FIRE engines in Wickford are available to be called out less than 50per cent of the time.

Engines need a certain number of firefighters to be available for them to be safely sent out to an emergency.

New figures revealed engines at fully-staffed fire stations are almost always available, but those in smaller towns often do not have enough people available to crew the engine.

Fire commissioner Roger Hirst said: “Availability for whole time pumps up at 97per cent is pretty good.

“On-call pump availability at 76per cent is not.

“That is very clearly an area for improvement.”

Seven stations – Leaden Roding, Brentwood, Ingatestone, Wickford, Tollesbury, Canvey and Ongar - continue to have average availability levels below 50per cent.

Rick Hylton, deputy chief fire officer, said: “Our on-call service does a fantastic job.

“We could not deliver the service we do in Essex without our on-call staff.

“They give us a tremendous amount of commitment and they are much valued, but is quite clear nationally that the on-call model is struggling.

“We have difficulties in retaining staff and that is having a knock effect to our response model.”

Wickford councillor Don Morris said: “They need to do more to bring that figure up.

“The opportunity is there to become firefighters.

“You need to be physically fit, but the training is all there.

“This has happened before and lots of people stepped forward as part of the recruitment campaign.

“We’re lucky that other fire stations are nearby to help out.

Fellow councillor Eunice Brockman said: “It’s totally unacceptable.

“The fact that Wickford has under 50per cent of cover is not good enough and really quite worrying.

“It’s really concerning for residents.

“I’ll certainly be looking into this and speaking to the relevant parties on how this has been allowed to happen.

A spokesman for the fire service said: “Last month we recruited a dedicated team of four on-call liaison officers, who will support our on-call firefighters and the fantastic work they do locally within their communities – as well as helping us to recruit more at stations including Canvey Island and Wickford.

“If you’re over 18, fit and live or work within five minutes of those stations then visit”