THE public and firefighters could be put at risk because of a “significant potential funding gap” facing the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).

That was the warning yesterday from the Fire Brigades Union Scotland in response to an official prediction that funding cuts could result in a £42.7 million shortfall for the service.

A report by public finance watchdog, Audit Scotland, said that while the creation of a single national fire service two years ago was managed effectively, likely cuts in funding and cost increases could lead to the funding gap.

However, the Fire Brigade Union warned that if any more cuts were made it would hit frontline services as 80 per cent of the budget is spent on wages. “The move to a single service has protected the service to some extent but if these cuts keep coming it will have an impact on the frontline,” said FBU Scotland secretary Stephen Thomson.

“I don’t want to be alarmist but we need the right number of firefighters to provide a safe service and if the cuts keep coming that will endanger the public and firefighters.” He pointed out the move from eight services to one had made savings through the removal of duplication, with 400 job cuts already made since the single service was introduced. “That has happened yet the cuts keep coming which will mean less fire engines in Scotland. Firefighting is inherently dangerous and the way to make it as safe as possible is having the right number of engines and firefighters attending at the right time. If we start reducing the number of fire engines it is going to take longer in certain areas to get them there.”

Thomson said that if firefighters had been unable to respond as quickly as they did during the Glasgow School of Art fire the damage would have been even more serious.

“The economic cost of that fire has been put at £30million but if they had taken longer to get there it would have taken £300million to put right. Just to put that into context our whole annual budget is less than £300million.”

In its report, Audit Scotland stated that the merger was managed effectively and the single service’s performance is improving but future challenges remain.

“A long-term financial strategy is now urgently needed to address a significant potential funding gap,” the report said.

While the SFRS is on track to exceed the £328million of savings planned by 2027/28, Audit Scotland estimated that potential future funding reductions may result in a funding gap of £42.7million in 2019/20. The report recommends the SFRS agree a long-term financial strategy by the end of March 2016 to address these cost pressures and identify how to make further savings.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “It’s now crucial that the service agrees this strategy, and supporting plans, to show how it will close the funding gap and achieve savings by 2019/20 and beyond.”

SRFS chief officer Alasdair Hay said the service recognised that “funding pressures will intensify”. He said: “Work has already been undertaken to project future costs and savings up to 2019/20 across all cost areas. The SFRS will, of course, continue to place community safety and firefighter safety at the forefront of any decisions which are made to ensure that we can continue to deliver the high quality service the public has come to expect from us.”

The Scottish Government yesterday praised the service for coping well with budget pressures “caused by steep cuts to Scotland by the UK Government”.

Paul Wheelhouse, community safety and legal affairs minister said: “The situation in

Scotland is in direct contrast to England and Wales where, since 2010 over 4700 firefighter posts have been cut and 39 fire stations across England and Wales have closed. Since the launch of the SFRS, not a single fire station has been closed by SFRS management. This is in spite of HM Treasury repeatedly rejecting our requests that the SFRS should be able to recover VAT, which means SFRS is the only fire service in the UK unable to recover VAT and is liable to an annual cost of around £10million, with consequences for on-going investment and resourcing within the service.”

However Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman Hugh Henry said: “We’ve seen what underfunding has done to our police service, with backfilling leading to police officers covering roles previously held by civilian staff.

“With firefighter numbers falling, the SNP must guarantee that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will not suffer a similar fate.”