FIRE Correspondent Julian Pinhey summarises the main issues within the government efficiencies report:
Well, it was expected, just not on Friday. Waking up to emails and texts about Sir Ken Knight’s departing report into the Fire and Rescue Service in England, the news seemed to be awash with reports of recommendations to privatise the Service, plans to establish a single English Fire Service and the potential for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of savings.
After a deep breath and a read of the report, the main thing that stood out for this reporter was why FIRE Magazine had not been given any acknowledgment in the report. The vast majority of his points have been discussed in the magazine over the last 12 months. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
For those who have not read the report, this article will summarise and critique the main issues within Sir Ken Knight’s report, Facing the Future: Findings from the review of efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England.
The most surprising thing about the report was its release. There was no fanfare, no press conference booked, in fact, most people were not aware it was even being released on Friday yet it was the main news story on the BBC website; Sir Ken’s report had either made some truly innovative recommendations or it was a slow news day.
The main headlines from the BBC report , were the need for the Service to be ‘transformed’ to be more effective and efficient, highlighting the well known fact that in the last 40 years fires had dropped massively but the numbers of firefighters had not changed. Sir Ken was also quoted as saying that having 46 independent fire services was not sensible. Matt Wrack, on behalf of the FBU, naturally said that it was ‘a fig leaf for slashing our Fire and Rescue Service to bits’.
The most surprising thing about all of this was how unsurprising the report was − but maybe CLG, and Sir Ken, knew that and that is why the report was released without pre-planned fanfare. The report will not shock the Service and it will likely place the report on the shelf alongside all the others such as Rising to the Challenge and the Fire Futures review.
Facing the Future
Sir Ken hits upon an important point in the foreword. There is a great deal written and spoken about how community fire safety undertaken by firefighters has led to the recent sizeable reduction in fires. There is obviously evidence – much of it anecdotal if the truth be told – to support this, but something the Service does less to highlight, is something Sir Ken does stresses.
‘There is little doubt prevention is better than cure. But the reduction in fire risk is not solely due to the actions of fire and rescue authorities – societal changes, technological improvements, the increase in smoke alarm ownership, safety campaigns and government regulation for both buildings and furniture have played a huge part’.
The report tries to see if there is a link between expenditure and sparsity, industrial profile, deprivation or family group and the graphs show little correlation. There does not even seem to be a relationship between expenditure and reduction in fires in the individual services and it is clear, according to the report, that those who have seen the biggest reductions did not have the best opportunity to reduce – in that they did not begin the period with the largest numbers of fires.
More importantly, the report does not look at either the risk faced by individual fire authorities, or the performance of each, which would be of more interest than whether they are more rural, or sparser. The Fire and Rescue Service is focused on risk, yet the risk of an area is not mentioned. This may be because it would be a mammoth task to look into that aspect of an authority’s area, but it should have been noted.
Are Whole-time Firefighters an 'At Risk Group'?
The second chapter, focusing on the resources of the Service, pulls fewer punches. It begins by making a suggesting that both officers and members are more concerned with keeping firefighters and fire stations than ‘outcomes’, such as reducing fires or improving the service for the public. One would imagine that this is very true – and it is based on the fact that the public see a fire station and link it directly with how safe they believe they are. Whether this is true or not, those democratically elected by the public will always have that on their minds. One would hope that senior officers understand the political world in which they work.
Sir Ken goes on to argue the need for more ‘on-call’ firefighters as a cheap and more effective resource for fire authorities, with the possibility of a £123 million saving per year if authorities increased their on-call staff by just ten per cent. Using the evidence from Europe that the norm is much more of a voluntary or on-call service, he argues that he is not convinced that the population is too transient or works too far from home to provide the service in England. That will surely be a main talking point among the many chief fire officers who are finding it harder and harder to maintain their current rates of retained firefighters.
An interesting point that Sir Ken mentions later in the chapter relates to the need for more data sharing among authorities that cross different unitary authorities to pin point those most at risk. This, in the view of this author, is key for the future of the Service. There are too many fire deaths where the deceased are known to at least one other public or voluntary sector body as being at risk. The Service should be at the forefront of combining all the data available to highlight those who are at risk − many of these people will not just be at risk from one issue, but at risk from many.
To Merge or Not to Merge: That is the Question
The third chapter looks at collaboration in the Service. Not too much is said that the service doesn’t already know – more collaboration, whether the merging of individual authorities or different departments - would drive efficiencies. However, this is not happening because there is a lack of political appetite for it. Is it really surprising? Some members and officers like representing their local fire service and know they not wield similar power in a larger organisation.
Sir Ken points to procurement as being a case where collaboration is seriously lacking, highlighting that a number of authorities started from scratch on basically the same procurement project rather than working together. This is a concern that will keep repeating itself – some individual authorities would prefer personal items rather than a generic one shared by others.
What’s Driving This Work?
Sir Ken goes on to look at what is driving the efficiencies and makes the point that the current spending review will push out much of the ‘slack’ in the system. This does not seem to be the most coherent way for the Service to run – rather than actually looking at how the Service should work and then looking at cost – just cut back to meet the level of funding you receive. He believes the funding formula is fair and but importantly highlights the substantial amount of resources held by authorities. I am sure many readers could think of ways to use that money better – what about partnerships with local housing providers to retro-fit sprinklers in buildings for at risk groups?
Sir Ken ends by noting that a conversation needs to take place about engaging the public on risk and resources, as well as pointedly remarking that fire and rescue authority members have ultimate responsibility for the service in the area and not chief fire officers. However, the need for better professional leadership is needed – implying that in the time since Bain, CFOA has not been able to meet the challenge of providing clear professional leadership for the Service.
Sir Ken concludes by asking the Government to get involved – to assist fire and rescue authorities with mergers and look to take a lead in changing the Service as it is ‘unlikely to be achieved through local action alone’.
A single English Fire and Rescue Service is mentioned, which is only right seeing as Scotland is on that journey, but without much support for the scheme. He does however see the innovation in the recent proposal for Police and Crime Commissioners to take on the responsibility of the Fire and Rescue Service. That would certainly be interesting, though it would be necessary to see how the Commissioners themselves work out first.
Overall, the report does not really say anything new. The areas are well known – and in fact they were well known when Professor Sir George Bain wrote his Independent Review of the Fire Service in 2002. It seems, other than a reduction in fires and incidents, nothing much has changed to meet the issues that Professor Sir George Bain first emphasised.
Will this report drive the government to forcibly merged fire and rescue services? If the launch of it is anything to go by – it is doubtful. But we wait with bated breath for the government’s response. Unfortunately for Sir Ken, one can see this report being quietly put on the shelf alongside the other reports over the last ten years, noted in any future review but not heralding the changes that the Service evidently needs.