray fire station was built in the 1980s to accommodate a full-time fire service.
It was seen as a need back then. The population in Bray has greatly increased since that time and is due to increase even further with more risk of dangerous buildings, high-rise buildings and nursing homes, as I outlined.
We need a full-time fire service in the area because of the challenges that retained firefighters must endure daily to get to the station. When they are in their workplace or home and the alert goes off in their pockets, they have to battle through congested traffic in their own cars and they are not allowed put on sirens or flashing lights to get to the station. They face massive challenges. There are also the restrictions that they must live and work within a five-minute radius of the fire station. These are the reasons that new recruits cannot be retained. It is why there were retirements last year and there will continue to be retirements because of the pressures and constraints faced by recruits and existing firefighters.
The State must live up to its responsibilities and implement the key recommendations of the Farrell Grant Sparks report of 2002, including the establishment of a national fire authority, removing the need for the local authority to come up with the more than €1 million needed to establish a full-time fire service in Bray. That needs to be based on risk and it can be brought forward only through a national fire authority. It is time to get serious or we will be dealing with more tragedies.
I hear the Deputy's concern and he is genuinely very passionate about this. Wicklow County Council tells me it had to make the decision last year to stop some recruitment intended to try to bring the level back up to what it had been a number of years ago, which was twice as many manning the station as there are now. It has ten and probably should have proficiency of six or seven more. It will recruit again in January and I hope it is not too long before the Deputy sees a full complement of staff. As the Deputy said, when the stations where we live were built we were living in the sticks. We cannot really call Bray or Ashbourne the sticks any more. We now live in the metropolitan district of the greater Dublin area. The Deputy is probably right that the fire stations need to be manned to reflect changes in population increases over the time since they were established.