Scotland’s fire chief: Give me the funds to deal with terror attack

The UK Government must exempt the cash-strapped Scottish Fire and Rescue Service from an annual VAT bill of £10 million so that it can afford to pay for reforms which will see firefighters trained to respond to marauding terror attacks similar to Paris and London, according to its chairman Pat Watters.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Herald, Watters warned it is only a matter of time before terror comes to the streets of Scotland and urged the UK Treasury to give the fire service the funds to help deal with the threat.

Watters revealed details of the overhaul which will also mean firefighters will be asked to respond to urgent medical emergencies when ambulances can’t get there quickly enough.

Watters was also highly critical of the UK Government’s “austerity agenda”, which he claims is denying the Scottish government vital funds to invest in transforming the fire service north of the border. The fire service chief suggested exempting Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) from VAT could save £10m – enough to pay for equipment and training to ensure firefighters can “safely” deal with terror attacks in Scotland’s biggest cities.

Watters said: “When you look at what happened in Paris, London and Manchester, the fire service were involved. It’s not about if it’s going to happen in Scotland, it’s when. We need to have our staff absolutely prepared to get involved in that type of thing. What we don’t have at this time is the training in place to allow our people to do that safely.

“Part of the problem is the fact that if we need to buy equipment for that and it costs us 20 per cent more than any other fire service in the rest of the UK to actually do that because we need to pay VAT on it. It’s absolutely scandalous. It costs us £50m more to provide the service than it did previously because we’re paying £10m a year in VAT. That £10m is vital to us and it’s not even an itch in the Treasury. It wouldn’t even be worth them scratching it, because it’s so small, as far as they’re concerned. But it means a lot to us.

He added: “We’re not talking about our firefighters running around with guns trying to tackle terrorists. What they’ll do is try to deal with the results of the terrorist attack. Try to assist the public who need assistance, to get them to places of safety so that they can receive treatment for any injuries.”

Watters has been the chairman of SFRS since September 2012 and is hoping to oversee an overhaul of the role of a firefighter before he leaves his post in December this year. In a letter to firefighters, he said: “Our vision would see your role extend into new areas, including responding to acts of terrorism, emergency medical response, severe weather and a broader preventative and intervention role.”

There is an ongoing pilot at 16 fire stations across the country – including Musselburgh, Falkirk, Livingston, Bathgate, Linlithgow and Oban – and Watters said 15 lives have already been saved, with a total of 41 potential lifesaving interventions recorded.

He told the Sunday Herald: “We turn out faster than the ambulance service, we’ve got more stations than the ambulance service. In cardiac arrests that time is so important. We’re not there to take over from the ambulance service. We’re there to maintain that life during that period so that when our partners in the ambulance service turn up, they take over resuscitation. It’s been a tremendous success. If we can save 15 lives in a short period of time with only having trials in 16 areas, how many more lives can we save if it was across Scotland?

“If you take the weather, the once-in-a-lifetime storm happens three or four times a year now. If you look at what happened in Ballater [in 2015 when severe floods forced an evacuation], if local crews weren’t involved in that it would have been a disaster. That part-time crew were involved for 10 days and beyond. They visited every single house over that period to ensure that people were okay. It was an amazing exercise. We will never not be a fire service but we are so much more and can be even more.”

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was formed in April 2013 following the merger of eight regional fire services. In its first year it had a combined resource budget of £290.7m but in each of the subsequent years the budget was £259.2m – a cash reduction of £31.5m and a real terms cut of around 18 per cent.

Watters described himself as Scotland’s “moaner-in-chief” when he meets Scottish Government ministers on a monthly basis. He has put forward the case for reform and indicated he has “absolute support”.

He said: “On a regular basis I tell them I need more money. They’re saying the same as they say to other parts of the public sector, ‘if we had it we’d give you it but we don’t have it’. I can understand they don’t have it because I see how it’s going. I know they don’t have a big bag of cash to dip into – we understand the pressures they’re under … partly it’s the [UK Government] austerity agenda. They’re denying the government up here the funds and it means they can’t distribute the funds that they have not got. If the [UK Government] was to take us out of VAT we would not have an argument whatsoever. We’d be able to deliver that reform without looking at additional funds coming in.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said financial support provided to frontline emergency services would “go much further” if the SFRS could recover VAT, like all other fire services and territorial police forces in the UK.

She added: “The overall SFRS operational budget, including capital, has increased in 2017/18 by £21.7m to allow vital investment in equipment and resources to ensure the safety of both the public and firefighters.”

A Treasury spokeswoman said: “In 2012 the Scottish Government chose to make Scotland’s police and fire services national bodies, rather than regional bodies funded by local taxation. As we advised the Scottish Government before it took this decision, this change took Scotland out of the scope of the VAT refunds scheme.”