Fire Sector SummitFIRE reports from the annual Fire Sector Summit from Whittlebury Hall, Northamptonshire on October 24, where key fire sector figures joined the BBC’s John Humphries for a Question Time Debate

Although not there in person, Fire Minister Brandon Lewis relayed a video message that would set the scene for the end of conference debate. The Minister drew three key principles from the report that, he said, “would drive policy and hopefully also your future ambitions for the Service”.

He listed those as: “Firstly, the need to put prevention and protection first in all that we do.

“Secondly, deliver efficiency and value for money.

“Thirdly, make local accountability meangingful.

“The whole of the fire sector has a role to play in making these key principles come alive, not least the industry itself. I know that you will identify areas in which you can all play a role. The Knight Review is as much about opening up the window of the Fire and Rescue Service and letting some fresh air in as it is about practical issues that we need to be addressing. Your Summit is vitally important in giving this fresh air some good circulation.”

Chief Officers’ View

Before responding to the three issues raised, Chief Fire Officers Association President Paul Fuller highlighted success in the Service. “Over the last decade, we have fundamentally changed the purpose and impact of the FRS. Fire deaths and injuries have been reduced by 40 per cent and we have made a similar reduction in accidental dwelling fires.” The reductions, he said, were a product of effective IRMPs, better enforcement and better response.

“On the funding issue, it is very, very easy to fall into the maelstrom of everything’s awful. Some of the success of the FRS isn’t necessarily reflected in the press of all of our public sector cousins. Let’s not forget we are still a very, very successful organisation. There is of course less money. We are not protected so we are facing real cuts that means to say, the actual money we get grant funded by and can raise in tax is less than in the past.

“You might think I’m over exaggerating that but the difference is that ring-fenced public services, education, health and overseas development in particular, have seen reduction, but only a reduction in their level of increase, not a reduction overall. They’ve still got more money, just less more money than they thought they were going to have.

“By 2017 we will have taken out across the UK fire and rescue services around £318 million from our funding. That equates to about 8,000 firefighters jobs. Quite simply, we have done that because we get it. We get it that there’s an austerity programme. We get that there’s a problem. But that doesn’t mean to say that we think that cutting is virtuous. It’s a necessity not a virtue. The way in which we’re arbitrarily salami sliced can’t continue and will be to the detriment of services.

“That conversation really has to change. CFOA believe we can help that work better. The relationship between government and local fire and rescue services has to move away from the existing parent and child relationship in which they issue some of the pot based on how much they’ve got and move towards a developed, mature discussion which matches funding availability to the requirement of outputs. That way you wouldn’t have a discussion about how much your grant is but focuses on the outputs our communities require from the Fire and Rescue Service. If they require them, then fund them. You can decide which ones you don’t want and you have difficult decisions to make.”

CFO Fuller moved on to collaboration with emergency services, advocating sharing infrastructure, procurement and administration. “We should be co-responding,” he stressed, “and we should make the citizen the focus of our services. Our organisation should be absolutely focussed on what is best for the citizen in responding as quickly and effectively as possible.

“To that end CFOA is working with ACE, the Association of Chief Executives and ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, to develop a process map of how that collaboration can take place in a properly considered and evidence-based way and not about superficially saying ‘you’ve all got blue lights and you’ve all got uniforms therefore you must be the same so you must join up’. What we want to do is an evidence-based piece of work to identify what works and what doesn’t work.

“I want to see greater collaboration between the whole sector, so we’ve got a far better understanding of how we manage the risk to the built environment. Whether you are a designer, a builder, installer, occupier, owner, enforcer or responder, IRMP ought to become owned by a much wider group of interest rather than just being a service delivery plan.
“This has largely been driven by the issues of the Lakanal House enquiry when a sequence of events and a series of different fingerprints on that issue asked how do we collectively prevent such tragedy in the future?

“It’s also about how we collectively deal with the root causes and key drivers of risk. I’m really pleased with the development of the Fire Sector Federation and CFOA have very much been a part of that [CFO Fuller is Deputy Chair] and I hope it provides the opportunity and the vehicle to increase that understanding and collaboration on how we manage that social risk.”

Fire Brigades Union View

Speaking at the Knight Review workshop, titled ‘an agenda for change or another addition to the bookshelf?’ Fire Brigades Union General Secretary Matt Wrack condemned a preoccupation with focusing on the private sector. “There’s an obsession with bringing into the Fire Service supposed lessons we could learn from the private sector that we should model our Service on, as if there’s some product in the market place.

“We’re providing an essential service to our communities in difficult circumstances when they dial 999 and affect an emergency response to save their lives, to save their home, business or property. For me there’s a debate about values here. What values lie at the heart of the Fire Service? The values that lie at the heart of the FBU’s idea of the Fire Service are values of public service, community and so on.

“In terms of the Ken Knight Review, I think we made our position clear quite early on. We believe it’s made a justification for cuts. We don’t believe it’s a serious assessment of risks faced by communities about how the Fire Service should plan over the next five to ten years of how to deal with those risks.

“What lies behind it is a key political point, it is the whole debate about austerity. For us you shouldn’t plan the future of the Fire Service over the next decade or two decades based upon what was supposed to be temporary blips in the economy. We keep being assured by the Chancellor that we’re on the road to recovery. We may well see some growth in the economy this year. But either way I don’t think that it is a good to base on which to build the long-term structure of emergency service response.

“I also think that there should be a lesson for politicians and leaders in the Fire Service of whether we want to bring market-based thinking to the Service considering the period we are living through. We’ve seen in 2007-2008 the most shocking failure of markets with the collapse of banking in the UK and elsewhere. It is a clear failure of the banking system, ie, a private credit deregulated system. Yet we have people wanting to bring the same sort of thinking into the Service. I think that is bonkers and needs to be exposed.

“We don’t think we should see the Fire Service as if it’s Marks and Spencer or any other supermarket and we don’t think we should run it as if it were a bank. We don’t think it should be based on supply and demand. Clearly, there has to be planning about the trends that are going on. We have to plan for risk and how we take account of risk and clearly there are some trends that are identified by the Review that are downward in terms of fires and other emergencies.

“Although there are downward trends what we think the Fire Service should be doing is planning for the future. What are the new and emerging risks that we need to plan for? There are clear debates going on in the UK and internationally about dealing with major disasters and the impact and failure of water systems. The Fire Service needs to be planning for climate change and terrorist attacks; we flagged up years ago how the Fire Service needs to take account of those new risks that are emerging. We don’t think there is sufficient planning discussions taking place around those issues.”

Mr Wrack’s final point focused on firefighter presence at incidents, stressing the need to agree on a certain number to respond “safely and professionally”, adding “you cannot draw a simplistic link between declining number of fires and therefore the requirement to cut the workforce by the same amount. It is simply illogical.

“That point is being ignored in the Knight Review. But for us, who are protecting firefighters, who are being sent in to attend very hazardous and dangerous incidents by the community, we expect the very best training resource and equipment and procedures available to protect firefighters and allow them to do their job professionally. We think that element is almost entirely absent from Ken Knight’s consideration.”