Councillors have pushed back controversial plans to cut firefighters by reducing crewing levels despite warnings it could lead to redundancies and worse cuts.

Avon Fire & Rescue Service (AFRS) chiefs proposed sending fire engines to emergencies with just four personnel instead of the current five to save money and balance the books, with the organisation facing a £4million black hole over the next four years.

But the cross-party fire authority committee delayed introducing the idea for a year as it passed the organisation’s annual budget for 2024/25.

The original plan was to slash the number of full-time firefighters by 40 but a successful campaign by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which said the cuts presented a danger to firefighters and the public, prompted a rethink.

However, when finance bosses presented the budget papers to members on Wednesday, March 20, the crewing levels proposal remained the preferred option.

They urged councillors to go ahead with the reductions from this April, which would have been made gradually through retirements and not redundancies.

Instead, the committee voted in favour of an alternative proposed by Bristol’s Conservatives and backed by Labour to defer the changes by 12 months and make up a £500,000 shortfall in the coming financial year by increasing borrowing.

AFRS statutory finance officer Verity Lee told the meeting she did not recommend this option because it compressed the timeframe the service would need to find £4million of new savings from four years to three, including £1.4million in 2025/26, which was “a lot harder for us to do”.

She said the one-year delay in cutting crew sizes meant maintaining the current number of firefighters in 2024/25, when between nine and 13 retirements were expected.

Ms Lee said that if permanent full-time staff were hired to replace them and then the crewing level reductions began the following year, this could lead to redundancies.

She said: “Another option we’ve considered is recruiting from other fire services and again it’s looking at permanent appointments, so we’re still running the risk of having to look at future redundancy programmes to reduce the establishment level we need to achieve, and of course a redundancy programme comes with associated costs.

“So these options put us in a position where we are more reactively managing the establishment, we’re looking at potential redundancies and potential overtime and also looking at potentially a more frequent usage of bringing appliances off the run if we have a shortfall of resources.”

She said the committee’s decision “really puts into question whether that’s a robust way of setting a budget”.

But FBU South West regional secretary Dave Roberts told the meeting it gave the service time to explore other ways of balancing the budget and lobbying the government for fairer funding.

He said: “It is essential to avoid situations that could motivate pressurised firefighters to act unsafely in the interests of saving lives.

“Avon Fire Authority needs to step back from the brink and source additional funding from the government to ensure the safety of the public that we serve.

“Downgrading the establishment now and in the future would be a race to the bottom that would put lives on the line.”

Bristol Conservative Cllr Steve Smith, who proposed the option to delay the cuts, said that when members initially approved the crewing reductions last October, it was subject to changes in the funding situation and that this had improved from a 2024/25 forecast deficit of £2million only three months ago to just £125,000.

Cllr Smith said: “We said the efficiency plan, the crewing changes, were the least bad option and we were doing it reluctantly but didn’t want to do it if we didn’t have to.

“My suggestion is that for this year at least we don’t have to do it.

“There is a risk to that – if forecasts in the current financial plan are correct then this time next year we are looking for £1.4million [savings] and in a few years’ time it goes up to £4.2million.

“This choice doesn’t go away, it’s going to come back, and if we don’t do it now, it gets harder later.

“But things do change and a lot could change over the next few years, and set against cutting posts now, that’s a risk I’m prepared to take.”

Bristol Labour Cllr Philippa Hulme said: “I know there have been tests to show that the four-member crew is as safe as a five-member crew and I’m sure they were done rigorously but in real emergency situations I really find it hard to think that what we’re calling efficiency savings are people – they’re fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters.

“I really want to spend another year trying everything we possibly can to get some more money and to take that risk of assuming that will be successful before we go down the road of cutting the number of crews.”

Bristol Labour Cllr Paul Goggin said: “We have to postpone, we have to find other cuts because we can’t put firefighters’ safety and the public’s safety at risk just for the sake of cash.”

Chief Fire Officer Simon Shilton said trials showed four-firefighter crewing was safe and that the recommended option to introduce it from April 2024 would give the service time to implement it gradually as personnel retired.

He said the model worked well elsewhere and Avon used it during covid.

CFO Shilton said: “The proposed changes may not meet all future funding deficits but without the time to manage and adopt the changes there remains a greater risk of harder hitting, greater impact and severe changes needed in a shorter space of time.”

Members voted against a Lib Dem amendment to approve the officer’s recommendation but with “wriggle room” to reverse the decision if the government provided significant new funding.

Bristol Lib Dem Cllr Andrew Varney said the Tories’ proposal was “just can-kicking” and came with a legal warning from the finance officer.