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Thames Valley-wide fire call centre approved

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Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service will push ahead with plans to merge control centre with Bucks and Oxon

THE Royal Berkshire Fire Authority has agreed to push ahead with plans to merge its control room where emergency calls are answered, with Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

The plans mean that calls to the fire service in any of these three regions could in future be answered in one large centre which serves the entire Thames Valley Area.

This could result in the closure of Berkshire's control centre in Dee Road, Tilehurst, which currently employs 32 telephone operators, and the creation of a replacement centre much further afield, a move which the Fire Brigades Union has claimed will leave operators with a lack local knowledge when answering emergency calls . It is also expected to lead to job losses.

Fire Brigades Union representative Paul Watts recently said: “What a fire control room needs is people with local knowledge, who live in the area and work in the area. West Berkshire in particular is a very rural area and often times, when people call the service, they have no idea what the name of a road is and can only give a description. A computer will only tell you so much.”

However, hope was expressed at last night's (Wednesday's) Royal Berkshire Fire Authority meeting in Reading's Civic Centre that if a new, joint control room is created then it would be best placed in Berkshire as it would be the cheapest option because some facilities are already in place.

The merger, which could cost as much as £5.4m, is being considered to increase capacity to deal with larger volumes of calls, to modernise the service and to save money.

The Berkshire authority's agreement last night was only for the initial phase of the project to be delivered. This is in itself still pending the approval by at least one of the two other fire authorities in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Olaf Baars said the project was necessary due to the cancellation of the Labour government's plans to create nine regional control rooms to cover England, dubbed FiReControl.

Underspending took place in anticipation of these regional centres, which has resulted in smaller capacity and less integration than would otherwise have been the case.

Mr Baars said of the new project: “By April 2012 [after phase one has been completed] we will be considerably more resilient and some of the risks would at least have been moderated.”

He also said it would result in significant financial savings.

The merger would predominantly be financed through a government grant of £1.8m made available to all fire services in England to modernise.

The authority left one more option on the table in case the Thames Valley option fell through: outsourcing the control centre to one based in London. But it was made it clear last night that this would be a secondary preference because of fears that the smaller authority's needs, such as in West Berkshire, would be ignored.

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