The government is failing to recognise the impact cuts to fire and rescue services are having, a report by the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) has warned.
Assessing the cuts so far, Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of PAC, said the government needed to “properly understand the local implications of budget decisions made in Whitehall”.
“In our view that simply hasn’t been happening," she said.
Over 7,000 frontline fire service jobs have been cut since 2010.
Although the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has previously revealed that most fire authorities reported an increase in response times between April 2014 and March 2015, the PAC report said the department "took comfort" from the fact that the number of fire incidents had fallen over the past 10 years.
But it also found that the DCLG "lacked a sophisticated understanding" of how local forces' prevention and education programmes had contributed to the long-term decline in incidents.
Dave Green, national officer for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), described the current situation as “the perfect storm waiting to happen”.
“There are now less frontline fighters than in 2010,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The reality is that that has affected every brigade. One out of every eight firefighters are no longer there.
“It now takes us longer to get there, [and] once we are there there are less people to deal with the incident. It is not our safety [that is at risk] but the safety of the public as well.”
Green said services were now so stretched that in the event of another major simultaneous emergency like the 2014 Somerset floods, “the fire and rescue service would not be able to respond effectively”.
The warning comes after the National Audit Office found that some fire and rescue authorities were increasingly concerned over their capacity to respond to majority incidents.
In addition to dealing with cuts, rescue services are also responding to calls from central government to consolidate their services.
The PAC report said the DCLG, which oversaw the fire service until authority was transferred to the Home Office in January, had adopted a “laissez-faire” attitude to the possibility of mergers between fire and police services.
A Home Office report into "enabling closer working between the emergency services" said sharing call centres could reduce waiting times for police, fire, and ambulance services.
But fire and police leaders warned against the move, comparing it to “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
Labour's Lyn Brown, the shadow fire minister, said leaders were worried the move was simply a “smokescreen for cuts”.
The DLCG told BuzzFeed News fire and rescue service policy now sits with the Home Office.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Home Office said they welcomed the report's findings and would respond formally in due course. They noted the fire service had "delivered significant savings" over the past five years and that fire deaths by fallen by 22%, and injuries by a quarter.
Mike Penning, minister for policing, fire, criminal justice and victims, said: "There is no question the fire service will still have the resources to do their important work but there are more efficiencies to be made through smarter working, reducing the cost of back office functions and using services’ buying power to get the best deals from suppliers."
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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