At the time of writing, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services (HMI) is consulting on possible proposals for the 2023/24 inspection programme for fire and rescue services and they have asked the question: ‘Should we inspect the steps FRSs are taking to address climate change?’

Regardless of the outcome of HMI’s consultation, fire and rescue services are not immune to the moral imperative and seemingly growing sense of urgency regarding the need to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

Like many publicly accountable organisations, Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue’s wider body, Oxfordshire County Council, has set itself challenging climate change targets by aiming to achieve net zero by 2030. Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is keen to play a lead role in this strategic challenge and recognised that, as the biggest user of fleet, and with some of the poorest performing buildings in the county council, it needed to be proactive in identifying opportunities to reduce its carbon footprint.

Electric Infrastructure

From a fleet perspective, the service has been well supported by the county council in the installation of grant-funded electric car infrastructure meaning that ten of the 25 fire stations now have electric car charging facilities (26 charging point overall). This has enabled the service to bring in 15 electric vehicles including the two recent vans for countywide hydrant inspection and maintenance. The service is also hoping to be able to move as many of its flexible duty officers into electric vehicles over the coming year.

However, it is the service’s fire engines that were highlighted as posing a particular barrier to reducing fleet carbon emissions. This was mainly due to the rural nature of the county which raised doubts about the capability of current battery technology alone to meet current requirements for flexibility, emergency response and the water pumping requirements.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service sought expertise via the county council’s innovation hub (or iHub) and, in partnership with engineering firm ULEMCo, were successful in securing grant funding to explore the role that hydrogen could play in delivering a zero-emission fire engine. Through analysis of the service’s fire engine design and use, this research concluded that a combination of hydrogen fuel cells and battery energy storage will be suitable for a zero-emission fire engine in the UK without compromising the vehicle in other ways.

The intention is now to secure funding to build a prototype fire engine as well as place-shaping the development of a local hydrogen economy to underpin hydrogen fleet operators.

The service recognises that a mixture of technologies is required whilst longer-term solutions such as hydrogen-powered fire engines are developed and hopefully brought into service. It is hoped that hydrotreated vegetable oil, or HVO, can play a role as a replacement for traditional diesel in those fire appliances and light vehicles that are able to use it. The service is currently exploring the opportunity and has estimated that it can potentially reduce its fleet CO2 emissions by around 65 per cent. However, with an arguably higher risk of fuel disruption given the current climate, this must be balanced by the need to also maintain resilience which is a primary factor of the current review.

Pandemic Influence

Covid-19 has also created the environment in which we can consider what the service and wider county council could do in terms of how we might adapt ways of working and the impact this has on our building estate as well as on our vehicles. The county council was well prepared for the pandemic in terms of technology for remote working and many of our employees continue to work in an agile way. This is likely to continue and be enabled through a more efficient and effective building portfolio, enabling us to invest in greener technologies such as solar panels and air-source heating, particularly in those buildings that are geospatially driven such as fire stations.

In the wider fire and rescue sector, the NFCC has long recognised the leadership role it has in supporting services to drive improvements in relation to the environment, climate change and sustainability. At the time of writing, the NFCC is developing a tool kit to facilitate evidence, analysis, good practice, and case studies to be shared across the sector. It is also looking to share tools on how the Fire and Rescue Service is mitigating and adapting its activities and approaches to reduce the impact of climate change.