SENIOR fire chiefs are forging closer links with employers of part-time firefighters as they develop emergency plans to cope with possible repeats of last year's disastrous flooding.

More than 300 retained firefighters were called into action in November as freak weather conditions wreaked havoc in communities across North Yorkshire.

The part-time crews make up nearly half of the brigade's strength, but bosses say they are aware that full-time employers could have their business commitments affected by the long-term absence of staff.

North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service is now looking to develop new partnerships with businesses and could even offer them services to compensate for their continued support. Chief Fire Officer Eric Clark warned that meteorologists were predicting that last year's floods would not be an isolated case and that the brigade could struggle to cope if there were repeats in the future.

Mr Clark said: "For the best part of three weeks, the service was stretched to the limit, with firefighters and support staff giving total commitment to their role as members of an emergency service.

"Many of our firefighters are members of the retained service and for them to offer such dedicated commitment, they in turn rely on the support of their full-time employers.

"Without this valued support, the fire and rescue service in North Yorkshire could not function effectively.

"The most important lesson was that to guarantee a service which can provide 24-hour emergency cover every day of the year, we need to work in close partnership with the employers of our retained firefighters."

The brigade is now planning to run a series of workshops in the summer to thank employers and encou-rage more to allow their staff to become part-time firefighters.

Mr Clark added: "The initial objective is to thank these employers for their continued involvement and to encourage a debate about ways in which we might increase the numbers of employers who allow their staff to be firefighters.