An air of doom descended over the recent Local Government Association Fire Conference (see April's FIRE for a full report) as politicians pondered the next round of cuts and principal officers rallied to offer some resistance to the dying of the light. Delegates were left in no uncertain terms that the current Service will become “obsolete”. The crux of the problem – alongside a distinct lack of cash, obviously – is the “victims of our own success” malaise fire services now find themselves in. Whilst accidental dwelling fires, deaths and injuries, and response to operational incidents has dwindled, blue light colleagues have seen incident response spiral upwards.
As Kieran Timmins pointed out, fire stations in England and Wales now respond to an average of 1.3 incidents per day. However you look at this conundrum, the Fire and Rescue Service in its current state is clearly unsustainable. Neither party has done much to raise the spirits. The Conservatives have gone gently with the Knight Review, pointing out the pitfalls and recommending a “do what you will” approach.
Transformational Funding is fine but the fact that it rewards innovation says as much about the gap left by government as it does about the creditable creativity exhibited by the emergency services. Equally, Labour has announced nothing more productive than threatening a single Service, a move so universally unpopular it may one day outweigh the combined pot holes created by failed major projects of the past. Pointing towards regional fire and rescue services does not provide the answer either. Put the structure aside for one moment and consider what it is fire services actually do, or should be doing.
Form follows function after all. On the plus side, the Service has the potential to do everything that the public, and indeed any government, must acknowledge as being a meaningful, beneficial and vital contribution to society. Part of that would be plugging the gap created by health and social inadequacies; a hole that fire personnel are already partially filling through community safety interventions.
A few years ago, the Fire and Rescue Service rewrote the rule book on community fire safety initiatives, hence the marked reduction in operational incidents and deaths and injuries. As other agencies and blue light services struggle to respond effectively, the Service is at hand with an abundance of knowledge and experience, and most pointedly, the access and ability to make a difference in our communities.
There must, however, be a guiding light, a strategic overview of the role fire and rescue services can play and for what purpose; that knock-on effect to the rest of society, replete with significant cost savings. Without it, politicians will only ever talk about capacity, ignoring contingency pleas as individual service cost-saving initiatives are diluted by the overall Fire Service bill.
Yes, there should be room for manoeuvre on local service delivery, but it must be part of an overall vision for the future of the Fire and Rescue Service and the improvement of public safety. The apparatus is there through the Fire Sector Federation, so why not bring all parties together to determine a Fire Service-led future now?