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Emergency crews at full stretch in deluge as budget cuts loom

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 26, 2012

  • The River Exe flooding on the Quay in Exeter. Picture: Brian Garwood

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Westcountry fire and rescue workers dealt with more than 850 incidents in less than 24 hours and more than 1,500 in five days as flood victims bombarded the emergency numbers with calls for help.

Crews were deployed in force across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset to deal with the after effects of a downpour which has devastated the region.

But as firefighters are stretched to the limit and the massive clean-up operation begins, it has emerged that residents in rural areas are much more at risk than their urban counterparts because of public spending cuts.

And unions have warned that if, as is feared, the Government slashes fire and rescue budgets by up to 19% in the next spending review, a future response on this scale will look "very different".

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A new report out today shows that predominantly rural fire and rescue services receive just £17.52 per head of population, compared to £28.89 per head of population for metropolitan areas.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Devon and Somerset is bracing itself for a cut of between £10 million and £15 million – a reduction it believes will make operations like the one conducted over the weekend difficult to provide.

Bob Walker, FBU chairman across the two counties, said the service could not continue to be "the poor relative".

"If they take that amount then there is no way we can operate in the way we do at the moment," he added.

"In Devon and Somerset 94% of spending goes on staff costs – if you take one seventh or one eighth of the entire budget we are not going to be doing something that looks like it does now."

The annual State of Rural Public Services report, published by the Rural Services Network, has revealed that, on a per-capita basis, the most urban areas receive two-thirds as much funding again as the most rural areas, despite facing higher costs.

These include more fire appliances and more fire stations than would be needed in urban areas to serve the same size of population.

At the same time, rural distances give less opportunity to hold down levels of cover in one fire station in the knowledge that back-up cover is available from a neighbouring station.

Report author Brian Wilson said: "Ensuring adequate emergency cover for rural communities is a serious matter.

"Fire and rescue services may not be used as a part of daily life in rural areas, but their ability to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies are of critical importance."

The report says services in rural areas such as Cornwall, which said 350 incidents had been attended in the 24 hours to 6am yesterday, and Devon and Somerset, which logged 500, rely heavily on some of the country's 18,000 retained firefighters

These staff are calculated to reduce the cost of service provision to about one tenth of its normal level. But typical incident response times are about five minutes longer, because they first need to be mobilised.

Some Devon and Somerset fire stations deal with 400 incidents a year with individual firefighters called out to around half. Up to a quarter of its retained firefighter appliances could be unavailable because one or more crew members is too far away to be mobilised.

Community saviours spring into action as water rises in West Somerset

Exmoor and West Somerset were badly hit – Martin Hesp has been discovering how the area coped with the widespread flooding.

It might have been a night of misery, discomfort and even danger – but two unlikely elements came to the rescue in one of the Westcountry’s worst-hit flooding areas this weekend. They were Twitter and Plasticine. Twitter because the social networking site was providing an instant information service for people trying to get home across the region as the rain kept falling after midnight on Saturday. And Plasticine – because it was offering a single ray of hope to a clutch of besieged householders who were using it to seal up their properties. “The water in my house would have been over two feet deep if it hadn’t been for the Plasticine,” commented Williton householder Andy Ford. “We have flood doors, but they leak. So we sealed them with this putty stuff my neighbour brought over. “We were flooded – but we only got about two inches instead of two feet.” The neighbour was artist Tad Mandziej whose home has been inundated before: “I’ve got a big sack of modelling Plasticine and I use that, along with sandbags, to keep the water out,” he told the WMN. “We can’t protect all the house – some of it got flooded last night as well as my workshop and barn – but we did manage to protect the kitchen and living room.” Photographs of central Williton under two feet of water appeared on Twitter shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, which was enough to warn hundreds of late-night travellers in the area that the junction of the A38 and A358 roads was impassable. In fact, West Somerset was effectively cut off from the rest of the world as its two main entry roads became blocked in many places. At an event in the village of Roadwater starring Neil Innes (of Monty Python and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fame) many members of the audience were forced to stay the night with friends. But one man who braved the conditions was the landlord of the pub where Mr Innes was staying… “We only just got home,” said John Thomson, of the Hood Arms at Kilve. “Our cab driver was brilliant he – realised we’d never get through in his ordinary cab so he went home and got his big 16-seater minibus and picked people up all over the place.” At Kilve they came across a Mercedes with water over its bonnet. “Two lads climbed out the window and pushed it out of the flood – but it was only afterwards they realised how wet and cold they were, so we gave them rooms for the night.”At the same time six people were being rescued from rising waters at a seaside caravan park just a few miles to the west. “Our team went out to check things at 12.50 and saw that the water was coming up around some of the units,” explained Paul Harper, of Blue Anchor’s Hoburne Holiday Park. He said emergency services were “fantastic”, arriving within ten minutes and evacuating six elderly people, among others, to the park’s reception building.Throughout West Somerset on Sunday morning teams were clearing culverts as well as the scores of mini landslides that were blocking lanes. High, thick, Westcountry hedgerows helped turn roads of all sizes into rivers while the surrounding fields remained high and dry. The road from Williton to Doniford on the West Somerset coast remained a two mile-long flood yesterday morning. Back at Mr Ford’s Plasticine-protected house, several members of Minehead Rugby Club were helping with the clear-up. One told me: “We were out half the night helping friends and, you won’t believe this – we went to one woman’s flooded house to help take the furniture upstairs and she told us to take our boots off!” Just a few hundred metres from the house in question, punters at Roadwater Village Hall were applauding live renditions of songs Neil Innes wrote for Monty Python in the 60s. A laconic doorman, looking out at the falling rain, said: “He ought to play Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. “Dunno about that,” shrugged his colleague. “But I do know Neil Innes starred in a TV series called Puddle Lane.”

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