TWO South Lakeland villages will be better protected if their fire engines are replaced with smaller vehicles, a council meeting has heard.

From March, Cumbria Fire Service will introduce “rapid response vehicles” to Arnside and Staveley in a six-month pilot project.

But councillors have asked how the “smaller, more agile” vehicles would tackle major blazes and whether it is a step towards station closures.

Fire chiefs have said the risk of serious fires in Arnside and Staveley is extremely “low” and that both areas would be backed by appliances from neighbouring stations in the event of a major incident.

Furthermore, the off-road Toyota Hulux was hailed as a way of providing “more cover” for rural areas because the vehicle needs less crew to turn out.

Stuart Dolan, the operational commander for Barrow and the South Lakes, addressed a meeting of South Lakeland local committee in Kendal on Tuesday.

He said RRVs are slimmer and can access harder-to-reach places including remote roads and farms.

Mr Dolan said: “Cumbria is a remote part of the world. If you took Coniston for example, the surrounding stations could be 15 to 20 minutes away.

“If you had three members of staff at Coniston Fire Station, they could not respond with three because the minimum needed on a fire appliance is four.

“With an RRV, they will be able to put in some operational tactics to prevent escalation of the incident and potentially save lives. For me, this is something we need to look at and something I have been really impressed with.”

Cllr James Airey said he feared it was a step towards station closures.

“We would then have less fire engines to send to major incidents,” said Cllr Airey, the Conservative county councillor for Ulverston West.

Mr Dolan said the RRVs would not be used in isolation.

“If we have a severe road traffic collision on the M6 or a severe building fire in Arnside or Milnthorpe, those RRVs will attend and we will automatically send two or three fire engines along with the RRV,” said Mr Dolan.

Cllr Peter Thornton, the Liberal Democrat councillor for Kendal Strickland and Fell, said he lived in Longsleddale and would be safer with an RRV.

“We need a mixed fleet of fire engines," said Cllr Thornton. "You can’t do it all with one type of engine. This is about providing a more rapid response.”

Cllr Janet Willis, the cabinet member for the fire service, insisted the move was not about budget-cutting but matching resources with risk and demand.

“This is not associated with the budget and nothing has been taken out of the fire service budget this year,” said Cllr Willis, the Liberal Democrat councillor for Low Furness.

Cllr Pete McSweeney, who represents Arnside for the Liberal Democrats, said the people of the village needed to be convinced that the RRV could cope with flooding on the coast road.