Taxpayers get saddled with £33k bill for fire service's global jaunts
GLOBETROTTING Essex firefighters have jetted off to far-flung destinations such as the US, New Zealand, and South Korea at a cost of more than £33,000 to the taxpayer.
The Gazette can reveal that Essex County Fire and Rescue Service dipped into the public purse to the tune of £33,624.20 to send its officers overseas on dozens of separate occasions between April 2001 and April 2013.
Employees headed to the US on nine occasions, with Houston in Texas, Jamestown in Virginia, Tampa in Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina, among the destinations.
Closer to home, firefighters have headed to Spain, Germany, Greece, Austria, the Netherlands and Ireland.
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The fire service released details of these foreign trips to the Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.
Besides flights, the £33,000 travel bill includes the cost of accommodation, meals, car hire and fees for conference and training programmes, such as petrochemical fire fighting courses in Houston.
Some of the trips were made by senior fire officers, including the chief fire officer David Johnson and his deputy Adam Eckley, while others have been made by station managers.
Former deputy chief fire officer Mark Jones features heavily on the list, while on two trips, including the junket to New Zealand, fire staff were even joined by elected councillors sitting on Essex Fire Authority, the body which oversees the fire service.
Pressure group The TaxPayers' Alliance said it was worried by the level of expenditure on overseas visits.
Campaign manager Robert Oxley said: "Firefighters are there to provide an emergency service, not globetrot at taxpayers' expense.
"The bravery of ordinary fireman risking their lives should not be undermined by senior officers billing taxpayers for costly plane tickets.
"The fire authorities must justify the cost of these conferences at a time of necessary spend cuts."
Brentwood Borough councillor Russell Quirk has long been critical of the way that the fire service is run and how well it is scrutinised by the Essex Fire Authority.
He told the Gazette: "With a list of destinations akin to a travel agent's window, I remain unconvinced that all of these trips are absolutely necessary, especially those that include councillors.
"After all, why would elected members need training on bush fires, earthquakes and the like?"
Mr Quirk, who represents Hutton North, added: "The length of some of these trips also needs to be scrutinised as it appears that one of them in particular was an eleven dayer.
"That's not a trip, it's a holiday, although I doubt that much scrutiny will come from fire authority councillors."
The fire service provided an explanation for some of the trips but said it could not give details for some of the older visits as either records were no longer kept or that the fire officer in question had since left its employment.
Details of other visits which did not involve any cost to the taxpayer were also provided, such as the chief fire officer David Johnson's trip to Hong Kong in February which was paid for by that country's Government.
A fire service spokesman said its employees were required to fly economy class and that overseas trips for station managers had to be authorised by its senior management team, which includes the chief fire officer.
He said the petrochemical training course in the US was the gold standard for firefighters and also claimed that it would be more expensive for staff to attend a similar course in this country.
The spokesman concluded: "The service works hard to keep travel costs down and this is reflected in the fact that spending on travel averages out at around £3,000 a year for the last decade.
"Our employees are required to fly economy class.
"The officer who travelled the most has now left the service and this can be seen in recent spending."