The top fire officer in the North West, Mark Deeney, has insisted the ‘flexible crewing’ of a special fire appliance at Northland Road, which is designed to tackle high-rise blazes like the one that destroyed the Mandarin Palace in 2015, won’t put public safety at risk.
The Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) Western Area Commander, in fact, said the decision not to crew the city’s only Aerial Ladder Platform (ALP) on a 24/7 basis would free up firefighters and scarce resources that could be better deployed elsewhere.
Mr. Deeney told members of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee that demand for the VEMA Aerial appliance was decreasing yet it had been costing the cash-strapped fire brigade £500,000 a year to man full-time.
The Derry firefighter said: “It does not make sense to maintain that level of cover when the demand is low.”
The local commander had been invited to address concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which last year warned a failure to crew the ALP permanently was putting lives at risk and could lead to another Grenfell Tower.
But in a detailed presentation to the committee this week, Mr. Deeney, said the local ALP - one of four in the North - provided cover for just 59 high rise premises across the entire Western Command area and that the number of call-outs has been in steady decline over recent years.
He explained that the 59 ALP call-outs logged in the west in 2012/13 had decreased to just 42 by 2016/17.
Unsurprisingly, Derry city was the epicentre of mobilisations with 136 in the Northland area; 62 in the Crescent Link area; 17 in Strabane; 13 in Coleraine; and seven each in Omagh and Portrush.
During a further audit from February 1 to August 31 last there were 25 deployments during the course of which the platform was used 18 times. That’s a deployment rate of 43 per year, with a usage rate of 31 per year. One person was rescued from a roof of during that time.
The fire chief said that on the basis of this data “the number of ALPs we have in situ is commensurate with the risk”.
He said there were rare instances - such as in the case of the Mandarin Palace inferno of 2015 - when crews operating ordinary pump appliances had had to return to the station for the ALP, but this risk was low.
Councillors raised concerns over one of Derry’s highest profile high-rises, Altnagelvin Hospital, where there have been a number of fires over recent years.
Mr. Deeney, incident commander, during all of these incidences said high-rise fires, including those at Altnagelvin, were generally attacked internally and that the ALP would have merely provided external support.
He said the ‘flexible’ crewing arrangement for the ALP would free up more firefighters to attend high-risk incidents and road traffic accidents, which are far more frequent occurences.