cosaltworkwearIt’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 came into force. FIRE correspondant Catherine Levin considers how this major piece of legislation refreshed the expectations of the fire and rescue service that had been set down in 1947 and framed them for a modern age:  

And for fire prevention it was a watershed moment that meant for the first time fire and rescue services were mandated to carry out prevention work; the fire and rescue service was not just to be about response but about protection and prevention in equal measure.

“Facing the Future” published last year confirmed the impact of this change when Sir Ken Knight noted that “in the last ten years, we have seen much greater emphasis on reducing and managing risk through effective fire prevention work”.

English fire statistics bear out the success of prevention work with the latest Fire Statistics Monitor from DCLG indicating that fire and rescue services attended 170,000 (prov.) fire incidents in 2013/14, 64% lower than ten years earlier. Fire fatalities have reduced substantially over the same period, with 275 fire deaths in 2013/14 compared with nearly 500 ten years ago.

This is a great success and deserves celebrating. There are many contributory factors but one of the main changes was a move to get into people’s homes and provide fire safety advice and fit smoke alarms.

Home safety visits
Home fire safety visits are now standard in all fire and rescue services, having been boosted back in 2004 with the 25 million pound grant from the Labour Government. In the 12 months to March 2012, English fire and rescue services made over 700,000 home fire safety visits, still a large programme, but it is 7% less than the previous year and continuing a downward trend from over 800,000 visits in the year to March 2009.

Many, if not all, fire and rescue services have moved from the original blanket approach to home safety visits to a more targeted, risk based approach. For example, Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service revised its approach to home safety visits in 2012 following further reductions in front line and prevention staff as a result of austerity measures.

Merseyside refreshed its approach to prevention with a focus on those at highest risk of fire death or injury. Using data and referral pathways from partners it has been able to target its resources more intelligently to reach the most vulnerable people within its communities. Prevention and the home safety visit remains at the forefront of its work. Accidental dwelling fires have dropped by 783 incidents (-40%) and fire deaths have dropped by 50% since home safety visits started in 2000/01.

In North Wales, there was great concern at the high levels of fire deaths. A task group formed in 2006 looked at the contributing factors of age, disability, living alone, alcohol consumption and a lack of smoke alarm to determine who was dying in fires. Since then they have carried out around 30,000 home safety visits per annum. They are helped by the continued commitment of a direct grant from the Welsh Assembly Government where the three fire and rescue services in Wales receive a share of a £2 million pot to spend on smoke alarms, arson reduction work and youth schemes.

Fire and rescue services often employ partners to carry out home safety visits in the community. Removing the word ‘fire’ from the title widens out the reach of the service and allows fire and rescue services to work on equal terms with partners. In South Wales they have 30+ agreements with local public services and third sector organisations to deliver home safety visits. These visits go beyond a fire risk assessment giving residents a wider review of risks in the home.

For some fire and rescue services there is a deliberate policy to reduce home safety visits and put resources into other work. In Humberside the number of home safety visits has reduced 59% over the two years from 2010/11. DCFO Chris Blacksell says that his organization “has moved on dramatically since 2008” and that whilst “the numbers (of home safety visits) are going down, money is going into other areas.”

Being accepted as an equal partner at the multi-agency safety table has been a major step forward for fire and rescue services. Fire and rescue services had of course been statutory members of CDRPs since 1998 and were by no means inexperienced at the partnership approach. Being statutory members of Local Strategic Partnerships also helped.

DCFO Wayne Bowcock of Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service explains that because fire and rescue services have spent so long building up relationships with partners over the last ten years, it’s a lot easier to be seen as a legitimate partner regardless of statute. This makes membership of Health and Wellbeing Boards, where fire is not a statutory member, more likely, but of course it varies around the country.

Some partnerships are local and formalized through local government structures, such as First Contact in Leicestershire. This is a multi-agency referral group which works to ensure vulnerable adult across the county are receiving appropriate support. With the Leicestershire scheme they have centralised the process so that referrals are handled at a single point, ensuring ‘vulnerable people get all the support available, enabling them to live safely and independently’ .

In Oxfordshire, they have gone one step further. CFO Dave Etheridge writes in the introduction to his service’s Community Risk Management Plan (2013-18) “we have set ourselves the challenge of becoming the most integrated fire and rescue service in the country”. He benefits enormously from being a county service. He talks passionately about the close working relationship his staff have with adult and children’s services where his staff are trained in safeguarding; referrals between these two council departments are part of normal business.

But there is also the potential for over reach. The Williams Report in Wales published in January 2014 provides a fascinating insight into partnership arrangements built up across Welsh public services. It cites one example in South Wales where there are over 40 community safety-related partnerships in several tiers across different boundaries .
South Wales CFO Huw Jakeway says however that “we could never do too much multi-agency partnership work”. The recent White Paper on local government reorganisation in Wales picks up on the lack of synergy in boundaries between different public sector organisations and Welsh Government seeks to address this by aligning boundaries that naturally bring partners together to foster greater collaboration and enhance community safety and well being.

Communicating prevention
The Fire Kills national fire safety campaign provided fire and rescue services with free materials for many years but now no longer has the budget or the policy line to do so. The times of TV adverts featuring Julie Walters are well and truly over.

Now fire and rescue services, free to do as they please to communicate with their local community, can use the wonders of Facebook and Twitter to communicate with those who care enough to ‘like’ them or follow them. But this is preaching to the converted.

London Fire Brigade has a substantial following on both social media platforms: it has targeted campaign messages around understanding who it is who actually uses social media. Marrying this with detailed analysis of consumer data can provide powerful tightly focused messaging that can really make a difference.

