Fire Service 999 call centre closures 'put lives at risk'

Whistleblower tells STV News the transition to a new control room has been a 'shambles'.

Fire service: Warning over 999 control room overhaul (file pic). <strong>PA</strong>
Fire service: Warning over 999 control room overhaul (file pic). PA

Fire service whistleblowers have warned that lives are being put at risk as the organisation shuts its second 999 control room in less than a month.

All emergency calls made in the north of Scotland will be handled in Dundee from Tuesday following the closure of call centres in Inverness and Aberdeen.

The fire service has said the public will see no difference in how it responds to incidents.

Staff have raised concerns about that impact of the overhaul, however, claiming the Dundee control room is undermanned and unprepared to handle the extra workload.

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Speaking anonymously to STV News, one serving firefighter called the process a “shambles”.

They described a recent call-out when a crew was mistakenly sent to an Aberdeen high-rise when the incident was actually on a similarly-named street nearby.

The firefighter said: “The transition to the new control room has been a shambles – we’ve been getting called out to the wrong address and sent to incidents undermanned.

“We didn’t have these problems before, but now it’s happening all the time and it’s putting lives at risk.

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“For example, when the control room in Aberdeen was up and running they would send us out to specific zones at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary when we were sent there and we knew exactly where we were going.

“Now it’s just ‘ARI’, and we’ve had the same problem with the university.”

Five call-handlers transferred from Aberdeen to Dundee when the city’s control room shut last month and only two are believed to have moved from Inverness on Tuesday.

Construction is still under way on the fire service’s revamped control centre in Dundee and staff will work out of portable cabins in the grounds of the MacAlpine Road building until it is ready in March.

One control room staff member in Dundee said: “The control room is understaffed and local knowledge has been lost.

“Dundee was too far for most people to move and it just wasn’t feasible. Most staff would rather have stayed with the service but there were no jobs.”

“If the system works then local knowledge can be done without,” they added.

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“But what we’re dealing with at the moment is a half-baked system that needs local knowledge to fall back on. The technology we’re using isn’t fit for purpose.

“Communication is difficult and firefighters have missed call-outs because they didn’t get the right information – or because they didn’t get the message at all.”

During a recent incident, only one fire appliance was sent to a two-engine call-out because a crew did not receive the message and control room staff were too busy to check, they said.

“We’ve never been fully confident that it’s actually working and it’s only a matter of time until someone dies,” the whistleblower warned.

“At the moment all they’re doing is quick-fixes and I don’t think the technology that is in place can be made to work, but management is forcing the changes ahead.

“We’re hitting a brick wall when we try to get the message through that it isn’t working and every day there are incidents which shouldn’t be happening.”

The closure of the fire service’s northern control rooms are part of a cost-saving drive to reduce the total number of call centres from eight to three.

The Dumfries control room shut in late 2014, followed by Thornton in Fife and Maddiston in Falkirk earlier this year. Centres in Edinburgh, Dundee and Renfrewshire will remain open.

The fire service previously estimated switching to a single call-handling system across all three remaining control rooms would save £2.3m and cost 60 jobs.

Fire Brigades Union Scotland (FBUS) has repeatedly raised concerns about control room staffing with the fire service.

FBUS regional official Denise Christie said: “We’re hearing from our members that they’re not getting support and that puts pressure on them when they’re handling calls.

“We’ve made it clear to the SFRS that these control rooms need to be properly staffed and that staff need proper training.

“We’re continually raising issues about recruitment, although we understand the difficulties the fire service has when it comes to budget. By 2019/20 we’re going to see a 21% budget reduction – something like £226m.

“You can’t have a world-class fire service when you’re making continual cuts. The Scottish Government must invest in the SFRS.”

About £50m has been cut from the national fire service’s budget since it was created in 2013.

Lewis Ramsay, SFRS assistant chief officer, said: “It would not be appropriate to comment on unverified claims about our attendance at any incident but the public can rest assured we continue to respond to every emergency quickly, safely and appropriately.

“Any firefighter or operational control staff will know that local knowledge is derived not only from our operations control but from the highly experienced local crews based across the north.

“We combine the experience of those firefighters with an advanced mobilisation system and the very high level of professionalism of our operations control staff to respond in times of emergency.”

He added: “Our new north operations control is part of a £10m investment that will provide the communities of the north with a state-of-the-art capability.

“We worked in partnership with the Fire Brigades Union and our staff to develop a delivery model that, by utilising the latest technology, is more efficient and more resilient.

“We pay tribute to our operations control staff for their professionalism as we continue to move forward as a modern fire and rescue service.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman added: “The creation of a single service – backed by cross-party support across the parliament – has removed artificial barriers and allows all parts of Scotland better access to specialist services and equipment than ever before.

“We welcome the care and planning that Scotland’s fire service has shown since 2014 in preparing for this latest phase of its multi-million pound investment to improve capability in protecting Scotland’s communities.”


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