FIRE union chiefs have hit out over the North West Fire Control centre in Warrington claiming it is understaffed and employees are having to work extra hours to ensure minimum staffing levels are reached.

Dave Williams, Cheshire Fire Brigade Union secretary, said the professionalism of staff had ‘saved the day’ after the centre in Lingley Mere, Great Sankey, was handed responsibility for all 999 emergency calls and mobilising firefighters to incidents in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire earlier this year.

The controversial regional 999 centre took years to open after the national project was initially scrapped in December 2010 before four services in the north west agreed to resurrect the scheme following a government grant of £37m.

Mr Williams added he had received a number of reports there had been problems with communication between fire engines and the control centre and appliances travelling ‘great distances’ to incidents was causing ‘unnecessary delays’.

He added: “They have been described as teething problems but they should have been ironed out during testing and the system went live three months ago.

“However the biggest concern at the moment is the staffing levels.

“We have been critical of their proposed staffing levels and the professionalism of our members that work in the control centre has saved the day and made sure they haven’t had any major disasters yet.”

The union claims 32 per cent of employees at the centre were new starters meaning it would take time for them to be fully competent and a shortage of experienced staff meant there was not the ‘right level of supervision’.

Mr Williams added: “We’re hopeful something can be done going forward but I have been given no guarantees they’re going to look to employ new people.

“The shift system is questionable and we have been given assurances there will be a review.

“Staff are working long shifts worked out based on demand from historic data of the busy times for emergencies which is great to a certain degree but some of the assumptions have not been proved correct and things like thunder storms and high winds are not predictable.

“Staff are putting the hours in to maintain the minimum staffing levels and have been making things work with their previous experience when they’re let down by the IT systems.

“It’s causing a great deal of stress as they feel responsible for making sure the right appliances are dispatched as quickly as possible.”

A Cheshire Fire spokesman said the control centre had so far successfully dealt with 13,500 calls and employed 56 members of staff.

He added: “There are still a few vacancies but these are in the process of being filled.

“There are always between five and 16 staff available to handle calls– we can predict activity levels and trends very accurately by looking at past data, while we also take into account factors such as the weather.

“However, what we also have in place is a rota that enables us to call in extra staff at short notice should we get a busy period.

“Residents and businesses across Cheshire can be reassured that the new arrangements provides them with a more modern, efficient and resilient service than previously.”