As part of a national plan to consolidate fire services from 30 to 21 units, the brigades of Mullingar, Athlone, and Longford are to amalgamate by 2015, it was revealed this week.
However, this will not result in the closure of any of the four fire stations in Westmeath, or the five in Longford, chief fire officer Dave Stuart told councillors in a presentation to the environment and water services strategic policy committee and to the full council in a series of meetings earlier this week.
The plan will also see a reduction in senior fire officers across the two counties from nine to seven, but he does not believe that this will lead to any compulsory redundancies either.
Mr Stuart explained that according to international best practice, a population of between 120,000 and 200,000 “is the basic population for a fire service”, and it was this that has led to the amalgamation of the services in Longford and Westmeath.
This came to light as he give a presentation entitled “Developing Community Resilience” to the committee.
“I made this [title] up myself, and it refers to the ability of a community to return to normal after a period of extraordinary conditions,” he stated, citing the 2009 floods in Athlone, and the 2010 frost as two recent examples.
After learning from such disasters, he explained how a major contingency plan is now in place in association with the Gardaí, the HSE, and the fire service. He went on to explain how important local knowledge can be in circumstances like these.
“It was discovered in Roscommon how important farmers can be in the case of these local disasters. They will all have either a tractor or jeep for four-wheel access, and they all know their neighbours,” he pointed out.
He included the IFA on the list of stakeholders that would be liaised with, and described them as “amazingly helpful”. A representative from each of the IFA’s 22 branches in Westmeath has been nominated to assist in times of such difficulties.
Before he finished he clarified a number of duties the fire service no longer covers, and this included feline tree rescues, and attendance at flooding.
“It looks good on TV, but all we do is pump water round in circles,” he said.
At a meeting of the county council later that day he confirmed that Kilbeggan and Castlepollard fire stations will continue to offer services in cases of cardiac arrest, because staff in those areas have been trained and there is no nearby ambulance service.
However, some councillors were concerned about call vetting, with Cllr Paul Daly worried they would not be sent out unless a caller specifically says there is someone trapped in a vehicle.
However, Mr Stuart confirmed that the fire service will only make a decision not to go to an incident if they are absolutely certain there is not a person trapped.
He reiterated that staff do not want to be at incidents where they are not needed because of the waste of time and taxpayer resources, but also because of the negative impact they see on the public when they appear to be ‘standing around doing nothing’.