PET owners whose cats get stuck up trees will be forced to pay £400 an hour for help from firefighters under new budget-cutting measures.

Callers using the non-emergency line in the West Midlands will have to cover their own costs from Monday, as part of a scheme to slash spending.

Households battling floods will also be ordered to pay for any call-out, in a bid to save up to £30million and cut the amount of time firefighters spend on situations that are not life-threatening.

West Midlands Fire Service said that while it would always respond to people in ‘potential danger’, anyone requesting non-emergency assistance would pay £412.80 per hour for every specialist vehicle called out. Watch Commander Wesley Williams said: ‘We must ensure genuine emergencies, which require the use of our specialist resources, receive a priority response.

People call 999 and ask us to attend incidents when there is clearly no emergency, risk of danger, or threat to life; and we are not explicitly funded to do this.’ Although all police and fire services have a statutory duty to respond to fires, road accidents and other emergencies, the branch’s scheme could spark a major shift in common practice across the country. This will come as welcome news to those who have watched in bemusement as emergency services have spent huge sums of taxpayers’ money on assisting in minor dramas for free. Last month, there was incredulity when 25 firemen were scrambled to rescue a seagull trapped in a pond with its feet caught in a plastic bag. The firemen were then barred from going into the 3ft-deep water because it was judged a health and safety risk, and crews from five fire engines stood beside the pond in South London for up to an hour, before a member of the public waded in and rescued the bird. In another major operation just weeks ago, a cat trapped at the foot of a 30ft bridge over the River Wear was saved by two fire engines, a specialist water unit and a senior fire officer.

The West Midlands service’s payment scheme follows changes made to the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 in February that gave fire brigades more abilities to charge for services. A spokesman from the authority said it had charged for call-outs including animal rescues for some time but that new guidelines ‘broadened’ what could be assigned a fee.

West Midlands’ chief fire officer Vij Randeniya said: ‘We have made no secret of the financial difficulties we are currently facing and, with potential funding cuts of up to £30m, it is clear we have to prioritise our resources. ‘I am committed to ensuring the people of the West Midlands receive the best possible service from us, and I hope they will support us by only using 999 for genuine emergencies.’                  –DM