The hot seat is getting hotter for fire chief

Pictured is Deputy Chief Fire Officer of South Yorks Jamie Courtney
Pictured is Deputy Chief Fire Officer of South Yorks Jamie Courtney

JAMIE Courtney has come a long way since joining the fire service in Merseyside 22 years ago.

He has risen to the top of the fire service ladder with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, responsible for an annual £57m budget, 870 firefighters, 220 support staff and 45 control staff – and currently trying to steer the brigade through extremely difficult times.

Yet he says: “I would argue I am still a firefighter, even though I sit behind a desk and no longer ride fire engines.”

The chief fire officer continues to go on station drills and he is “not adverse to pulling on the kit. It’s a reminder of what the job is all about.”

Since being promoted last April, he has had to give plenty of thought to what the brigade should – and should not – be doing.

Government spending cuts mean a predicted £10m has to be chopped off the budget by 2015.

Proposed savings in the first couple of years – approved by the county fire authority on Monday as a basis for public consultation – mean 108 full-time firefighters’ and 32 retained, or part-time, firefighters’ jobs are at risk. That’s one in seven full-time firefighting posts.

The suggested strategy includes closing full-time stations at Mansfield Road and Darnall in Sheffield and Royston in Barnsley and the retained station in Mosborough.

New stations are planned in the Parkway/Handsworth and Birley.

The proposed major reorganisation and threat to jobs has set alarm bells ringing with the Fire Brigade Union, which has warned: “The fire service management is playing a very dangerous game – Russian roulette with people’s lives”.

Uncertainty has returned to the service two years after a firefighters’ strike over shift changes.

Mr Courtney has been trying to explain the situation to staff. He went to Mosborough last week and he accepts that there are concerns.

“We have a first-class workforce and a lot of very committed people in South Yorkshire,” he says.

“I believe the vast majority appreciate the financial situation we find ourselves in.

“But when you develop a number of proposals, there will be an impact on certain fire stations and certain groups. People, for entirely plausible reasons, become very concerned about their own circumstances.”

At the same time, he is making clear: “We are facing the most significant challenge South Yorkshire has faced for a very long time. You can’t take £10m out of a £60m budget without it affecting the services we provide. I have no choice but to make these savings.”

He is “as confident as he can be” that the proposals he has helped to develop over many months will reduce costs with the minimum impact on service delivery. Firefighters’ jobs have to go because management and administration costs are already being slashed and there is nowhere else to go.

At the same time, there are no plans to make full-time firefighters redundant, with posts being lost through natural wastage.

And some changes should bring improvements, it is argued. The new stations would be on main roads, and firefighters should be able to meet their six minute target time to reach areas such as Handsworth, Woodhouse, Tinsley, Darnall, Hackenthorpe and Owlthorpe.

“What the situation has done is give us the opportunity to address a number of areas which we would have had to look at in due course. Fire stations, primarily in Sheffield, were built in the late 50s and early 60s and the risks have changed significantly since then. It used to be about the risk to property, now it’s the risk to life.”

The latest strategy aims to reflects population changes and, in the Darnall area, the loss of the heavy industry that used to keep fire crews busy.

Mr Courtney is calling upon his experience on the front line and in management, notably with the HM Inspectorate team when he helped to monitor the progress of 23 fire and rescue services across the country.

The 49-year-old father-of-four, who lives in Sheffield, joined the South Yorkshire brigade in 2006 and was promoted to deputy chief fire officer three years later, before succeeding Mark Smitherman in the top job.

Despite the current assurances, there are fears for the longer-term future, with South Yorkshire waiting nervously to discover how it will be hit.

“We are concerned about the potential for similarly high levels of cuts in years three and four and the impact of those cuts,” says Mr Courtney.

He can accept the current package of proposals. “My concern is I can’t be as confident for the proposals for the next years.”

South Yorkshire and the other five metropolitan fire authorities have sent a letter to the Government Resource Review committee warning of the potential ‘substantial’ and ‘damaging effects’ of the cuts.

It complains that the large urban areas are losing out in Government financial support to rural districts in the south that have had their funding increased this year. While places such as South Yorkshire rely on income from grants, richer parts of the country can take more money from council tax.

As the political wrangling goes on, Jamie Courtney wrestles with the financial consequences. “It’s an immense challenge.”

He says he came from a fire and rescue service in Merseyside whose performance was rated excellent. South Yorkshire did less well. “My experience now is that we have all the potential to be as good as Merseyside, if not better.”

And the chief offers a challenge of his own. “If anybody else during the consultation period can come up with proposals to deliver the savings with less impact on the people of South Yorkshire, I’d certainly like to hear them.”