Emergency services - Government gambling with lives

IT is a cause of very serious concern that Ireland has the second highest rate of fire-related deaths out of 19 countries in the developed world, according to the World Fire Statistics Office.

Compounding that fact is the opinion of senior voices concerned with our fire safety and fire fighting system that the lack of co-ordination and co-operation between the emergency services could actually put the public in danger, and has done so in a number of instances.

Despite the fact that the Government is well aware that people here are more likely to die as a result of a fire than in most other developed countries, it continues to do nothing to radically improve a fire fighting service which is out-dated, under-manned, and comprehensively inadequate to cope with the necessities and demands of a modern country.

Four and a half years ago it was presented with a blueprint to do exactly that, in the 154-page review of the service produced by Farrell Grant Sparks (FGS), which cost €200,000 to commission.

The recommendations contained in the review have not alone not been implemented, but its main one — the establishment of a single national structure to standardise and regulate the service — has been totally ignored.

Even considerably longer than four and a half years ago it was recommended by the tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust fire, in which 48 people died, that the Minister for the Environment should be responsible for the overall operation of the Irish fire services. This never happened.

Instead, the country continues to have a disparate service controlled, managed and responsible to 37 local authorities. It is not inconceivable that in the event of one fire service going to the aid of another in a different local authority area, that their equipment would not be compatible.

Incredibly, there are no common standards among the authorities, but as well as that fire fighters are expected to deal with a system that was designed to cope with risks that existed in the ’40s.

The issue of a national authority has been ignored by three successive Environment Ministers and the current minister, Dick Roche, announced a programme of change to address what he considers the most important areas in the FGS review.

Despite the fact it was to be based on partnership, unbelievably no firefighter was involved in discussions that took place, there has been no implementation of the FGS recommendations and the unions have now boycotted it.

Yet, when the FGS review was being undertaken, it had the co-operation of all sectors of the service, affording a very real opportunity to overhaul and streamline the service.

That effort, and the cost, has been wasted by the intransigence of the minister who insists on the use of available resources to bring about change, as he said in a reply to a parliamentary question last year.

When the then Environment Minister Noel Dempsey commissioned the FGS review in 2002 he declared the first priority would be to move towards implementation of the recommendations in the report which fell under the sole ambit of his department and consider how to finance them.

Within six months the national authority was expected to be established, but quite obviously absolutely nothing has happened about it nor the FGS review.

The minister — and the Government — are gambling with lives by any further delays in addressing the fire safety and fire fighting system which quite patently is in need of urgent and immediate attention.

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