FEATURE: Cambs/Suffolk combined fire control centre - the UK’s first - hailed a ‘roaring success’

IT covers thousands of miles, has received thousands of calls and is set to save thousands of pounds – no wonder it’s delighted fire chiefs.

For almost three months the UK’s first combined fire control centre has handled 999 calls for 63 stations across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

Key figures from both counties met in Huntingdon on Monday to celebrate the initiative they have hailed a “roaring success”.

Andy Fry, chief fire officer for Suffolk, said: “This merger shows what can be achieved.

“The technology available helps support our excellent control room staff. It allows us to think on a larger scale too. Much better technology combined with professional expertise provides a much better service.

“Response times are better and increasingly improving. If you use technology that’s tried and tested, I believe you can manage incidents that are a long way away from the control room.”

Since October 25 last year, control operators based at Cambs’ headquarters in Huntingdon started answering calls and mobilising Suffolk’s fire engines.

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A number of jobs were lost in Suffolk, among staff who chose not to move to Huntingdon.

However, six operators switched counties to join the combined team of 32 in a deal which looks set to save both fire authorities about �400,000 a year.

Neil Newberry, assistant chief fire officer for Cambridgeshire, said: “So far it’s been a roaring success.

“There have been issues to address and we’re hoping to make future improvements too. We’re proud that we’ve given good service together and we’ve got greater access to finances in control.

“There have been some anomalies in the way Suffolk and Cambs operate for the moment and we’ve had to learn the idiosyncrasies. But there’s been nothing major, nothing catastrophic.

“We’re seeing improvements on a week-to-week basis and we’re on track to meet our original targets.”

• COUNCILLOR Roy Pegram, chairman of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority, said: “I am extremely pleased with the way that this initiative has been adopted and accepted by both Cambridgeshire and Suffolk Fire and Rescue Services.

“It demonstrates a level of co-operation and collaboration that prior to this project we could only aspire to.”

• DESPITE fears there would be delays in answering an increased volume of calls, fire chiefs say that 75 per cent are answered within 10-15 seconds.

More than 3,500 emergency calls – covering a total area of 2,800sq miles – have already been handled by the combined team.

Staff have however found it “challenging” to get to grips with mobilising fire engines across two counties but Teri Seaber, group commander at the centre for 29 years, admits teamwork has helped.

She said: “You can’t possibly know every street in every village but we’ve helped each other.

“But the most difficult part has been the different procedures between the two counties – we’ve had to quickly get used to how the other brigade works.

“We’re now trying to smooth it so that we all have operate in the same way.”

• SIX operators and two supervisors sit in a room surrounded by giant maps to help staff locate incidents.

Each operator has three screens at their desk. The middle screen is a “mobilising machine” for addresses and order of engines, the left a telephony and radio system and the right a colour coded map to show what crews are available.

The system flags up any ‘similar’ incidents to prevent too many engines being mobilised. It also brings up the location of landline calls and the co-ordinates of a mobile phone call to help determine the exact location.

Pat Clarke, a watch commander who has worked at Cambs’ control room for 22 years, said: “Each station has different appliances, different shifts and that’s been the hardest part to learn. It’s been a good challenge.

“We’re still learning and it will be a while before we feel fully comfortable and relaxed. I know everything in Cambs very well but when I get a call relating to Suffolk I’m always checking place names and stations.

“It’s an ongoing challenge.”

• FIRE chiefs revealed that Buckinghamshire could also join the project.

Union leaders have criticised the potential move, suggesting it would only increase the chance of regional control centres – a failed idea that cost the Government �550million. The planned regional control centre in Waterbeach sits empty.

Councillor Colin Spence, Suffolk County Council’s portfolio holder for public protection, said: “The people who planned the regional control centres didn’t involve the experts in the way that they should have done. The building was expensive and smart but the systems let it down.

“It was a brave decision to have the combined centre for two counties but we believe it’s paid off.

“Buckinghamshire is open to the possibility of working alongside us and other authorities want to talk to us about how we work. People want to know more.”

Mr Fry added: “In these testing economic times, if it makes sense and we could save money that provides a better service for the public then why wouldn’t we do it?”

• FEARS that staff are sending the wrong crews to emergency incidents, putting people’s lives at risk, were dismissed by Mark Sanderson, the assistant chief fire officer for Suffolk.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says full-time crews from the Lowestoft South station were sent to four incidents in the north of the town that should also have been dealt with by retained crews at Lowestoft North.

Mr Sanderson said: “The level of fire cover in Lowestoft is exceptional and I reassure residents they are getting the right level of service we would expect to give them.

“I strongly disagree that lives are being put at risk and people can rest assured there will be, and have been, engines on the scene within our fire cover standard (within 13 minutes on 80 per cent of calls).”

• NOTABLE incidents dealt with by the combined fire control room so far include:

• Crews from Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire tackled a fire at Conveyor Express, Friday Bridge, on November 14. Firefighters managed to restrict the blaze to just 25 per cent of the industrial unit.

• Two workers suffered acid burns after a chemical spill at a plant near Cambridge on November 25. Some 20 litres of sulphuric acid leaked at Malary Environmental Services at Cottenham’s Brookfield Business Centre. A fire service spokesman said the spill was dealt with “quickly and efficiently”.

• More than 66,000 tonnes of straw in the Mepal and Witcham Toll areas were torched by arsonists on December 14.

•More than 29 calls, over a 24-hour period in Suffolk, were dealt with on December 16. These included property fires, car fires, two road traffic collisions, one rescue and automatic fire alarms.

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