Hoax calls costing £1m a year – Joint by-line with Sophie Evans

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TIME-WASTERS, including children, are costing Tyneside fire services more than £1m a year, the Chronicle can reveal.

An investigation has found that more than 10,000 fires have been deliberately lit in the last two years – costing the taxpayer millions.

Meanwhile, Tyne and Wear Fire service has also had to deal with two hoax calls a day.

These call-outs have wasted hundreds of hours, put lives at risk and have had a damaging effect on a service that is already suffering from hard-hitting cuts.

Firefighters in the region are facing a 35% reduction in their budget, with hundreds of potential job losses already causing untold pressure.

Spending cuts of £4.5 million have already seen watches reduced from 10 to eight staff and the further £14 million expected before 2017 could see staff numbers shrink further.

Since 2010, Tyne and Wear fire service has been called out to deal with 10,331 deliberately started fires, which cost £281 an hour to attend.

Many of these happened in Newcastle and were started by child pranksters or adults who had been out drinking.

According to Northumbria Police, 1,654 of these fires in the last two years were classed as arson, with more than a third being started by under 18s.

Call-outs have included someone setting off a firework inside a Sunderland postbox and people starting fires in churches, cemeteries and outside pubs.

Group Manager of Tyne and Wear fire service, John Allison, said: “Whilst our crews are dealing with deliberate fires or false alarms they are not available to attend genuine emergencies or carry out important fire prevention work, such as home safety checks and checking the safety of business premises.

“We do a lot of work in schools to educate children and young people about the dangers of setting fires.”

As well as dealing with prank blazes, the region’s fire service has received 532 malicious calls over the past two years – costing them up to £150,000 a year.

Among these calls was a person who had their toe stuck in a tap in Deerbolt Place, Newcastle, while someone mistook a DJ’s smoke machine for a fire on Ocean Road, South Shields.

Another person called 999 at 4am saying their clothes were on fire at Benton Park Road, Newcastle, while someone in South Shields locked themselves out of their house with their oven left on.

Other cries for help included kids stuck in trees and people who had accidentally set themselves alight.

Tyne and Wear fire service has condemned vandals and hoaxers – saying that, as well as being costly to the service, they are putting lives in danger.

Mr Allison said: “Those making the calls may think it’s a bit of fun, but I would like to ask them if they would still think that if it was one of their family or friends we could not rescue in time as a result of one of their pranks.”

This was a reality only two months ago when a 27-year-old mum-of-one nearly died in a house fire in Byker, Newcastle, after a fire engine was delayed because of a blaze started by vandals.

The gang had set fire to car tyres in a disused factory in Walker, Newcastle and this prompted a passer-by to call 999 – sending one of Byker’s two engines to deal with it.

It was minutes later the house blaze was reported – leaving just one crew to tackle it.

Speaking after the fire, station manager Steve Taylor, 53, said: “What can seem a prank at  the time can actually turn out to be fatal.

“There isn’t an unlimited supply of engines and people always think that there are more than there actually are. We only have a couple here at Byker – and they can’t be in two places at once.

“Thoughtless vandalism like this can cost lives.”

John Pratt, community safety area manager of Tyne and Wear fire service, has also stressed how phone lines being tied up with time-wasting hoaxers can cost lives.

He said: “Whilst the number of hoax calls has reduced there is no doubt that people who do this are putting lives at risk.

“Our Control Room operators do an excellent job challenging callers who in their experience feel might be making a hoax call.

“This has reduced the number of times we have responded to hoax calls however if there is ever any doubt they will send fire appliances to the incident.

“Hoax calls do have a cost, financial as well as potentially life threatening.

“Whilst we are attending these incidents our firefighters may not be available to attend a house fire or road traffic collision where someone’s life is at risk. “

False alarms also waste unnecessary money – with a whopping £773,500 being spent on attending automatic fire alarms that have gone off in the last two years.

A spokesperson from the fire department said: “There is no doubt that our time is much better spent not attending false alarms.

“Our crews could be carrying out more prevention and fire safety work and would be more available for genuine incidents.”

Despite the costly antics of mindless firebugs, incidents have actually declined in the last few years.

A Northumbria spokesman said: “Although cases of arson have fallen and detection rates have increased, we continue to work closely with the region’s fire and rescue services to prevent incidents of arson through enforcement and prevention.”

Tyne and Wear fire service reported an overall decline in the number of deliberately started fires – with 5,172 blazes started by pranksters in the North East last year, compared to more than double – 10,380 fires – in 2002.

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