The head of Scotland’s new national fire service was in Shetland yesterday to hear first-hand issues facing communities in the isles.
Along with chairman of the service board, Pat Watters, Mr Hay toured fire stations and visited both the Sullom Voe terminal and the fire training centre opposite Sumburgh Airport.
It followed the recent controversial decision by the Highlands and Islands Fire Board to close the small stations in Skerries and Foula, prompting an outcry in the remote communities.
Plans are already underway for Skerries firefighters to run their own service following redundancy, amid fears the community could be left at risk.
Mr Hay’s trip did not include a visit to either of the small islands. However, he insisted the new service would feature a slimmed down management structure, ensuring a high quality service could be maintained across the whole country.
During his visit he met the SIC’s chief executive Mark Boden and local fire board representative, Alastair Cooper – the man who unsuccessfully tried to save Skerries and Foula at the fire board’s August meeting in Inverness.
“I’m delighted to have been appointed as the chief fire officer for the whole of Scotland. And as I take up this post I’ve got some clear priorities in mind,” said Mr Hay, an experienced firefighter from the Tayside region.
“My first priority is community safety. My second priority is firefighter safety, and also is looking after staff that work in the fire service.
“There is a huge change process necessary to bring about the single service, bringing together the eight existing services, as we need to bring staff with us.
“So, coming up here to Shetland – and I was in Orkney yesterday – is about meeting people and learning what the issues are and what the priorities are.
“As we go forward we will be working in partnership with the local authority, the elected members and the chief executive and his teams, and we need to start building that relationship.”
Assurances over service levels have been made despite budgetary constraints. The new Perth-based fire service is under pressure to cut its budget from £288 million to £277 million by the end of the 2013/14 financial year.
Mr Hay said he was keen to address a “perception” that communities would be at risk. “We need to provide an appropriate fire service throughout Scotland. People often think of the fire service as being totally dominated by emergency response, and I understand that. But it’s far better to prevent an emergency from occurring in the first place than it is to deal with the consequences.
“Just because we’re changing focus doesn’t mean to say we’re not providing a service to communities. So there will be very much a targeted approach within these communities to work with them to make sure that the likelihood of there ever being an emergency is reduced. That prevention agenda, working with the community to drive down risk, is a priority and that’s been identified and discussed.”
Mr Watters said Shetland was not alone in fears it could be left out. He admitted the service had seen a need to reassure communities across the country.
“We’ve been down in the Borders, we’ve been in Dumfries and Galloway and we’ve been in other parts. Everybody’s got the same anxiety – that they are going to lose the very high standard of service delivered by the boards at the present time. We are under no illusion that that is a very high standard of service,” he added.
“I’m trying to tell people when we meet them, it’s the structure of the management of the service that’s changing. It is not the service.
“This will still maintain a local service. We’re facing budget challenges but… Our job is to maintain the very high quality of service that’s delivered in communities now and into the future.”
He added economies of scale meant the single fire service was better able to protect services in local communities.
“The budget cuts would affect the eight brigades as well as it will affect the single service. We are better placed because of the economies of scale we can make in how, for instance, we manage the service to actually better protect the service in Shetland.
“The budgetary constraints that we have got are the same budgetary constraints that would have happened for Highlands and Islands Service. We have now got the ability to look at how we best protect the front line service we deliver as a service to communities.
“We’ve got the ability to slim down our management structure in order to ensure what we’ve got is the best service that can be delivered for communities.”