London fire chief: ‘We took too long to reach Camden fire where man plunged to death’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 03 December 2015 | UPDATED: 13:33 11 December 2015

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: Polly Hancock

London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

But commissioner defends plans to axe 13 engines as safest for London

A police officer looks out of a window at the rear of Ashton Court, Camden Road, following a fire at the premisesA police officer looks out of a window at the rear of Ashton Court, Camden Road, following a fire at the premises

London’s fire commissioner has admitted the brigade took too long to reach a blaze in which an elderly man plunged to his death from a sheltered housing block in Camden.

But today Ron Dobson stood firmly behind his plans to axe 13 fire engines from across London to save £11million, as he told the Ham&High: “I’d like to think we can meet attendance standards on every occasion but resources are finite.”

The brigade’s controversial cost-cutting proposals come just weeks after a man in his 80s died falling from the third floor of a sheltered housing block in Ashton Court, Camden Road, as local fire crews battled a huge blaze in Finchley Road that burned for 72 hours.

The commissioner said: “The incident that took place in Finchley Road did draw a lot of fire engines from around that area and, as we know, sadly there was another fire in which someone died while that was taking place.

Fire engines at the scene of the blaze in Ashton Court, Camden RoadFire engines at the scene of the blaze in Ashton Court, Camden Road

“I don’t want to comment or speculate on the death because that’s subject to a coroner’s investigation, but we can’t deny the fact that it took us too long to get to that fire.

“It was outside our attendance standards.

“I can’t comment on whether that contributed to the death, I don’t believe it did, but I can’t say anymore about that.”

It took firefighters 13 minutes and 20 seconds to reach the blaze, more than double the brigade’s target response time of six minutes for a first engine to arrive, and crews were mobilised from as far afield as Lambeth, Stanmore, Shoreditch and Soho.

Firefighters from West Hampstead at the huge blaze in Finchley RoadFirefighters from West Hampstead at the huge blaze in Finchley Road

But the commissioner said large fires inevitably draw pumps away from the local area.

“Whilst I would like to think that we can meet our attendance standards on every occasion no matter what’s going on in London, practically we just can’t commit to doing that because resources are finite and if we get called to a big fire and we’re using those resources it will impact on attendance times elsewhere, particularly in the local area... but actually some incidents are so large that they impact on attendance standards across London.”

The brigade has been asked to shave £13.2million from its budget next year and has already found £5.1m of cuts that do not affect the frontline, leaving an £8.1m black hole.

The commissioner has put forward two proposals that include scrapping 13 fire engines kept in storage for the last two years for use during strike action.

Another side-lined proposal identified West Hampstead and Hornsey fire stations as at risk of losing an engine, but the two currently on the table would not affect any local pumps.

Some of the £907,000 savings from the annual cost of crewing an engine would be reinvested to provide extra staff for specialist fire rescue units.

“The 13 engines that we’re talking about have actually been away from the frontline for two years,” said the commissioner, who joined the brigade in 1979 and has held the top job since 2007.

“During that time we’ve continued to achieve our fire attendance time targets at a brigade level and in the majority of boroughs.

“Given that the number of fires in London has continued to fall quite significantly during that period my conclusion is the best way to balance our budget is not to replace these engines into service but to take the savings.”

Alternative plans to fill the £8.1million budget gap are also being considered.

These involve introducing “alternate crewing” – where one team of firefighters is responsible for manning a standard fire engine and a specialist fire rescue unit.

Mr Dobson, who oversaw the brigade’s response to the London 7/7 bombings, said: “My worry with alternate crewing is that the crews that I would like to provide our response (to a Paris-style attack) would be from fire rescue units.

“If they were alternate crewed then, potentially, if the pump attached to the station has been mobilised first then we wouldn’t be able to send the specialist crew to attend until the other engine comes back.”

Asked if this would leave the brigade less able to deal with a terror incident, he said: “Potentially, yes. If those units are alternate crewed it would undermine our ability to respond.”

The alternate crewing plans have been put forward by chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority’s resources committee, Andrew Dismore.

Both options will now be put out to public consultation lasting eight weeks.

Four meetings will be held across London and, for the first time, the brigade will organise online public meetings.

London Assembly Member Gareth Bacon, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “If you want your voice heard I urge everyone to visit our website and tell us what they think.”

To take part in the consultation click here

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