Decision to move East Sussex fire service’s control room to Surrey made behind closed doors

Fire service staff have spoken of their ‘disgust’ after being excluded from a meeting to decide the next steps for how 999 calls are handled within East Sussex.

Thursday, 9th January 2020, 1:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th January 2020, 4:52 pm
East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service's control centre is currently based in Haywards Heath across in West Sussex

On Thursday (January 9) members of the East Sussex Fire Authority met to discuss the future of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s control centre service. 

Following a lengthy meeting, members of the authority opted to move its control centre operations out of the county as part of a three-way partnership both Surrey and West Sussex fire services.

The shared control centre would be based in Salfords between Gatwick and Redhill.

The decision was made following more than two hours of debate behind closed doors.

Decision ‘disgusting’

The move into closed session came in for heavy criticism from staff and their union rep, who described the decision as ‘disgusting’ while waiting for the decision to come forward.

Expressing her frustration to reporters at county Hall, Sue Ivatt, a control room staff member who has been with the fire service for more than 27 years, said: “It’s absolutely disgusting, we are absolutely disgusted. 

“We’ve moved from Lewes to Eastbourne, Eastbourne to Haywards Heath and now for this to happen because West Sussex has gone to Surrey. 

“We all feel very passionate about our jobs and I know that from what has already happened that if we move to Surrey then I will not go because I couldn’t carry out my job how it should be carried out.”

Similar concerns were raised by Steve Oakman, secretary of the East Sussex Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

He said: “This will lead to a detriment to fire control which will put lives at risk. That has been apparent already from what is going on in Surrey. 

“It will also lead to a loss of the local knowledge of our control staff and, of course, job losses as well.” 

Surrey hit with ‘safety critical notice’ by union

Mr Oakman also revealed that the Surrey branch of the FBU had presented Surrey Fire and Rescue Service with a ‘safety critical notice’ around its control room operations.

While only an advisory document with no legal weight, the notice raises the union’s serious concerns around the safety of the current control room set up in Surrey.

A copy of the notice had also been sent to senior officers in ESFRS, Mr Oakman said.

Closed session held on chairman’s casting vote

The decision to debate the matter in closed session followed on from a close-run vote, as opinions on how to move forward were split among authority members.

Legal advisors, however, said holding even part of the debate in public would mean an exempt report –  which it was said contained commercially sensitive information – would have to be made public. 

This advice saw concerns raised by several fire authority members, however, who argued for the session to proceed in public. 

Among those to raise concerns was East Sussex county councillor Phil Scott (Lab). He said: “I would certainly like to move that we actually bring all of the report into open session. 

“I think there is public interest in this particular issue across East Sussex and I think we should do as much as we can to make the decision-making as open and transparent as possible.”

Similar views were aired by Brighton and Hove councillor Steph Powell (Green), who said: “I would like to formally second Cllr Scott’s [motion]. I think it is really important that we have as much as we can in the public domain.”

Concerns were also raised by East Sussex county councillor Kathryn Field (Lib Dem).  Cllr Field said: “Given that we are not discussing competitive tenders between different companies and we are discussing the spending of public monies, large amounts of public money actually, I don’t understand the logic behind the officers presentation.”

In the end the decision came down to a casting vote from Fire Authority chairman Roy Galley after members tied votes on eight to eight. 

Officers’ recommendation backed

The decision was finally made after more than two and a half hours of private debate.

Officers confirmed the decision was made as recommended, with ESFRS to share its control centre operations as part of a three-way partnership with both Surrey and West Sussex fire services. 

While recommended for approval by senior officers, an earlier decision on this arrangement was deferred at a meeting in October as councillors raised concerns about being “rushed” into the multi-million pound outsourcing deal. 

At the time, councillors said they did not have enough information about the alternative options available – including whether ESFRS could run its own standalone control room in Lewes.

As a result, officers were directed to provide more information – both on the potential for a standalone control room and the recommended partnership proposals – for members to consider before making their decision. 

Papers containing this further information have not yet been made public.

However, it is understood councillors tabled a motion to move ahead with the standalone control centre proposal during the closed session, but this was defeated. 

Previous papers showed the recommended partnership proposal would be expected to cost the fire authority more than £11m over the next seven years.

However, it would lead to “immediate operational benefits” as a result of the sharing of resources between fire services, the papers said.

Around 28 full time equivalent roles, based at the fire service’s current control centre at Haywards Heath Fire Station, are expected to be affected by the decision, a fire service spokesman said.

At the October meeting, officers warned of delaying the decision ran the risk of a breakdown in industrial relations and staffing levels due to further uncertainty.

Officers had also said further delay would pose risks in terms of the stability of the existing fire mobilising system – both in terms of the existing IT system and the company behind it.

‘No change in our response’

After the meeting, Roy Galley, chairman of the East Sussex Fire Authority, said: “Every decision the fire authority makes puts the public first and foremost. Members of the Fire authority have been very impressed by the thoroughness of the assessments made of our options. We now need to get on with the job and deliver an excellent service for the residents of East Sussex, Brighton and Hove. Our response times are amongst the best in the country and we intend to maintain that.”

According to the fire and rescue service the public will see no change in its response when they dial 999.