Scotland faces fire station closures

25 Oct 17

Scotland faces the likely closure of many of its fire stations, five years after the emergency services were converted from regional authorities into a single national force.

Chief fire officer Alasdair Hay acknowledged that the current structure was “unsustainable”, after a management discussion paper leaked to the BBC revealed proposals to shut some of Scotland’s 356 fire stations and reduce firefighter numbers.

Hay admitted that budgets were tight, but insisted that the aim of the proposals was not to cut services but to reform a service model that had been little changed since the 1950s and that needed  “fundamental redesign” to meet changes in the circumstances that firefighters had to face.

“There are fundamental changes in the risks that we face, such as terrorism, and we live with an ageing population,” Hay said. 

At the same time, he told the BBC, firefighters were still sent into the heart of fires in the manner of their Victorian forebears, when investment in more modern equipment could allow more fires to be tackled less dangerously from outside the conflagration.

He also revealed that, on any given day, between 60 and 100 fire appliances were laid up because  sufficient numbers were not available of the part-time on-call firefighters on whom the force relies, particularly  in rural areas.  The balance across the country between these “retained duty” officers and full-time fire-fighters was in need of review.

Around two-thirds of Scottish fire stations rely on retained officers: “On-call systems are under pressure,” Hay said. “That tells me that that model is unsustainable.”

Union leaders accept that there are problems with the retained duty system, but they also fear an underlying imperative of financial austerity and funding shortfall. 

Audit Scotland warned in a report as long ago as May 2015 that the service was headed for a funding gap in 2019-20 of close to £43 million, despite having managed the merger well and begun to deliver the savings projected from it.  The merged service, the report said, was in urgent need of a long-term financial strategy. 

Eight regional police forces were also merged into one body – Police Scotland – five years ago.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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