ANGER has erupted over a decision that will leave Sunderland city centre without a fire station for the first time in more than 100 years.
MPs and union bosses today branded the move “incomprehensible” and “devastating”, warning lives would be put at risk.
Sunderland now faces having no city centre fire or police station after Northumbria Police announced similar plans to close Gill Bridge earlier this month.
Following a consultation, the Fire Authority yesterday opted to close the central fire station in Railway Row as part of £8.8million cuts over the next three years.
Gordon Chalk, Sunderland divisional representative for the Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU), said: “I’m in a state of shock.
“We know there is £20million or so in reserves available and that would save them from making these cuts for at least a couple of years. But they haven’t even considered that.
“Nobody seems to have even thought about the risks of closing this station.
“Sunderland city centre has high rise buildings, thousands of residents, the university, the Port nearby.
“Now we are relying on fire crews from Fulwell and Farringdon to cover all these areas. What happens if it rush-hour and there are bridges packed with traffic?
“This is a drastic reduction in cover for the people of Sunderland.”
Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, also hit out at the move, as well as criticising Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’s chief fire officer, Tom Capeling.
She said: “I’m shocked, devastated and disgusted at the decision which I believe will put at risk the lives of the people of Sunderland.
“I wrote to, and met with, the chief fire officer about my concerns. He promised to read out my letter at the meeting – he did not do this. My trust in his leadership as a result has gone.”
More than 130 jobs will also be lost under the cuts, leading to a 20 per cent reduction in the service’s overall workforce. Under the plans, TWF&RS aims to save about £5.4million.
But, fears are now growing over the long-term impact of yesterday’s decision.
Dave Turner, Fire Brigade Union North East regional secretary, told the Echo: “Businesses, residents and those with an interest in the city centre overwhelmingly objected to this plan. Yet it would appear all our concerns fell on deaf ears.
“To take Sunderland Central fire station away is incomprehensible. Fire engines have been based in the city centre since 1908.”
The FBU now plans to visit every station in the city to discuss options open to firefighters, including further industrial action.
Tom Capeling, chief fire officer for TWF&RS, said that while the cuts would inevitably lead to a reduced service, efforts would be made to minimise the impact.
He said plans were being made to provide a “slower” response to low risk incidents so that acceptable response times can be maintained where lives are at risk.
He said: “There is a risk in the middle of Sunderland but we know that with three surrounding stations we can cover the vast majority of this area in six minutes.
“The level of the cuts we have to make means we simply can’t afford to continue with the level of service we have at the minute.”
Mr Capeling believes plans to open a new station in Old Mill Road, Marley Pots, replacing the current Fulwell station, will help ease the impact of the announcement.
“We can cover a lot of the areas currently served by the city centre from the new station,” he added.
When asked about problems getting over the bridges during rush hour, Mr Capeling said: “The use blue lights will help us get over.”
Earlier this month, the Echo revealed how Gill Bridge police station in the city centre was facing closure over plans by Northumbria Police to save £46million.
The Fire Authority yesterday opted to make the following changes to Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.
•Close Sunderland Central Community Fire Station.
•Introduce four targeted response appliances; staffed by two firefighting staff, to attend lower risk incidents (e.g false alarms, and rubbish fires and derelict property fires.) Two of the targeted response appliances would be staffed 24 hours a day whilst the other two would be available 24 hours a day, but dual staffed.
•Remove six fire appliances while investing in new firefighting technologies.
•“Stand down” two fire appliances for up to 12 hours at night during quieter periods.
•Reduce the number of aerial ladder platforms (ALPs) from three to two. These are currently located at Fulwell Community Fire Station, Gateshead Community Fire Station and Gosforth Community Fire Station.
•Replace two community fire stations (Wallsend and Gosforth Community Fire Stations) with a new community fire station around the Benton area.