DORSET & Wilts Fire and rescue service saw 15,651 shifts lost to sickness in just one year, a Freedom of Information request has shown.

But the figures may not be as serious as they first appear because of the way this type of leave is calculated.

A spokesman for the merged service said: "The average number of employees (full time equivalent) for 2018/19 was 1,328.43, which would equate to an average of 11.78 days/shifts lost to sickness per member of staff.

"Broken down, long term sickness equates to 8.31 days/shifts lost per member of staff and short term sickness equates to 3.47 days/shifts lost per member of staff – but these are usually separate periods of sickness over the course of the year.

"However, it isn’t as simple as relating the figures to a headcount because we have so many part time staff and so many of our staff are on-call firefighters. The latter really does have an effect on the figures; for example, an on-call firefighter can be ill and signed off for seven days (and our system shows them as having had seven days off), but this doesn’t actually mean they missed seven days of work, because of the complexities of their contract and how they provide cover to us."

In response to the FOI request, which covered the period of August 2018- 2019 the service said:

"Of the 15,651 days/shifts lost to sickness, 11,042 of these were down to long term sickness, which we measure as 28 days or more. With long term sickness, the person is always receiving external treatment so their fitness to return to work is not determined by us.

"Also, in many cases, this can relate to recovery from surgery and operational staff will often need a longer period of time off sick (for rehabilitation and recovery) as the physical requirements of their work are so much more than for other people.

"The physical demands of being an operational firefighter do have to be kept in mind against all figures – office workers could still work with a sprained ankle or a very heavy cold, but a firefighter could not."

The service said that a key figure was that 41 per cent of their staff had no sickness at all in the period covered by the figures.

It also said it benchmarked against other fire services and that: "Our figures are not exceptional in that context."

A further FOI request has revealed that Dorset & Wilts Fire and rescue service have lost a fifth of their staff in just ten years.

The combined services have seen 258 firefighters' jobs axed, according to figures analysed by the Fire Brigades Union.

And despite former chancellor Philip Hammond declaring an 'end to austerity' last year, the service lost another three per cent of its staff in 2018, with a further 37 job losses.