One of my new responsibilities as Cabinet Member for Sustainable Environment and Climate Change is to represent the council (together with three colleagues) on the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service.
At a meeting I attended last Thursday, we received a presentation from fire stations in the Wear Valley district. A key discussion point was how we respond to increased incidents of flooding across our area. Bishop Auckland Fire Station is equipped with a water bourne rescue craft, which serves the whole authority area.
Over the weekend of 6/7 September 2008, our Fire and Rescue control centre handled over 400 calls from distressed residents, many of these calls taken in support of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Fire and Rescue Services. The Service also dispatched its High Volume Pump to assist Tyne & Wear in the Chopwell area as part of the National Mutual Aid Agreement.
There are in place regional agreements to pool resources when calamity strikes - as occurred in Morpeth 10 days ago. In a time when flooding was irregular and localised, this may have been sufficient. What many people do not realise is that Fire and Rescue Authorities are not tasked or funded to provide a response or rescue service to people trapped in floods. The reality of climate change has thrown this issue into sharp relief.
In June 2008, the Pitt Report was published, which reviewed the response to the 2007 summer floods. In recommendation 38, it concluded
“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”
With what resources and training are at their disposal, fire officers country-wide brave often-atrocious conditions to keep the public safe in flooded areas. Whilst creating a statutory duty on the Fire Service to provide flood rescue services would be expensive (about £300,000 for Durham and Darlington) it is simply essential, given the scale of devastation and disruption that this new risk of flooding presents to our communities. Last year, it is estimated that flooding cost the UK £3billion alone.
The Pitt Report has yet to be considered by the House of Commons, and the Fire Authority has written to all North East MP's asking that they support its recommendations as far as Fire and Rescue services are concerned. I fully support the initiative, and I will be writing to our local MPs Alan Milburn and Phil Wilson too. The recommendation should be agreed - the public, and our dedicated fire fighters, deserve nothing less.