SCOTLAND’s national fire service is facing leadership questions over a huge drop in senior officers who can provide strategic oversight of major incidents.

The number of “gold” commanders, who can set the tactical priorities in an emergency, has plummeted from 27 to just three since 2013.

Chris McGlone, a senior figure in the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland, said:

"The drop in the number of principal officers qualified to fulfil the role of gold commander, is of concern to the FBU and we have raised this previously.

“Should a major incident occur which requires a gold level of incident support, we do not believe the present numbers provide sufficient resilience in order to guarantee SFRS can meet their operational cover for this critical role.”

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), the largest in the UK, was formed in 2013 after the merger of eight regional entities.

Supporters of the restructuring, which roughly mirrored changes in the police service, believed the policy would reap efficiency savings and promote more collaborative working.

However, service insiders are of the view that one of the downsides has been a loss of skills at the top of the organisation.

It is understood "gold" level comes into play in multi-service operations such as major incidents, large-scale civil disorder and wide area flooding.

Gold commanders will typically be located away from the scene, establish a framework for the overall management of an incident, and determine strategic objectives.

They can also create a framework within which silver commanders will work, such as allowing a fire to burn itself out.

The highly-qualified officers can also ensure clear lines of communication, put in place long-term resourcing and expertise for command resilience, and plan for beyond the immediate response phase.

In 2012/13, the last year before the merger, there were 27 gold commanders across the eight regional services, including chief officers and their deputies.

It fell to seven twelve months later and remained at this level until January 2016, eventually falling to three. According to the same figures, the number of senior officers who have been assessed against gold level assessment is 12.

McGlone said the sharp fall could impact on Scotland’s response to Brexit: “It is quite possible that some of the concerns over the consequences of a no-deal Brexit have the potential to place the emergency services under pressure and, as such, expose the lack of adequate cover for this role within the Fire Service. It is imperative the SFRS review this level of cover and provision as a matter of urgency."

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said: “Organisations like the fire brigade desperately need experience and expertise at the top. It’s worrying to see such a reduction, and hopefully the fire service is able to set out a plan to ensure there is sufficient knowledge within senior ranks going forward.

“It’s also important the SNP Government provides enough support and resource to allow this to happen.”

Lewis Ramsay, SFRS assistant chief officer, said: “The formation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in 2013 allowed the Service to remove duplication of senior officer posts and provide access to all functions across Scotland’s communities.

“An early deliverable was a consolidated Incident Command System which created clear arrangements to support the nationally agreed operational structures.

“As a result, the SFRS has sufficient commanders at all levels and can call on experienced officers to respond and support not only fire operations but also the requirements of multi-agency responses.

“We continually monitor our officers and, through structure and training, ensure that resilience is maintained to allow suitable leadership at operational incidents.”

The row comes after the Herald on Sunday revealed last year that the service’s second-most senior figure had been passed over for the top job in SFRS.

Iain Bushell, who led the response to the fire at Glasgow School of Art, lost out in the race to become the new £190,000-a-year chief officer.

At the time, SFRS declined to comment on internal speculation that Bushell, who is from Canada, was poised to quit the force.

However, it later emerged he had quit, weeks before the new chief officer at the SFRS was scheduled to start work.