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Why Folkestone IS Different and Folkestone Fire Station Should Not be Cut

January 7, 2008 8:00 AM
By Lynne Beaumont & Tim Prater, Leaders of the Liberal Democrat Groups, Shepway District & Folkestone Town Council in Letter to Members of the Kent Fire Authority

Fire [Photo: Ernest von Rosen, www.amgmedia.com]We're writing to you as a member of the Kent Fire Authority, who will shortly be considering the proposal to remove a full-time fire engine from Folkestone Fire Station, leading to the loss of 24 firefighters from Folkestone, plus the removal of the turntable ladder sited at Folkestone to Ashford.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrat groups on Shepway District and Folkestone Town Councils respectively, we strongly ask you to vote the proposal to remove a full-time fire engine from Folkestone Fire Station, leading to the loss of 24 Firefighters from Folkestone, plus the removal of the turntable ladder sited at Folkestone to Ashford.

It has been said by some that these proposals are being put through by ex-serving fire officers, who believe this is the best option for Kent. The campaign against however is not just that of any Party (although the Liberal Democrats in Shepway have taken the lead on the issue), but supported by Folkestone Town Council, Shepway District Council, Michael Howard MP and most importantly the serving fire fighters at Folkestone.

Folkestone's firefighters are not opposing because they feel their jobs are at risk - they have been assured they will be redeployed. They are opposed because they feel the proposals are detrimental to safety in Shepway, and actually, due to the strategic nature of the service in Kent these days, across the whole of the County. We ask you to support serving firefighters in their campaign.

Firstly, the nature of the reduction at Folkestone is not that of redeployment - it is a cut. The engine to be removed will replace another engine to be taken out of service elsewhere, and the firefighters will only replace officers lost (through natural wastage) elsewhere. There will be NO enhancement of services elsewhere in Kent. There is NO advantage to the rest of Kent - it is a straightforward reduction of the service available in our area, with no corresponding improvement elsewhere.

Of the around £2 million of cuts the Government is asking the Fire authority to make, over £800,000 will come from the cuts at Folkestone. Surely it is not the job of the Fire Authority to accept Government imposed cuts such as this. We should be lobbying, fighting, campaigning for more funding for our fire and rescue services, not less. Please help stop these cuts, not help manage the decline.

The Fire Authorities own figures show that the cuts DO make the service worse in Shepway overall, and that the risk of death DOES increase - although their model suggests that increase is slight. In Shepway, clearly we do not feel any increase in the likelihood of death or delayed rescue is acceptable, however slight.

We also strongly believe that a number of important local factors are not being taken into account, and that Folkestone Fire Ground and Brigade IS different to other areas in Kent, and requires special consideration. There is a wide range of issues that lead to that difference, and we ask that you consider the importance of each before reaching your decision.

Firstly, as the second line of response to Channel Tunnel incidents, Folkestone Fire Station are in the front line for any major incident at the tunnel. That was one of the key reasons for additional resources being placed at Folkestone in 1994, and the justification has not changed.

Although there is a dedicated tunnel fire service, this operates IN the tunnel itself ONLY, and even for tunnel incidents REQUIRES support from the Folkestone and other brigades for any significant in tunnel incident. Only full-time firefighters are trained to drive the specialist in-tunnel engines - not retained crew. Responses required to the terminal CANNOT be made by the tunnel fire brigade - they simply cannot leave the tunnel - and are met by local response. And there have in the past few months a number of call-outs to the tunnel - the first 14 days of December alone saw four call-outs.

Official call-out statistics for the Channel Tunnel and terminal are disaggregated. They variously call the site "Cheriton Terminal", "Folkestone Terminal", "Channel Tunnel" and other names - and as such do not show up as a significant call-out place - but if you add them together, figures show that over the past ten years, it has the third largest call-out rate of any single location on Kent. Many of these call-outs will be due to false alarms etc but these still clearly have to be attended - who could risk the consequences if an alarm was not attended at that site?

The Folkestone Fire Ground also covers a number of other significant risks - a section of the M20 (which actually the Folkestone Brigade can under normal circumstances cover up to J10 Westbound in Ashford, as they can respond quicker than the Ashford brigade can), a motorway service station opening in January 2008, a nuclear power station, an airport (currently in the process of applying for a major expansion), and the Folkestone sea-front development (by far the largest coastal redevelopment in Kent, and to include a Marina, and proposals still include the reinstatement of a cross-Channel crossing), and the Channel Tunnel itself. No other area in Kent has such a range of major risks which require fire cover.

The Folkestone fire ground is the largest in Kent, covering the Marsh, Elham Valley, Hythe and Folkestone. It's around 30 miles from Folkestone to the furthest edge of the fire Ground, down the A259 which is a poor road. Simply attending an incident at the far end of the fire ground will take at least 30 minutes each way, excluding any time actually at the incident. The period this takes explains to an extent why the station, despite having less call-outs than some comparable fire stations is still well utilized - it simply takes longer on average due to the distances involved here to get to incidents than it does at other stations.

