SAFETY campaigners are warning that the “worst ever” shortage of on-call firefighters across Hampshire is putting lives at risk.

Fire chiefs are struggling to fill scores of vacancies caused by the dwindling number of retained (part-time) personnel, who perform a vital role in rural communities without a full-time crew.

Village fire stations are under-staffed and often have to rely on crews being brought in from elsewhere to deal with emergencies.

Last night one ex-firefighter said: “It’s a critical situation that could easily lead to loss of life.”

Gary Jackson, secretary of the Hampshire branch of the Fire Brigades’ Union, added: “Not being able to turn out immediately will always put lives at risk.”

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service admitted that maintaining the “essential life-saving” service provided by rural fire stations “remains a challenge”.

An increasing number of villagers now work in towns and cities, making it impossible to reach their local fire station in time to answer call-outs.

Another reason for the shortage is that under-staffed firms are increasingly reluctant to release employees for firefighting duties.

But critics claim there is no real incentive for people to become part-time firemen.

Despite being on call for at least 35 hours a week, they are paid as little as £1,112 a year, plus an additional payment for each call-out.

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service currently has more than 40 vacancies for retained personnel, most of which are at village stations.

About 75 per cent of the county is classed as rural, with 300,000 people living in the country areas.

And villages often contain a large number of high-risk buildings such as thatched cottages and huge barns full of highly-inflammable hay.

But the Daily Echo has been told that the shortage of retained firefighters has left some fire stations unable to man their own appliances, resulting in crews having to be drafted in from elsewhere when a blaze breaks out.

Droxford is said to be one of the worst-hit villages, with critics claiming the local fire station has “virtually closed”.

Earlier this month an elderly driver was seriously injured in a collision on the A32 near Droxford, but the incident was dealt with by crews from Bishop’s Waltham, Wickham and Cosham.

Problems are also occurring in parts of the New Forest, including Lyndhurst and Lymington.

Lyndhurst Parish Council says staff shortages mean the village fire station is currently able to offer only a limited response, with cover being provided by Brockenhurst and Redbridge.

Last month a blaze at the Lobster and Burger Bar in Lymington was attended by crews from other parts of the Forest, plus one from Dorset.

A former firefighter said: “The premises were only a few hundred yards from Lymington fire station. Only three crew members arrived so they were not able to attend.

“The incident was dealt with by crews from Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, New Milton and Christchurch.

Romsey has problems turning out a second crew and there have been occasions where nothing was available. A call in a village north of the town had to be dealt with by crews from Southampton.”

Other stations such as Sutton Scotney and Stockbridge are often out of action during the day because only one firefighter is available.

Vince Barnes, retained support manager for part-time crews in the area, has said the shortage is “probably worse than ever”.

Tristan Ashby, chief executive of the Retained Firefighters’ Union, said the dearth of on-call crews was resulting in increased danger to the public.

He added: “Some brigades are not doing enough to recruit retained firefighters and Hampshire is one of them.

“It’s no good just having an open day at a fire station once in a while and expecting loads of people to turn up. You need to stand outside supermarkets and tell people what a fantastic career being a firefighter can be, but it’s just not happening.”

New Forest councillor David Harrison, pictured left (page 4), a former member of Hampshire Fire Authority, said lack of crews “had the potential to put lives at risk”.

He added: “It’s concerning that shortages have arisen. They will no doubt have some impact on response times with all the consequences that could follow.

“If I were still on the fire authority I’d be asking for detailed information about response times in the Forest.”


A HAMPSHIRE Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said the shortage of retained firefighters was a national issue.

He added: “In Droxford there is only a small population available, therefore the overall number of people we can recruit from is small compared to larger rural villages and small towns.

“The local management team have recently successfully recruited two new firefighters, which will improve its availability following their training period.

“Retained recruitment is an ongoing process, not just in Hampshire but throughout the country.

“Issues are being addressed by working hard to explore several options, including local advertising campaigns. The team are more than happy to come and speak to employers about the benefits of having their employees as firefighters.”

Fire service group manager Steve Ash added: “When we get an emergency call we deploy the nearest available and appropriate resources.

“We routinely move fire engines between stations to ensure that we have the right resources strategically placed across the county.”

Asked about the Lymington blaze he said: “Our partnership with Dorset & Wiltshire allows us to share resources during bust periods.”