Thursday, 30 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I was first contacted by local retained firefighters concerned about the continued closure of Castlerea fire station long before I was ever elected to this House. The retained firefighters did not see their role as just a job. They served their community with pride and that pride can be seen in speaking to them. I saw it the first time I met them.
Castlerea fire station was closed in 2007. The only reason given for the closure at the time was staffing issues. A statement from Roscommon County Council in January 2019 stated that the fire station remained closed due to operational reasons.
In April last year, the chief executive of Roscommon County Council told councillors that he was fully committed to the reopening of Castlerea fire station and that it would reopen at some time in that year. Just this week, after waiting months and months for the publication of a report on fire services in County Roscommon, I sat in the council chamber and it was as if the staffing difficulties the chief executive had consistently referred to for three and half years had never existed. Instead, the fire station in Castlerea was being closed because a new report written by the chief fire officer in Roscommon recommended it. This report does not consider the make-up of the town of Castlerea, that it is the second largest town in County Roscommon and the fact that it is home to a number of large factories, large schools, forestry, boglands, nursing homes and a prison. There has been no consultation with the key stakeholders. I know this because I have engaged with many of them myself.
This is a very basic service. The people of Castlerea pay their taxes, including property tax. I ask that the Minister intervene and review this decision urgently.
First, I wish the Minister luck. I have not had the opportunity to do so before. As has been outlined, Castlerea is the second largest town in County Roscommon. An industrial relations dispute has been ongoing in recent years. There have been public meetings. I and many others have talked to people on all sides of the dispute to see whether it could be resolved. Unfortunately, it has not been.
There is a report out now. Castlerea, in which the prison and factories are located, and surrounding areas such as Ballymoe and Williamstown have been served by the fire service in Castlerea. Unfortunately, a decision was taken based on this report.
It also needs to be mentioned that some politicians unfortunately got abuse over this. I saw stuff about one councillor in the town on social media. That will not solve anything. We need to solve this together. Castlerea needs a fire station. We need to move and figure out how to make sure it has one. If we can present evidence that shows the need we believe exists and will exist down the road, can the Minister help us re-establish the fire service in Castlerea in the coming months?
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I will clarify that 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. In accordance with this requirement, Roscommon County Council provides a fire service comprising five fire stations at Roscommon town, Elphin, Boyle, Ballaghdereen and Strokestown. Significant areas of the county are also served from fire stations in adjacent counties, including those at Athlone, Ballinasloe, Ballyhaunis, Carrick-on-Shannon and Lanesborough.
My Department supports fire authorities through general policy setting and preparing legislation, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects.
It should be noted that my Department was informed by Roscommon County Council in February 2017 that a situation had arisen in Castlerea fire station that resulted in the fire brigade being stood down on a temporary basis. This situation arose because of staffing issues and it was judged by Roscommon County Council that it was unsafe to mobilise this fire station to emergency incidents. As the Deputies will be aware, under the Local Government Act 2001, arrangements with regard to staffing in each local authority are the responsibility of the relevant chief executive of that authority. In this regard, as employers, Roscommon County Council pursued grievance, disciplinary and mediation processes to try to resolve the issues within Castlerea fire station over the past number of years. As these efforts have been unsuccessful, a decision has now been made not to reopen Castlerea fire station. I understand that engagement with the remaining six retained fire fighters stationed in Castlerea on this decision is due to commence.
In coming to a decision, I am sure that the chief executive of Roscommon County Council will have taken into account the fire risk in Castlerea, its environs and the wider county as well as national policy, which promotes fire prevention and fire safety as well as fire service response. I understand that concerns have been raised about fire service provision with regard to Castlerea Prison. In the first instance, the prison authorities are responsible for the management of fire safety at the prison site. However, the Roscommon fire service regularly engages with the Prison Service and is satisfied that the level of on-site management, supervision, modern buildings and fire safety protection systems along with other controls are appropriate to mitigate risks of fire on the site.
I confirm that the Roscommon fire service and its chief fire officer are in regular contact with the Irish Prison Service and the acting governor and that there are regular fire service site visits and up-to-date pre-fire plans for the facility. The fire service is also active regarding ongoing fire safety management related to the construction of new buildings at the Castlerea site.
Finally, while I can understand that there are concerns relating to the non-reopening of Castlerea fire station, I am reassured that fire cover in the area has been and continues to be managed and delivered in an efficient and safe manner from adjacent fire brigades by the Roscommon fire service.
Does it not seem strange to the Minister that he has cited staffing issues in his response when the fire station was not permanently because of staffing issues? It was permanently closed because of this new report. The decision was solely based on that. There is a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide a fire service, as the Minister has said. That obligation is not being met.
I mentioned the prison. There are 12 prisons in the State. Castlerea Prison is one of the largest, with capacity for 340 prisoners and 150 staff. Castlerea Prison will be the prison that is furthest away from a fire station in the entire State. It will be 22 km from the nearest station. Portlaoise Prison is 110 m from the nearest fire station. The Midlands Prison is 290 m away. Arbour Hill Prison is 4 km, Cork Prison, 3 km and Limerick Prison, 220 m, respectively, from the nearest fire station.
I have been in contact with the council, the chief fire officer and the Prison Officers Association, which cannot get a meeting with the council. In fact, the last time the association, which represents the workers in that prison, looked for a meeting with the chief fire officer, it was directed to the HR department. This is not good enough. We need this fire station reopened. It is a basic service but it can be the difference between life and death. I again ask the Minister to look into the matter.
In his reply, the Minister noted the problems that have arisen over recent years. As has been outlined, in the Castlerea area is the Harmac factory, the prison, a mart and various businesses. This does not only affect Castlerea. The service is needed not only for the town but also for surrounding areas. I live in County Galway but fire services go across borders in rural areas. Castlerea is 12 miles from my home. The next nearest station is 16 miles away. Everything is okay until something goes wrong. That is the big problem in rural areas. We can show there is a need for a fire service in the area.
What happened happened. There is no point in saying anything different. It was an industrial relations dispute. A huge amount was spent trying to resolve it but it seems it was not possible to resolve. People were brought in from different areas to try to resolve it. There is now a report saying a fire service is not required in the area. We do need a fire service in the area and I ask the Minister to look at it again.
I will pass the concerns both Deputies have raised to the Minister with responsibility for this area, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, directly. Deputy Fitzmaurice made the point that people always say all is well until something happens.
The risks and concerns the Deputies raise are valid and I commit to raise them directly with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I hope that might help to resolve the issue.