08 October 2003

S2M-291 Auxiliary Fire Units (Highlands)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-291, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on auxiliary fire units in the Highlands. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.
Motion debated,
That the Parliament notes that auxiliary fire units play a vital role in many rural communities in fighting fires and do so in conjunction with the retained fire brigades; notes with concern that, following a report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Fire Services (HMI), 32 auxiliary units face possible closure; further notes that the new approach of integrated risk assessment should permit the preservation of as many as possible of these auxiliary units; considers that the Scottish Executive should explicitly endorse the need for such units and acknowledge the essential role that they play in protecting human life and property; believes that, if the recommendations of the HMI report are not carefully considered and auxiliary units are forced to close because of the proposed introduction of compulsory access to breathing apparatus within a short timescale, then human life and property may be placed at risk; believes that all involved, including Highland Council, the Firemaster, HMI and the Health and Safety Executive, should continue to discuss the implications of the HMI report in the context of integrated risk assessment and find an outcome that prevents the closure of so many of the auxiliary units.
... ... ...
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In the main, my remarks will address the conclusions of the "Report of the Principal Inspection of Highland and Islands Fire Brigade 2002". Paragraph 4 states:
"Overall, it is assessed that the service provided is, with the exception of fire cover in some areas, satisfactory".
That is a pretty good start, but some things in the report need to be examined slightly more deeply.
Page 5 shows that the number of incidents per firefighter in the Highlands and Islands seems to be about four, whereas for the busiest Scottish brigade, the number is running at more than 20 per firefighter. However, as the majority of firemen in the Highlands and Islands are part-time auxiliaries, the number that should be considered is the number of fire incidents per hour of duty. I suspect that if the issue was examined in that way and on a comparable basis, the answer would be very different.
If we turn to page 12 of the report, we see that
"Overall performance by part-time staff remains high, with the availability being indicated at 99.1%."
If we translate that into what it would mean for a full-time person, we find that it is equivalent to their having no more than two days off per year. What is the Scottish Executive's performance in that regard? I can tell the minister that the average amount of sickness per employee in the Scottish Executive is at least twice that figure. Part-time firemen in the Highlands and Islands are in fact doing better than the people who service the Executive directly here in Edinburgh. That bespeaks the commitment and determination of part-time firemen in the Highlands and Islands.
On page 15, the inspectorate talks about "small garden sheds". Those sheds often offer good strategic locations within the board's operational area. When the inspector comes up with the list of locations that should be retained, he points out that cover in the Highlands and Islands is 10 times as great as that for the UK as a whole and just under five times as great as that for Scotland. Of course, population density in the Highlands and Islands is substantially less than the figure for Scotland. More to the point, the Highlands and Islands fire brigade area has a fluctuating population. The area rightly continues to be popular with visitors from across the world and across Scotland. In summer, the population rises dramatically, thus shrinking the comparator that is used by the inspector.
Page 35 of the Executive's document on proposals for legislation states:
"The primary objective ... is to create a fire service more responsive to locally identified needs".
Fergus Ewing said in his opening remarks that Highlands and Islands is the size of Belgium. If the minister closes 32 stations, we might have to send for Tintin to help the communities thus deprived of their fire service.

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