One of the impacts of the recession and declining budgets for the emergency services in the United States has been that those parts of the fire and rescue departments deemed as being non-frontline response, have found their budgets slashed. This means that in many respects, prevention programmes and inspection protocols have been reduced with the consequential loss of staff in these departments. The UK Government's insistence that front-line services be preserved as far as possible has caused many to think about what defines frontline, and what is a back-office function.
While no one would doubt the importance of technical fire safety (and community fire safety/prevention) there is a danger that the example set in the United States could be transferred to the UK. If this does become the case then there is a real danger that the degrading of technical fire safety accelerates, and that departments go down in a spiral of terminal decline. Is this scaremongering? Possibly, but lets examine some of the facts.
Although probably denied by most fire and rescue services in the UK, there has been a steady reduction in the capacity and capability within fire safety departments. With few exceptions, numbers of fire safety inspectors across the service have decreased, along with a reduction in the rank grading of the most senior fire safety officers, reducing the managerial profile and relative importance of the function. Consequently, in many services fire safety has become seen as a relative backwater in relation to response side of the service and latterly to community safety. The success of fire safety and reducing "societal deaths" to virtually zero has resulted in a culture whereby enforcement of legislation has become almost a hobby when compared with the more "interesting" aspects of the service. But this was not always the case.
In the post-war period, there were a large number of incidents involving non-domestic properties which resulted in multiple deaths (societal deaths). Legislation evolved from generic acts such as the Factories Act 1961, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1964, reaching its pinnacle with the introduction of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. Fire and rescue services changed their structure to develop extensive fire prevention departments, focusing initially on hotels and boarding houses then places of work. Inspection regimes became extensive and involved operational firefighters undertaking inspections and rain inspections of commercial and industrial premises with specialist fire safety officers (FSOs) managing the enforcement in more complex premises.
The success of the Fire Precautions Act can be measured in many ways. The number of fire deaths in regulated, non-domestic premises dwindled to a handful. In addition, the introduction of fire precaution measures into many buildings, hitherto not regulated, meant that fire losses were reduced as a result of the introduction of fire alarms, fire resisting doors etc.
The regulatory process was not, however, without its critics. There were concerns expressed by commercial interests and architects about the consistency of enforcement across the UK FRS. Requirements made in respect of a shop made by FSOs in Dorset were not necessarily replicated in Nottinghamshire. There was also criticism of the qualifications and competence of FSOs in carrying out their duties. In addition, the process of achieving a Fire Certificate (the principal method of regulation and compliance with minimal standards) was time-consuming and bureaucratic for both the applicant and the FPO. A major report into the building regulations and the FRS response to consultation ('the Bickerdyke Allen Report', 1991) made sweeping criticisms of the Service and in particular, fire safety officers for lack of understanding of fire safety and the variable application of standards. The report itself was subject to challenge particularly on the grounds of bias, given that the report was commissioned and written by architectural consultants! Nevertheless, some of the mud stuck and in the eyes of many in the service today, has created a negative impression of the service that, like the "Bain Report", that erroneously, still taints of professionalism of FSOs.
Moreover, the role of the operational firefighter in fire safety has also changed significantly over the last 20 years or so. In the 1970s and that most of the 1980s, many low risk inspections of offices shops and factories were carried out by operational staff. As part of the qualified firefighter's role (as defined in the 1971 "Cunningham Report" - the Qualified Fireman's(sic) Job), fire safety was a component of the requirements that ensured a firefighter was paid for the fire safety skills he or she acquired. There was an imperative for firefighters to undertake training in fire safety to obtain the qualified firefighter's rate of pay. But legislation and events conspired to change the professionalism of the firefighter role in fire safety. The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (made under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and amended in 1999) introduced an element of self-regulation for certain categories of premises. This risk assessed approach was felt by many at the time to be too complex for operational firefighters to undertake as part of their role. Gradually, the quantity of inspections undertaken by operational staff nosedived and thus did the incentive to ensure a thorough understanding of fire safety. With the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the audit process associated with self regulated fire risk assessment regime became more problematic and operational staff would no longer be deemed "competent" to undertake this activity.
There are pockets where attempts have been made to reintroduce fire safety inspections by operational staff. These have been hampered by the fact that it would be a number of years since firefighters have been systematically trained to carry out fire safety inspections. Redressing the neglect of this extended period makes it difficult for organisations to change the direction of the ship overnight. However, there is a growing recognition that operational fire safety is an activity that needs to be carried out if no other reason than raising the awareness of firefighters as to the risks within their own community and the risks that they face they personally face as firefighters during incidents within these premises.
Another factor that has had an impact on how inspections are delivered is the way that they are scheduled. By definition any risk-based inspection programme will be more complex than the simple process of time based reinspection that was the mainstay of the Fire Precautions Act. Despite there not being a requirement for reinspection is under the act, all brigades did so with a frequency being set by category of premise. Computerised inspection programmes are based on a wide variety of risk-based parameters and, like most systems relying on complex algorithms can throw up strange results. It is very much a case of "junk in, junk out". Add to this the length of time that an audit can take and the number of inspections/audits a service will undertake is dramatically reduced.
So, is there a collective will across the whole of the Fire and Rescue Service to stop the decline of fire safety and its relative importance in the grand scheme of things? The FSO may have inadvertently become the most powerful, single piece of legislation the FRS has ever had - transcending the powers of both the Fire Precautions Act and the application of the statutory bar. The FSO is a tool that should allow the UK FRS to be the world lead in the enforcement of fire safety by having the greatest effect on reducing fire risk in the non-domestic environment. But apart from in a few areas, there does not appear to be a collective sense of common purpose (outside those in fire safety departments and some honourable exceptions) to promote fire safety effectively to a great extent.
Another complicating factor is the relatively high cost of litigation through the courts which means that very few FRSs can afford to use prosecution as a systematic approach to enforcement. Ultimately, this leads to the law in this area remaining uncertain in the absence of test cases and this uncertainty reduces the appetite of services to risk failure. Therefore, the fear of punishment for a failure to abide by the requirements of this FSO will subside and the legislation will be seen as being toothless.
So can anything be done? Clearly a collective and united approach to supporting and up scaling fire safety departments, together with a more supportive attitude by senior management (and the government) can help stop the decline in numbers and perception of fire safety officers and their role. Already, there are individuals who are promoting the privatisation of fire safety functions of the FRS. The legislation that permits this approach already exists but it would be detrimental for the service to allow fire safety departments to whether a way and become ripe for the picking. Fire safety is one of the three pillars on which the service is built, take away that one pillar and the whole edifice will tumble. You have been warned!
Date posted: 09.02.11