FIREFIGHTERS in the Highlands and Islands are being exposed to “significant” risk to their health and safety because of controversial changes in fire cover in the most sparsely populated region in Scotland, a damning report by the accounts watchdog has warned.
The service’s decision seven years ago to turn voluntary units into retained duty stations has resulted in “serious weaknesses” in the brigade’s operations.
There are now mounting concerns about the service’s ability to match its resources to community risk.
The brigade’s resources are being spread too thinly over too many locations – despite the fact that firefighters at one unidentified station would be expected to save a life “once in many thousands of years”.
The scathing report by the Accounts Commission is demanding that the fire board and brigade take urgent action to address a wide range of shortcomings in the service.
John Baillie, the chairman of the Accounts Commission, said: “The board now needs urgently to demonstrate better leadership and show that it can fulfil its statutory responsibilities in providing a sustainable fire and rescue service for its communities.
“There is an urgent need for Highlands & Islands Fire and Rescue to address weaknesses in management and to demonstrate it is providing an effective service. While the area has a low number of casualties – and the commission recognises the challenge of providing an effective service in such an expansive area – the service is unable to demonstrate its approach, and in particular how it manages resources to community risk, is actually sustainable.”
The report states that the problems facing the service can be traced to a decision made in 2004 to reclassify 61 volunteer auxiliary units, situated in some of the most remote parts of the country, as retained stations.
The commission states: “This was not based on objective risk assessments. There was also insufficient consideration of the implications of this decision in terms of its sustainability and impact on service delivery.
“The major expansion of its workforce, almost doubling in size in 2004, has had major consequences on a wide range of operational issues, such as firefighter training, health and safety, and communications. As a result, there are significant health and safety risks in relation to firefighters. The drive to address the fundamental weaknesses in workforce issues has been hindered by the limited number of training staff and the logistics of supporting firefighters .”
The commission also claims that over a number of years there has been poor leadership and governance of the service by both the joint board and the senior management team.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer Stewart Edgar said: “We are actively addressing all of the issues within the report and are concentrating our efforts on community and firefighter safety.
“Our Safer Firefighters Programme is well under way and will ensure that the firefighters across the area achieve the national standards.”