Jonesborough Juggernaut 1FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin reports from the Local Government Network conference where the think tank launched its report Fire Works - a Collaborative Way Forward for the Fire and Rescue Service:

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In a packed meeting room at the London Fire Brigade’s headquarters in Southwark, the New Local Government Network (NLGN) revealed its report into the future of the Fire and Rescue Service. Commissioned by the Chief Fire Officers Association, the NLGN sets out its recommendations for change that build on those coming out of the Knight Review. The NLGN is an independent think tank that seeks to transform public services, revitalise local political leadership and empower local communities.

This report is part of a programme of research and policy projects to assist policy makers and practitioners. Simon Parker, the Director of the NLGN, chaired the panel convened for the launch on July 16 and was joined by Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Councillor Jeremy Hilton from the LGA, ACO Geoff Harris from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, CFO Peter Dartford, CFOA President, and Dr Claire Mansfield, author of the report. Introducing the event, CFO Dartford said that current times for the Fire and Rescue Service were very challenging, with increasing demands for finding increasing efficiencies.

The first priority, he argued, is to help and improve the safety of communities. Against this backdrop, CFO Dartford said that an independent view of the future of the Fire and Rescue Service was needed. He said he was pleased with the outcomes and that they provided food for thought for much needed debate within the Fire and Rescue Service.

Fire Works
Fire Works: a Collaborative Way Forward for the Fire and Rescue Service is a timely addition to the discussion about how the Fire and Rescue Service should respond to the world of austerity. With the announcement made by the Chancellor in recent weeks that the public sector will need to come up with plans of how to reduce spending by a further 25 and 40 per cent respectively, the report’s publication has proved rather timely. The report takes a pragmatic approach by focusing on a small number of areas where changes could be made to bring about greater efficiencies.

Starting with prevention, moving on to look at blue light collaboration and then focusing on organisational change. It is interspersed with substantial case studies from Greater Manchester, Hampshire and Devon and Somerset fire and rescue services. Hitherto, the term ‘prevention’ has been a catch all for the work carried out by fire and rescue services to advise, educate and change the behaviours of those at risk of fire. Mostly focused around the home, prevention has largely been synonymous with home fire safety visits. In this report, the prevention arena is redefined in terms of ‘community intervention’.

The term is carefully chosen to reflect the position of fire and rescue services as an integral part of local public services. Going one step further, the report refers many times to the development of community wellbeing, which neatly ties the Fire and Rescue Service with local health services and chimes with the current drive from CFOA to see fire and rescue services working hand in hand with healthcare providers (to read our full Health & Wellbeing focus subscribe to September’s FIRE Magazine here).

Dr Mansfield says: “This makes them uniquely placed to expand their remit into preventative health and social care work as well as being involved in protecting vulnerable communities.” Recognising the range of work that fire and rescue services do in the wider health and social care arena, the report recommends that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (s.6 on prevention) be re-written ‘to enshrine the vision of fire and rescue services as organisations of community intervention’. It is an interesting idea but one that is unlikely to go anywhere in terms of changes to primary legislation. However, there may be potential, should there be the political will, to get this in through the back door when the statutory National Framework is next updated.

“The Fire and Rescue Service is a victim of its own success” was the view of Jim Fitzpatrick MP. It is ten years since Mr Fitzpatrick was Fire Minister but he remains involved through his role with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue. He spoke about the substantial increase in demand for ambulance services against the reduction in fires and demands on the Fire and Rescue Service.

Dr Mansfield writes in the chapter of her report focusing on collaborating with other blue light services: ‘Many of those that were interviewed felt that there were ‘obvious opportunities’ for the fire and rescue service throughout England to not only improve efficiencies, but crucially to improve outcomes by working more closely with the other emergency services’. The report recommends greater collaboration with emergency services, more co-responding and exploring further opportunities for collaboration with the police on non-crime issues.

