Fit for the Future
How fire and rescue services can improve to meet the challenges of the 21st century
How fire and rescue services can improve to meet the challenges of the 21st century
Government sets out its expectations of fire and rescue authorities in England within a National Framework. Although compliance with the Framework is not a statutory obligation, due regard must be taken of its content. One clear expectation is that fire and rescue authorities in England produce an Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) that sets out how they will deploy their resources to best reduce risks in their area. These plans should be driven by high quality data and analysis and be informed through public engagement so that the views of local people about planning proposals can be taken into account. This assesses the potential differential impact of their plans on all parts of the communities they serve. Both local and national risks as they apply to each fire and rescue service should be addressed within each IRMP. All aspects of service deployment and delivery, including prevention, protection and response need to be identified. This includes contributions to, and expectations of, national resilience arrangements.
The current system of governance, which delegates authority for risk management planning locally, has now been in operation for 15 years, since 2004. Much data has been generated in that time about its effectiveness and efficiency. During this period, government emphasis in the fire and rescue service has been on empowering local determination without significant national structure (localism)1. It has also been a time of significant reduction in the funds available to the fire and rescue service (austerity)2.
Identification of the hazards in local communities, assessing the risks and determining where and how fire and rescue resources should be deployed are a part of each fire and rescue authority’s risk management plan. All of the issues in the narrative need to be considered as a part of those plans.
There is a high level of confidence in the fire and rescue service as the primary organisation to carry out rescues. But all fire and rescue services operate in a local context in collaboration with other organisations, agencies and services. So, local agreements and partnerships are key to delivering joined up services that make a real difference to the lives of the people that each fire and rescue authority serves. Key amongst those agreements and partnerships are local resilience forums where local risk profiles and priorities are agreed. In line with the Civil Contingencies Act, as a category 1 responder, fire and rescue services need to play their part in planning to manage these major risks, including those caused by climate change, with other responding partners and reflect arrangements to do this in their deployment and response arrangements.
Included in those major events is the need to be able to respond to incidents that are caused by terrorism. Fire and rescue services have a responsibility as part of a joint emergency response to such incidents. There is a clear need to be prepared to deal with all types of such incidents and tackle risk in this context, as it has in many others. Employees need to be supported by clear, well managed arrangements including their safety and welfare.
Risk management plans do need to take into account the funds that can reasonably be made available to support them. They also need to consider the expectations and priorities within the government’s National Framework. A number of sources of high-level evidence identify that risk management planning approaches could be made more consistent in future.
With support, the quality of risk management planning at a local level could be significantly improved. The NFCC’s Community Risk Programme is aiming to do this with a view to delivering an outcome that will see:
The evidence within risk management plans (see Drivers for change) along with simple common sense, clearly points to the need to increase effort in prevention and protection activities. The incident that does not occur, or that is at least contained and confined, must be the primary goal of the service. This saves public money as well as people’s lives. But many services have carried out local engagement with their communities on this issue and this simply does not reflect the generally held public expectation of the fire and rescue service.
As well as direct views from the public, all authorities also have some form of elected representation in their system of governance that sets strategic direction, whilst also representing the views of local people. The clear message from the public that the service consistently receives is that a high-quality fast response is what people want from their fire and rescue service. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) have further reinforced this in their recent poll that has been conducted alongside the new inspection regime. In setting priorities within fire and rescue services political representatives need to balance the requirement to provide prevention and protection services with continuing provision of an effective response.
The Grenfell Tower fire and the response to the Manchester Arena Bombing, as well as other public inquiries and high-profile cases indicates an extraordinarily high level of public expectation of fire and rescue services in response to incidents of all types, no matter how extreme the circumstances. This level of expectation could easily distract from less publicly visible, but potentially equally important prevention and protection work. The simple fact is that, because of its visibility, the public generally judge the fire and rescue service by its response, not by its effectiveness in prevention and protection.
As a result, there is evidence in many services that resources in prevention and, in particular, regulatory protection work have been disproportionally reduced in an effort to maintain operational response. The effect on prevention and protection work has become evident with not just a flattening in the reduction of the number and impact of fires but actually an upturn. This change is undoubtedly a real concern and it is linked, by HMICFRS, with reductions in this part of the service. It is absolutely clear that the Grenfell Tower fire and subsequent Hackitt report firmly point to a significant need for improvements in the whole building safety system, including the fire and rescue service responsibilities within that system. This is addressed in detail in Improvement objective 5.