If the application to extend Lydd Airport is passed (it is being considered by Shepway District Council at a Special meeting on 30th January, and may even then go to a full public enquiry), there would be a big increase in congestion and accidents on roads - especially the A259 - in the area. The Folkestone Brigade would also respond to any aircraft incident that has an impact outside the airport itself, as well as clearly being most likely to be required to support any major incident at the airport itself.

Another huge factor is that one of the worst structural transport problems for the County impacts most significantly on Folkestone - Operation Stack, whereby sections of the M20 are used as temporary lorry parking in the case of disruption to cross-channel services. Lorries are parked on the coast-bound carriageway with the road closed to all other traffic at the same time. Phase 1 involves closing the road between Junctions 11 (Hythe) and 12 (Cheriton), with the A20 providing an alternative route. Phase 2 involves closing the M20 between Maidstone and Ashford (Junctions 8 to 9) with the A20 being used as the diversionary road again.

When both sections of Operation Stack are in place, can make it impossible to reach Folkestone and Hythe from other parts of the county. It can take hours to get from Ashford to Folkestone, and more from Maidstone. Requiring strategic cover from Ashford could cause serious delays if an engine, or the turntable ladder has to come from Ashford, potentially endangering lives.

Alternatives to Operation Stack are being looked at, including lorry parking sites, but it remains one of the single worst infrastructure issues in Kent. To cut fire cover in Folkestone while the Kent imposed Operation Stack could block any support from neighbouring brigades would be a massive, foreseeable risk.

The cover available from the retained brigade also based at Folkestone Fire station must also be questioned. Current availability of the retained crew at Folkestone is a massively impressive 96% - amongst the best anywhere. This availability has been used by KFRS in their model to show only a slight increase in death risk across the area, assuming this availability will remain constant. However, cover from the full-time firefighters is often used to keep the retained brigade available.

Where there are insufficient retained firefighters to make the engine available, a full-time firefighter will join the retained team to make the engine available. This is standard practice, and acknowledged by the Fire Brigade. There are however no official figures as to how often this occurs - unbelievably, they are simply not recorded. Firefighters at Folkestone confirm it happens regularly.

It is inconceivable that with one full shift less at Folkestone, that extra firefighters will be available to keep the retained engine available as often, so retained availability will fall - a consequence ignored by the modelling of KFRS. The cover available overall in Folkestone will therefore not be as high as that suggested, suggesting the negative impact on local fire cover will be worse than that modelled.

Channel 4's "Dispatches" recently named Shepway as having the 11th highest flood risk of any area in the UK. In the case of flooding, Kent Fire and Rescue would be taking the lead handling any disaster, but no provision for this is being made. The engines at Folkestone would take the lead in pumping out and rescue under such circumstances, and the risk identified by "Dispatches" has not been taken properly into consideration.

Finally, the figures being used to justify this decision include call-out figures for Folkestone only until the end of March 2007. There were hundreds of emergency calls in Folkestone due to the earthquake on 28 April 2007 and the flooding on 20 June 2007 when over 400 calls were made in just three hours. If the decision was to be based on figures in this year, the figures on call-outs would be much higher, and could well lead to a different conclusion. Although we can certainly hope that the area will not be hit by an earthquake again in the near future, Folkestone and Shepway are increasingly hit by flooding, with a series of incidents in the last few years.

Overall, we hope the above gives a taste of why we strongly believe that the proposals to remove the second full-time fire engine, the engine and the turntable ladder should be opposed.

There are significant local reasons, which we hope we have outlined, why Folkestone needs its current levels of cover. The Liberal Democrats have helped lead the campaign locally including putting motions to Folkestone Town Council (which was agreed) and Shepway District Council (who, following Scrutiny, have come out against the proposals). In both cases, these Councils heard presentations from both KFRS and members of the local FBU, represented by serving firefighters from Folkestone Fire Station. This is not an uninformed position - there has been close questioning throughout.

The campaign against the cuts is however by no means just the Lib Dems - the strongest work has been undertaken by the local firefighters themselves, but also the local press, members from all Parties and none - including the local MP Michael Howard and others.

We're pleased to say that Conservative Cllr Dick Pascoe, a Folkestone Councillor and member of the Fire Authority, said at a recent Shepway District Council meeting that he will be voting against the cuts. We hope all members of the Fire Authority will join him, and also vote against these cuts. Your support, and your vote against cuts to the service in Folkestone, would mean a huge amount to all of us in Shepway.

Yours,

Tim Prater, Leader, Liberal Democrat Group, Folkestone Town Council

Lynne Beaumont, Leader, Liberal Democrat Group, Shepway District Council