Huge gaps have been exposed in fire service cover in the Highlands.
At times this year, a 200-mile stretch of northern coastline had no firefighters to respond to a call-out.
Complex reasons for that include a shortage of crew and firm rule about a minimum number on fire tenders.
Community leaders want the Scottish Government to intervene urgently to overhaul the way the service operates in remote areas.
Data shared with STV News has revealed that on June 6, Caithness and Sutherland were left with three appliances.
On July 28, there was apparently no cover in Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber.
On October 7, Caithness and Sutherland had a single appliance.
On November 2, there was no cover again in Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber.
Seven crew have quit Thurso fire station this year. It is a two-appliance facility. Rarely, in recent months, have both been available for use and sometimes neither.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said Thurso currently has a crew of 17, with seven recruits being trained up.
Albert Macivor, who retired recently as a retained firefighter after almost 30 years of service, fears for his community’s future safety.
He said: “Other stations should come up and cover but if they’re unavailable it’s stretched, it’s stretched to its limits.”
Asked, in the worst scenario, what might happen, he said: “Life-threatening… there could be fatalities.”
The root of the problem is a widespread shortage of personnel in areas of depopulation such as Caithness and Sutherland.
There is also a stipulation that fire appliances must have a crew of four.
Retired Caithness area police commander Matthew Reiss said: “There have been occasions when there’s been no cover all the way from Ullapool up to Durness.. all the way across to Caithness and down to Helmsdale.
“That’s half the distance of the North Coast 500. These are ridiculous distances.”
The Highlands’ area fire chief Michael Humphreys said: “The safety of our staff is a priority.
“There is no doubt that we experience challenges in recruiting firefighters right across Scotland and it is no different here in Highland.
“However, when we do experience those challenges then we will always maintain fire cover through our business continuity plans and we will continue to attend at every emergency.”
The phenomenal success of the North Coast 500 tourism project has added to the challenges for rescuers because of the increased traffic volume.
Neil MacDonald, who retired five years ago after ten years as a retained firefighter in Scourie, said: “We used to be able to go to Durness in probably 35 minutes. Now you’re looking at nearer an hour.
“For the doctor getting through, the ambulance, the fire service, this is a serious issue. If you’re having to travel further distances to get to an emergency, there is where the problem lies.”
The fire service budget is up by £9.5m pounds this year, at £353m.
A team of 53 officers is currently focussed on a recruitment campaign.
That does not impress community leaders who have spent six years trying to convince the fire service that rural areas are a special case requiring different thinking.
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