THE Fire and Rescue Service has moved to reassure the public after new figures show its part-time fire stations are operating at almost 20% below normal staffing levels.
The service said it has emergency response plans in place to cope with any incident after figures obtained by North Down MLA, Alex Easton, showed there are 22 vacancies across the borough.
The problems are particularly acute in Holywood where vacancies are running at 40%.
Mr Easton said he was ‘deeply shocked and concerned to find out from a Freedom of Information request that instead of operating with a part-time staff of 112 firefighters, the borough has just 90.
There are currently no vacancies for full-time or ‘whole-time’ firefighters in local stations.
Holywood fire station is worst hit by the vacancies, with a total of eight crew spots remaining empty, according to figures provided by the Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).
And along with Holywood’s eight vacancies, Comber has four, Bangor and Donaghadee have three, Newtownards has two places unfilled, while fire stations in Ballywalter and Portaferry each have one place vacant.
The Assemblyman learned of the shortfall in crew numbers through a Freedom of Information request to the NIFRS and he is now calling on the fire service to get recruiting.
“I am deeply alarmed at the level of vacancy across the Ards and North Down areas especially Holywood with eight vacancies alone,” said Mr Easton.
“This is deeply worrying and I have asked the question what are the Fire Service doing to get this resolved.
“I am concerned about the pressure this is putting on current fire crews and indeed alarmed especially that Holywood has been allowed to have its numbers drop so low without recruitment.
“The fire crews we currently have are amazing but I am worried they are not getting the funding and new staff they require and I would be concerned if a major fire happens that those fire crews will be left short-staffed.”
The independent unionist urged the Department of Health, which is responsible for the Fire and Rescue Service, to immediately recruit local firefighters, especially for the Holywood area.
A spokeswoman for the Fire and Rescue Service offered reassurances that plans are in place to provide fire and rescue cover in the Ards and North Down area.
“When you need us most, your fire and rescue service is ready to respond,” she said.
“As part of our Regional Response Model, we have the ability to provide supplementary crews from outside the area if there is a requirement for additional support during high levels of operational demand.
“An on-call (part-time) firefighter recruitment campaign took place in January 2023. That process is ongoing and it is anticipated that new on-call firefighter appointments will be made in the local area in the coming months.
“A new recruitment drive for on-call firefighters will also be launched in 2024. In the meantime we would encourage anyone in the local community interested in becoming an on-call firefighter to visit our website for more information and to find out what the role entails.
“We would like to take this opportunity to thank our On-Call Firefighters in the Ards and North Down area for their dedication to the local community and keeping people safe”.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said the NIFRS was provided with additional funding in the 2023/24 financial year to enable staffing levels to be maintained.
“Overall the budget allocated in this financial year is some £3m higher than the closing budget for 2022/23,” he said.
“The Department continues to discuss NIFRS’s financial position with a view to ensuring that services can be maintained as far as possible within the overall funding envelope.”