THE decision to make a dramatic change to the way firefighters respond to automatic fire alarms in West Yorkshire remains shrouded in mystery today.

West Yorkshire Fire Brigades' Union warns lives have been put in danger by the change.

The county's Fire Authority says the changes were made after it received a letter on the proposals from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's office. But a spokesman from Mr Prescott's office said the Government had no power to force through any of its recommendations on the proposals.

He said: "The decision to change the original plan is the Fire Authority's. We are merely a consultee and have no powers to overrule their decision."

But it is clear there was no public consultation on a proposal to send just one fire engine to automatic fire alarms between 8am and 7pm. The only exceptions are high-risk buildings such as hospitals and chemical works.

But schools - including ones with severely disabled children - will, at the moment, get the lower response.

After the Examiner broke the story yesterday, West Yorkshire Fire And Rescue Service confirmed the integrated risk management proposals on how it responds to automatic fire alarms had changed radically from the ones put forward for public consultation last autumn.

They claim the changes were made after the Mr Prescott's office commented on the proposals.

The Examiner has a copy of this letter and the only reference to call-outs suggests the fire service should "consider and define what calls you will and will not respond to in the future."

A West Yorkshire Fire And Rescue Service spokesman said: "The proposal was redrafted following recommendations by the Fire, Health And Safety Directorate of the Office Of The Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) and its implementation support team."

And he admitted: "The proposal was significantly redrafted because of the issues the ODPM wanted us to address.

"The changes were made as a result of the consultation."

He said this was among 20 changes made to the original plan.

The issue came to light after it emerged that lone fire engines were sent to Highfields Special School, Edgerton, and Huddersfield New College when automatic fire alarms went off last Friday.

Normally three fire engines would have been sent to each school.

Fire chiefs say £600,000 is being wasted countywide in working hours, fuel and wear and tear on fire appliances by going to automatic fire alarms which have gone off accidentally or are faulty.

If someone rang with details of the fire then the response would be upgraded.

All buildings in West Yorkshire have a pre-determined attendance to fire alarms and a full response would be sent at night when people are less mobile.

But the Fire Brigades' Union believes the new daytime policy will put more lives at risk - both the public's and firefighters.

They have roundly condemned the plan and the way it has been pushed through.

West Yorkshire Fire Brigades' Union secretary Sean Cahill said: "Lives will be put in danger. This reduction in the number of appliances sent to automatic fire alarms was not in the original integrated risk management plan which went to public consultation in the autumn.

"It was added days before West Yorkshire Fire Authority passed it on February 20. We reckon it didn't go out to public consultation because they knew what the public reaction would be.

"We have very serious concerns about this reduction.

"At the moment there is the possibility one engine and just four firefighters could turn up at a school on fire and have to deal with the blaze, many hundreds of people evacuating the building, and have to call for back-up as well."

How the proposals changed >>>


October, 2003, proposal:

 A specialist fire safety officer and the usual number of firefighters should be sent to the 50 buildings that generate the most false alarms.

 The officer would thoroughly investigate the cause and make recommendations to stop the false alarms and free up the crews' time for community fire safety work.

February, 2004, decision:

 Only one fire engine will be sent to all automated fire alarms between 8am to 7pm, apart from buildings deemed to be high risk.

 Fire safety staff will investigate the causes of false alarms at the 100 premises that have the most false alarms.