Despite this disproportionate reduction of resources in prevention and protection - operational response resources have also been impacted and have been reduced across all fire and rescue services. The Grenfell Tower fire and subsequent Inquiry, alongside other recent major incidents, act as a stark reminder that although fires are less likely, their consequences can be tragically severe. When needed, a highly skilled, timely and effective response needs to be available. The need for sufficient response resources has to be balanced against the need for the response to be able to deal with the most difficult and challenging of circumstances. The service needs to significantly invest in the capability and quality of its response, including developing and assuring the ability of its Employees to deal with the most difficult of circumstances.
So, linking a reduction in the likelihood of fire directly to a reduction in the need for resources is far too simplistic. Both sides of the risk formula (likelihood and consequence) need to be considered to ensure that capacity exists to deal with what might foreseeably occur, when it does. This does not mean that fire and rescue services cannot improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their response capabilities. There is considerable scope for new thinking in deployment models that better meet local needs that can maintain national resilience, as well as supporting prevention, protection, community resilience and safety.
It is consequence management that has been starkly criticised by the part 1 Grenfell Tower Inquiry report. Irrespective of the likelihood of a fire like Grenfell Tower occurring, there is a clear, stated expectation that the fire and rescue service should be able to foresee and respond to it in a flexible, coordinated and effective way. The Inquiry report makes clear that managing the consequences of an incident such as Grenfell Tower has far reaching implications for the culture, policies and resourcing of all fire and rescue services. It also has very wide reaching implications in respect of the recruitment, training and management of fire and rescue service Employees.
Whilst there is a need to look carefully at the deployment of operational response resources based on all aspects of risk, despite the recent upturn there is no doubt that over the last ten-years the volume of calls to fires has reduced. Meanwhile the demand for emergency response in some communities in the UK, in areas other than fire, continues to rise. Firefighters are already highly skilled and experienced in working in emergency situations and are able to respond quickly. With the right additional training and support, the fire and rescue service can actively intervene in these areas to save lives and improve outcomes for people.
One example of this is Emergency Medical Response (EMR). This approach mobilises firefighters in parallel with ambulance services to deal with medical emergencies, such as cardiac arrest or other types of trauma where early intervention can make a huge difference. The responses need to be made in partnership with other local agencies (in this case Health) in order to augment, not replace, other local emergency responses. These responses need to accord with applicable standards in this area of work and rely upon effective integration and partnership with the local health system.
There is currently no consistent national policy guidance as to how fire and rescue services can become involved in this type of work. Schemes have been developed in some parts of the country, most with the voluntary contribution of employees, who want to help people in their communities. The national position in relation to employee terms and conditions has been under discussion with employee and employer representatives wanting to be assured that appropriate competence requirements, professional standards and supporting training will be in place. They also want to safeguard the mental wellbeing of firefighters who may be responding in difficult, traumatic and unfamiliar circumstances.
As well as simply using the expertise of firefighters to manage other risks within their communities, there is a need to shape the allocation of working time to best meet those needs. A number of working patterns are used by fire and rescue services. These vary from wholetime employees, working on shifts to cover 24 hours a day, through to “on-call” employees who work a Retained Duty System (RDS). There are a number of variations between these systems that could be used to match the working time of employees to the risks they respond to.
The freedom to introduce new or different working patterns that support improved productivity already exists. Changes to established working patterns need to be soundly based, however, rooted in evidence and supported by appropriate local discussion with employee representatives. This is a complex process, including within employment law and further guidance and support for change in this area will be needed.
On call firefighters, working the RDS, provide emergency cover to a large geographic area of the country. The long-term reduction in call rates has meant that some employees working the RDS have seen income levels falling off. New ways of using this group of committed staff to broaden their responsibilities and see that they are appropriately rewarded need to be found in order to support recruitment and retention. Joint work between the NFCC, Inclusive Fire Service Group and Home Office has also been driving new initiatives to address recruitment. Feedback from services involved in the NJC trials of wider work indicated improved availability as a consequence of involvement in those trials. This indicates the positive effect of an expansion of the role for RDS employees. However, there is a need to take this much further.
1 Since 2004 the following no longer exist; a) statutory examinations b) the national core progression system of training c) Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, d) Inspection (recently replaced) e) Central Research & Development, in addition the Fire Service College was sold to the private sector in 2013
2 Since 2010 firefighter numbers fell by 23% from around 42,222 to 32,320. As a result, fire safety audits have reduced by 36% since 2010 and the number of specialist fire safety officers have reduced by 28%.