Understanding what works with fire prevention messaging is essential and even more so with shrinking budgets. Evaluation is important to understand what outcomes have been achieved and more importantly whether they are the ones that were expected. Changing behaviour, at the heart of all fire prevention work, is hard to measure at the best of times.

Evaluating prevention
Gary Hughes, Programme Manager at the LGA, says that “fire authorities are embracing peer challenge” as it nears the end of its first three year cycle. This LGA/CFOA led approach to looking at fire and rescue services performance provides an opportunity to critically review fire prevention alongside other areas of business. Hughes says he’s not seeing a decline in prevention, indeed he says that “many services have focused strongly on prevention” with services “seeing themselves as a partner” central to a joined up approach to community safety that goes beyond fire.

As a forum for looking at fire prevention, the peer challenge process provides fire and rescue services with the opportunity to reflect on how far they have come in this area. Hughes says that “sector led improvement is working” but without looking at all of the individual peer challenge reports, it’s hard to tell the extent to which this is true for fire prevention.

There’s currently no thematic review of the peer challenges that looks at what is emerging from prevention reviews. Getting that cross cutting review done will help the fire and rescue service reassure itself it’s doing the right thing, pick up on notable practice and give it a boost for the next three year cycle when that starts again in April 2015.

Changing society, changing risk
Understanding societal change is also fundamental to the way in which fire and rescue services have evolved their fire prevention work over the last ten years. And with those changes in society come changes in risk. The concept of risk changing over time is nothing new, but, as ACFO John Roberts from South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service points out “the way we live has changed but we (the fire and rescue service) have got better at changing”.

And that theme comes across a lot during interviews with senior staff in fire and rescue services in England and Wales. The adaptability of the service to deal with changing behaviours, such as using more chargers in the home to feed all those phones and tablet devices. This change and its impact on fire is brought starkly into focus when April in Sheffield five members of the same family died in a house fire where the probable cause was an electrical fault involving a faulty charging device.

It is right then that fire prevention messages on the danger of overloaded sockets are prioritized to recognize the prevalence of chargers in people’s homes, not something that would have been an issue ten years ago. Focusing fire prevention efforts and messages to reflect the changing way people live is an ongoing process and one which the fire and rescue service must be firmly committed to achieve.

The usual suspect in fires and certainly as the main cause of fire deaths remain cigarettes. One third of people die in house fires as a result of careless disposal of cigarettes. This hasn’t changed over the last ten years, although the overall numbers of fire deaths have gone down, the proportion remains stubbornly static. The change at EU level to create a new manufacturing standard for fire safer cigarettes was a huge achievement and the government should congratulate itself on achieving this in recent years. But it is going to take a few more years to really start to see a difference to the fire statistics.

The other guilty culprit is of course the kitchen. Those chip pan fires and the fire safety messages that were once firmly conveyed by Delia Smith in the 1980s may be a thing of the past as people’s cooking habits have changed but the kitchen remains the main location for fires in the home. Nothing has changed since 2004 in terms of its popularity as a location for fire, but what has changed is the way we cook (less of those guilty chip pans), the way we live and the vulnerability of people who live by themselves.
And it is these people, those who are older and living at home who present one of the major challenges to fire prevention. The House of Lords, was so concerned about the aging population that it launched an inquiry which reported in March 2013. “Ready for Ageing” noted that between 2010 and 2030 there is expected to be a 50 per cent increase in people aged 65 and over; and 101 per cent more people over 85.

These are sobering statistics, particularly when combined with data from the 2011 UK Census that showed 2.9 million people over the age of 65 live alone, another risk factor. This has already been recognized by CFOA which published its first national strategy aimed at protecting older people from deaths and injuries caused by fire in the home earlier in December 2011. “Ageing Safely” encouraged fire and rescue services to carefully consider fire safety for older people.

What’s next?
It’s inevitable that a ten year retrospective can only scratch the surface of the wealth of work done by fire and rescue services in the area of fire prevention. What’s interesting is to consider what the next ten years might look like.

Inevitably this involves thinking about money. When Brandon Lewis was Fire Minister, he cautioned at the 2014 LGA Fire Conference that “…fire prevention should not be a soft option when it comes to looking for savings.”

All of the senior fire service staff interviewed for this article talked about the pressures they face because of financial cut backs. They recognize that the good story of reduced numbers of fires, injuries and fire deaths can easily lead to short term decisions to cut back on prevention. The examples of innovation and change highlighted here demonstrate a real commitment to fire prevention despite reduced budgets.

Is there a need for any more legislation relating to fire prevention? Did the 2004 Act go far enough? Some would certainly argue for mandating wider use of sprinklers, buy it’s doubtful that that the ‘s’ word will be uttered in Whitehall.

Eric Pickles statement to the House of Commons on 15 July thanks Sir Ken for his report and it is heartening to see that the Government will “seek to build on Sir Ken’s findings by focusing on fire prevention and protection… [it ] is the front line for the fire sector”. The statement refers to the Government supporting the fire sector but provides no detail of any change from the existing hands off approach currently taken. But then there will be a General Election in May 2015 so that approach could change.

If fire and rescue authorities come under the umbrella of the Police and Crime Commissioners that would have interesting consequences for fire prevention as the notion of community safety becomes something well beyond fire safety with partners. That’s an interesting idea and one that would play well with the concerted trend for partnership working way beyond what the CDRPs were set up to do.

This article has been a celebration. A celebration of ten years of concerted effort by fire and rescue services to raise awareness at a local level of the dangers of fire, help people recognize and mitigate risks by changing their behaviour in their own homes to keep them and their loved ones safe.

The continued reduction in fires, injuries and fatalities at a national level shows that it is working. The key now is to nuance the efforts to get to the really hard to reach and focus those diminishing resources on what really works by evaluating and sharing those successes with each other.

This article originally appeared in the July/August edition of FIRE - to subscribe visit