Fire chief Neil Wright, who is retiring this year, fears the future amalgamation of fire control centres under a new Government plan, could cost lives. He also fears rapid change could be damaging. LEWIS COWEN reports.

WILTSHIRE fire chief Neil Wright has announced his intention to retire in December, ending 35 years in the fire service, more than half of them in Wiltshire.

Mr Wright, 55, said the time is right for him to go, with the national pay dispute over and the more local concerns over the manning of the joint emergency services control centre put to rest.

The challenge now facing fire brigades all over the country is the Government's White Paper, which envisages wide-ranging changes in the fire service which Mr Wright feels requires the attention of a new chief.

He began his fire service career in Bootle, near Liverpool, in January 1969, and after the local brigade was absorbed in the Merseyside service in 1974, he made rapid progress up the promotional ladder. He moved on to the Fire Service College at Moreton-on-Marsh in Gloucestershire before returning to Merseyside.

His chief was Jerry Willmott, who is now the chairman of Wiltshire and Swindon Fire Authority.

In May 1984, Mr Wright moved to Wiltshire where he spent the rest of his fire service career. He joked: "Jerry says he chucked me out but I reply that I left Merseyside to get away from him, not realising he already had a house in Potterne."

Mr Wright spent six and a half years as deputy to the former chief fire officer, John Craig, and the two men thought so much the same that the changeover in April 2000 was almost seamless. Mr Wright said: "We were of a mind, which made it much easier to take over."

The White Paper holds a plethora of fears for senior fire officers all over the country.

It envisages many changes, including cutting down the number of ranks from 12 to seven, and creating a police-style service in which graduates can go on a fast-track promotion line to the top.

But the aspect of the proposed changes that most concerns Mr Wright and his colleagues is the Government's determination to regionalise the service.

This would include the amalgamation of control centres, so that a householder in Devizes making a 999 fire call could be answered by an operator anywhere from Cheltenham to Truro.

He said: "There is a potential for the changes to be disastrous.

"The Bain Report and the White Paper deal very much with large metropolitan brigades and do not reflect the modern efficiency of brigades like Wiltshire."

Mr Wright is at one with officers of the Fire Brigades' Union in opposing this loss of local contact which would stem from controlling the fire crews of seven brigades from one central control room. He believes the knowledge of local geography can save lives.

He said: "It is not just the extent of the changes but the timescale as well. It is very rapid change and I am concerned it has not been thought out properly.

"Wiltshire Fire Brigade has been working closely with the other six brigades in the region and we have embraced the idea of community fire prevention with the use of hot strike visits to an area where a serious house fire has taken place.

"But if regionalisation comes in I am concerned that Wiltshire Fire Brigade will lose its identity. I fear if we don't do it voluntarily it will be imposed on us. The seven fire brigades in the region work very well together, but we don't want to be bunched together in one control room.

"We have embraced new technology and best practice. Wiltshire Fire Brigade is one of the best in the country and we want it to continue that way.

"To lose its identity in any way could jeopardise our effectiveness."

In his retirement, Mr Wright wants to spend more time with his wife, Rozella, but also has academic plans as well.

He intends to take a degree course in history with the Open University.

His son, Oliver, 19, is studying economics and business studies at the University of the South West.

He also has a married daughter Kelly, 22, who lives in Old Town, Swindon.