Blue Light Collaboration
Co-responding with the Ambulance Service is clearly preferred in the report; with discussion about greater collaboration with the police focused around the usual arguments about the ‘brand’ of the Fire and Rescue Service being quite different to the police. Councillor Jeremy Hilton, Chair of the LGA Fire and Rescue Services Management Committee, added to this when he argued that the transfer of Fire and Rescue Service responsibilities to Police and Crime Commissioners “would damage the brand of the Fire and Rescue Service.”

During the Q&A section of the event launch there was some push back against this argument. Representatives from the Police Service contended that both the “safe and secure opportunity” around the CDRP legislation and the safeguarding agenda provided opportunities for police services to work even closer with fire and rescue services.

Supportive of blue light collaboration, Jim Fitzpatrick argued that “we’ve got to be seen as joined up emergency services” going on to say “we’re in the same business of protecting society”. He cited examples of this from the London Fire Brigade LIFE scheme for young people and the placement of defibrillators on fire appliances. Councillor Hilton reminded the audience that the government’s £75 million Transformation Fund had heavily focused on collaborative working and that many of the projects now in progress demonstrate blue light collaboration.

The third section of the report is all about efficiencies. This is nothing new to the Fire and Rescue Service. The size and shape of the Fire and Rescue Service does not escape scrutiny in this report. ‘Throughout our research, there was a consensus in the fire and rescue service community that there are too many services and that savings could be made through mergers while outcomes also improved’. The report does not offer any thoughts about achieving efficiencies through reductions in the number of fire and rescue services.

Indeed, the report says: ‘It is vitally important that current local fire and rescue services are maintained on a similar scale to the present day’. The reason given for this is that for fire and rescue services to take on a more integral community role, ‘it will be important that a strong local perspective and local autonomy is maintained’.

Offering an alternative view, Jim Fitzpatrick concluded: “The bottom line is that the political will (to merge) is not there. This is because fire authority councillors want to keep their jobs and stand in front of fire engines”. Implicit in the arguments about structure is an assumption about latent capacity which could be used to expand the community role recommended in this report.

During the Q&A session, elected councillors Jeremy Hilton and Darryl Pulk agreed that latent capacity exists and needs to be harnessed. Peter Dartford challenged the view arguing that time is used for training and community work to reduce vulnerabilities. The report offers an alternative approach to achieving efficiencies through shared back office functions, procurement and training. Any mention of a shared approach to procurement in the Fire and Rescue Service brings to mind Firebuy and Councillor Hilton was quick to remind the audience about the demise of this approach to streamline and centralise procurement.

Dr Mansfield recommends “exploring the option of a national organisation that would create efficiencies of scale by bringing together services such as back office functions of local fire and rescue services and also act as a knowledge hub, linking fire and rescue services together”. That national organisation could be a mutual enterprise, jointly owned by fire and rescue services. The only way a national body would succeed would be where there was widespread support amongst the Fire and Rescue Service.

The days of HMFSI and FiReControl are long past. There was no appetite from this audience for this recommendation; indeed Councillor Hilton said: “I don’t think it’s necessary to set up a national body”. He went on to advise that any county fire and rescue service, like his in Gloucestershire, would not have a back office to surrender as the county council provides this function.

Final Thoughts on Fire Works
It is interesting to see a think tank like the New Local Government tackle the issues facing the Fire and Rescue Service. There are some commonalities with the rest of local government but so much is unique to the Fire and Rescue Service; its recent history and experience have to be understood on a deeper level to provide solutions that help it address current challenges. The Chief Fire Officers Association was right to commission this report but it does not take the debate much further forward.

There is nothing about the impact of devolution, which was starkly laid out by ACO Geoff Harris who reminded the audience that one of the consequences of the government’s Northern Powerhouse policy as it applies to Manchester is that the fire and rescue authority will be abolished in 2017. The functions of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority will transfer to the Elected Mayor.

This policy along with the alarming size of the budget reductions that the Chancellor asked Whitehall departments to plan for should be at the forefront of discussions about the future of the fire and rescue service. The Chief Fire Officers Association will have plenty to think about when they meet at their AGM and autumn conference.