On January 30, the board of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) will decide which three locations will continue to host control rooms – Scotland’s vital nerve centres for co-ordinating responses to emergencies large and small.
This change should ensure that we have a modern Fire and Rescue Service with public safety at its heart, as each of the three ongoing facilities will be larger, better-equipped and more capable of dealing on their own with even the most serious events. However, there are strong arguments that retaining a control room in Edinburgh will best serve the fire service nationally.
Edinburgh has long hosted a control room in Tollcross that has stood watch over a swathe of the nation, starting in Linlithgow and running all the way to the English border. The argument from local knowledge, therefore, should not be overplayed as there is a limit to how much could ever be developed over such a wide area. The SFRS has already shown their views through the reduction to three centres, and so those of us arguing the case for the capital have had to argue on other grounds, of which, fortunately, there are many.
Working in the second-largest and second-busiest of the eight existing rooms, Edinburgh’s staff have developed irreplaceable experience and expertise. If the facility were to close those workers would be faced with the choice of relocating to another city – probably Dundee – or moving to another role. While all are protected by the Scottish Government’s guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, many would understandably choose to move into different roles within the fire service rather than relocate their lives and those of their families. Priceless experience would be lost.
The financial case is also strong. With a working fire station at the same location, the SFRS budget has no prospect of a one-off cash injection from selling the control room premises, and no other control room has had their IT systems for co-ordination and communication modernised more recently.
Perhaps the strongest argument is that of public protection, which will be the overriding criterion used by the SFRS in deciding. Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital and seat of government. Leaving this city without an on-site fire control centre capable of dealing with major incidents would be a brave decision for any authority charged with public safety.
Reform of nationwide services always brings change and upheaval. This is no different. The creation of a united fire service to cover the whole country has, fortunately, thus far been a model of partnership with the workforce. Involvement by the Fire Brigades Union even extended to seconding staff to the Scottish Government to work directly in the team setting up the new structures.
Now that bills are long passed by parliament and the new board of the SFRS has taken on the responsibility of managing progress, these first difficulties have emerged, but there are grounds for optimism as well. While consultants recommended continuing just two control centres, the SFRS board disagreed and decided to operate three. At the request of the FBU the decision was delayed from last year to allow them to better examine the case being out forward.
The FBU, as a nationwide body, is in a difficult position on the question of which control centres should continue. Edinburgh MSPs and the City Council have therefore been united in our defence of Tollcross. Scotland’s national fire service must retain this vital facility in Scotland’s capital.
Marco Biagi is the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central