garystrong1Cumbria County Councillor Gary Strong, Cabinet member for Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service, looks at the opportunity for merging services

A line often trotted out when the going gets tough is that the Chinese word for 'crisis' is composed of elements that mean 'danger' and 'opportunity.' It's far from true but its underlying message is, and while October's government spending review offered little to get excited about it does grant us an opportunity to create more streamlined services.

Bob Neill MP outlined the challenging financial settlement for fire and rescue authorities and set out a number of areas where he believed significant savings could be made.

One of those included a suggestion that services should consider sharing chief fire officers and other senior managers. So when Northumberland's Chief Fire Officer retired in November it presented an immediate chance to look at how Cumbria and Northumberland could work together in the future. We might be the first in England to publicly announce this but I'm sure we won't be the last.

Combining Rural Counties

The two counties share much more than just a border, we're two of the most rural areas of the country with similar risk profiles of large, sparsely populated rural areas coupled with smaller urban centres with some small but significant deprived areas.

We also share a similar mix of full-time, day crewing and retained duty systems with broadly similar operating practices and equipment as well as comparative results from the Audit Commission, Direction of Travel Assessment and Comprehensive Performance Assessment.

The feasibility study which both county councils have now agreed to will investigate every area of the service where collaboration could prove beneficial - from a shared chief officer through to the possibility of a full combination - to identify efficiencies that can be delivered, what services can be improved, and to enhance resilience across both counties. We expect to have the study completed by the end of March.

Of course the study and any potential future moves cannot and will not detract from the excellent work that continues in both services and it must be stressed that it is not envisaged at this stage that the savings will affect frontline services - this is an opportunity to show how we can work in partnership at a senior management level.

At present across the UK we do things 58 times over: 58 chief fire officers, 58 sets of senior management, and 58 sets of support staff from communications to personnel and IT to name just a few - these alone are reasons to think about how we can work smarter.

If the feasibility study recommends the two authorities should proceed to whatever the next step is, this would be just one of many examples of fire authorities sharing resources and collaborating and although this would go further than most both services see themselves continuing to work regionally with their partners in the North East and North West.

Above all we have to remember that this is just the first step and once we have the feasibility study we will have a much clearer idea of the efficiencies that could be delivered across the two services while improving their delivery.


Date posted: 26.01.11