THE head of the fire service has defended the decision to spend an additional £98,657 on rejigging the leadership team to mitigate the new chief's lack of operational experience.

Earlier this year, questions were raised over the appointment of Jo Turton, a former council chief executive, to the role of chief fire officer of the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service (ECFRS) because she had no experience in the field.

Now, at a recent meeting of the Essex Police, Fire and Crime panel, the decision to hire a deputy chief fire officer with operational experience has been cemented despite initially deciding it was not necessary.

In the meeting Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Roger Hirst described it as a "material change in the previous decision by the fire authority" and added: "The original decision was not to have a deputy chief fire officer but to have a director of corporate services, a director of innovation, risk and development and a director of operations.

"But what we're doing here is deciding to extend that by one.

"We tried it with a tighter team and I think to make sure we continue to deliver the high level of public safety at the same time as completing the change programme which was started by the Lucas report as well as driving the collaboration between the emergency services, we need the capacity at the highest level."

This was a problem that was pointed out by the Essex Fire Brigade Union when Ms Turton was appointed.

FBU spokesman Alan Chinn-Shaw told the Echo he was hoping for someone who was previously a chief fire officer with "valuable experience of protecting the front line from cuts" would be appointed.

Jo Turton, a former council chief executive of Lancashire County Council, is the first chief fire officer to be appointed directly into this post without fire service experience.

Defending the decision after the meeting, Mr Hirst said: "These new roles largely replace existing positions and create a service leadership team ready to tackle the cultural and organisational change required to make the service as good as it can be.

“The new team will cost £98,657 more and will be funded out of the existing budget.

"Our priority was to find a leader capable of delivering the cultural change as further operational experience could be brought into the senior team. When I appointed Jo Turton I said publicly we would most likely be looking for a Deputy Chief Fire Officer to complement her leadership skills and knowledge with their technical expertise and operational experience. That is what we are now doing.”

Jo Turton said: "Like other fire services, we face significant financial challenges and it is more vital than ever that we look at how we can effectively use our resources.

"The investment into our Service Leadership Team – including a Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Director of Operations, Director of Corporate Services and a Director of Innovation, Risk and Development - will deliver the capacity, expertise and flexibility needed to ensure we are able to respond to future challenges and opportunities.

“In providing these four positions within our Service, to replace the existing structure of three, I am confident that we are prepared for the future."