FIRE stations in villages across Berkshire were unavailable to respond to callouts most of the time last summer, according to the latest figures.

Over July to September last year, fire engines were available to respond to callouts just 11.1 per cent of the time from Lambourn station, 10.9 per cent from Pangbourne, 8.2 per cent from Wargrave and just 3.4 per cent from Mortimer.

A spokeswoman for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS) said: “It’s not a direct reflection of response time, we would always send the quickest available resource to an emergency call regardless of which fire station it would come from.”

If no fire engine is available from one station, a crew from farther away must respond. In rural areas this means waiting longer, the nearest stations being at least four miles away. Although sometimes a crew travelling back from another incident might be closer and would respond.

The main reason for the lack of availability is difficulty retaining and recruiting staff, according to a recent report of the Royal Berkshire Fire Authority (RBFA), which noted ‘significant challenges at Lambourn and Pangbourne’ in staff numbers and skills.

Across the country, 22 per cent of on-call firefighters are planning to leave within two years due to low pay and feeling undervalued, a survey by the Retained Firefighters’ Union found. On-call firefighters can expect to earn £6,000 to £8,000 a year for being on call up to 120 hours a week. Meanwhile, Trevor Ferguson, the chief fire officer of the RBFRS, receives a total remuneration of £181,435 a year.

RBFRS, which has a budget of £33 million and employs around 640 staff, is increasingly reliant on local funding because of the continued reduction in funding from central government. This increases the service’s exposure to significant financial shocks, like Brexit for example, according to an RBFA report.

Uncertainty remains over a number of spending commitments over the next few years. The fire service will decide later in 2019 whether to close Wargrave fire station; keeping it open would cost £168,000. After the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, £400,000 was budgeted for the next two years for fire safety, training and extra staff.

In the next financial year, RBFRS will use £458,000 of its reserves to balance the budget. The following year, £422,000 income or savings must be found. “If additional income cannot be generated, the authority may need to revisit both the Wargrave and Grenfell investment commitments,” an RBFA report noted.

As well as Wargrave, the fire station in Pangbourne will also close soon, but it is uncertain when. The RBFRS spokeswoman said: “Pangbourne fire station will only close once the new community fire station in Theale is opened. We’ve recently received planning permission for a site in Theale and are still in the early stages of the project.”

The new fire station in Theale is planned to cost £6.2 million. Elsewhere, over the next five years, three fire stations will see major redevelopments. Crowthorne will see £1.7 million, Whitley Wood in south Reading will see £2 million, and Caversham Road by Reading train station will see £4.5 million investment.

Analysis by the Fire Brigades Union showed that central government funding for the fire and rescue service will fall by £155 million in the next financial year, a 15 per cent cut from 2016/17. Between 2010 and 2015, funding was cut by 30 per cent.

The RBFRS spokeswoman said: “We deliver an effective response service across Berkshire and will always send the quickest available response to emergency calls. This means calls can be attended by fire engines from a range of stations subject to their availability, location and proximity to a call.”