Nathan Travis, NFCC lead for Environment and Sustainability and Chief Fire Officer of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service, looks back over the last decade as to how Climate Change has shaped the UK Fire and Rescue Service – and signposts what the future might hold.
After the (2007) Flood…
When I took up the role of the first CFOA/NFCC lead for environment and sustainability over ten years ago, it was on the back of helping to organise and present at the 2009 CFOA Autumn Conference devoted entirely to the subject of Climate Change, dramatically titled ‘50 Days to Save the World’ (taken from a quote by the then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown).
However, as an Area Manager, at the time, I had personally experienced the devastation to local communities of the wide-area flooding across Gloucestershire two years previously and I felt very strongly that the Service had a significant role to play in supporting and protecting people from the future impacts of such extreme weather events.
To add weight to our discussions, the Pitt Review had also published its findings and recommendations in June 2008, which had focused everyone’s minds on what collective improvements could be made to better deal with those future floods. For the Fire and Rescue Service, Recommendation 39 (‘The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty’) was particularly important – although we know today that this has still yet to be fully implemented across the whole of the UK.
Hereford and Worcester FRS personnel rescue a resident during recent flooding
“The UK Fire and Rescue Service had a key and pressing role (if not yet fully fulfilled) to play in mitigating the impacts of Climate Change on our society”
During the conference debate we enthusiastically discussed the benefits of putting Climate Change at the heart of the UK Fire and Rescue Service, not only in terms of expanding our civil protection capabilities (in order to add more value to the public) but also as champions of environmental sustainability in the way we managed our own organisations.
However, as Mike Tyson is famously quoted as saying, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – and it is fair to say that a lot of heavyweight issues have surfaced over those intervening years that have impacted on the Service’s ability to deliver fully on these ambitions, not least the evaporation of public sector finances, strikes and legal action over pensions, Fire Service reform, devolution and most recently the Manchester Arena attack, Grenfell, Brexit and Covid-19.
Throughout those ten years, however, the issue of Climate Change has never been far from the headlines, whether it has been floods, heatwaves, storm-force winds, tidal surges, ‘The Beast from the East’, weather-driven damage to buildings and key infrastructure or the longer-term recovery challenges of communities right across the UK.
So, at the last LGA Fire Conference in March this year, just before lockdown, I presented again on the subject – this time to fire authority members as well as senior figures from across the sector – and I pointed out what the latest science and research was telling us; that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events were actually increasing. You only have to look at the scale and seriousness of the incidents being regularly tackled by firefighters across the globe, such as the 2020 wildfires in Australia and California, to appreciate that fact.
Closer to home, in 2019, the UK suffered more wildfires (of over 25 hectares burnt area) in the first four months than any other full year on record. With all that in mind, I concluded that the UK Fire and Rescue Service had a key and pressing role (if not yet fully fulfilled) to play in mitigating the impacts of Climate Change on our society.
Rising to the Challenge
That is not to say fire and rescue services have done nothing over the last decade, far from it. Services have reprioritised their limited resources and invested heavily in the appropriate skills and equipment to help tackle extreme weather events not only from a fire and rescue perspective but also from a community resilience, partner agency support and environmental protection perspective. A good example of this is our partnership working with the Environment Agency at both a national level as well as before, during and after any local major incident that has the potential for large scale environmental impacts – such as the Toddbrook Reservoir dam collapse last year.
The author discussed the benefits of putting Climate Change at the heart of UK Fire and Rescue Service and expanding civil protection capabilities at this year’s LGA Fire Conference
“Services have reprioritised their limited resources and invested heavily in the appropriate skills and equipment to help tackle extreme weather events”
And together with significantly enhancing our flood response capabilities over that period (with or without a statutory duty), we have also adapted and fine-tuned how we use and deploy our National Resilience assets (expertly co-ordinated by the NFCC and supported by a dedicated cadre of specialist strategic and tactical advisors), not to mention further developing our operational expertise, together with our command and co-ordination structures to better manage the more frequent, large-scale, long duration events that the UK is now suffering.
At an organisational level too, a number of services have embraced the concept of sustainability in how they manage their organisations. Examples such as ISO 14001 (environmental management) accreditation, use of wind, solar, photo-voltaic, grey water harvesting, ground source heat, estates rationalisation and bio-methane are just some of the approaches aimed at reducing the carbon footprints of our estates. A number of fire authorities have also declared a Climate Emergency and are embedding sustainability thinking throughout their decision making processes.
Similarly, in terms of our fleets, the increasing use of electric/hybrid vehicles, smart monitoring of vehicle/fuel usage and appliance innovation (eg compact appliances) are focussed on the same goal. Some services that cover large city areas are also actively engaged with their local authorities as they implement Clean Air Zones, whilst others are focussing on raising Climate Change awareness within their workforces. In London, they have also embarked on a feasibility project for a ‘zero-emission capable’ fire appliance.
The author says there is an opportunity for the FRS to lead on helping local communities and businesses to prepare, mitigate, respond and recover from extreme weather events
What is Next?
However, as the UK redefines itself in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world, I believe there is a great opportunity for the UK Fire and Rescue Service to play a leading role in providing civil protection and community resilience type services that are focussed on helping local communities and businesses to prepare, mitigate, respond and recover from extreme weather events, predominantly using existing skills and resources in a more flexible and adaptable way.
For example, if you look at the professional advice and support we currently give to families and businesses to help them manage and reduce the risks of fire in their homes or work premises, could something similar be done in respect to business continuity advice in respect to flooding or other significant incidents?
“I believe there is a great opportunity for the UK Fire and Rescue Service to play a leading role in providing civil protection and community resilience type services”
In addition, in periods of heatwave, could firefighters use their trauma care skills to good effect to support the Ambulance Service (and lessen the impact on Accident and Emergency departments), if calls for medical assistance rose significantly due to the increasing vulnerability of people directly affected by the heat.
Furthermore, what about assisting with the transportation and deployment of temporary flood barriers (as well as helping to operate any large scale pumping operations) in partnership with the Environment Agency as communities across the UK are being faced with evermore increasing risks of severe flooding?
Our response to the Covid pandemic has demonstrated that the UK Fire and Rescue Service not only has the adaptive skills and resources to make a significant difference to our communities in the face of unprecedented events (in respect to prevention and mitigation as well as emergency response) but also the responsiveness, flexibility and ingenuity to rapidly scale-up and direct those skills and resources to best deliver successful outcomes, irrespective with what we are being asked to deal with.