Roy Harold, Acting CFOA Water Rescue Lead, discusses the issues surrounding water rescue within the Fire and Rescue Service, whilst further increases are made to financial cut-backs.

Within the first tranche of £6 billion in cuts to central government departmental budgets, there are several elements which could impinge directly on national flood and water rescue capability. DEFRA has been directed to find efficiencies in flood management, and CLG has identified reductions to New Dimensions funding. It can only be expected that the June emergency budget and October spending review will further increase financial pressure. In the face of these real and anticipated cuts, has the fundamental position in terms of national threat assessment, government and public expectations on emergency services planning and responding to flood emergencies shifted?

CFOA's position, developed during and after the 2007 floods and maintained consistently since then, has been to support Sir Michael Pitt's report findings. In particular to continue to press for implementation of Sir Michael's recommendation 31: "The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned, as necessary, by a statutory duty."

CFOA's concerns where encapsulated in our response to the DEFRA National Flood Emergency Framework consultation draft in February 2009. Two specific issues remain important:

  • "At the moment, great emphasis is placed on LRF structures to assess local risks and make plans accordingly. However, this statutory requirement under the CCA does not in itself establish clarity and certainty in respect of the role and responsibilities of the various agencies. Indeed, if agencies make different decisions about responsibilities in different LRF areas, there is the potential for even greater confusion for the public than exists already."
  • "An area of concern for the FRS is clarity around the responsibility for coordinating specialist flood rescues. Until this issue is resolved, there is considerable scope for ongoing confusion and lack of consistency."

Water rescue is not a statutory duty for fire and rescue services, and our parent government department has strongly resisted representations from stakeholders, including CFOA, to make it so. In the face of severe budget pressure, fire authorities will prioritise on core responsibilities, and there is a real and present potential for non-statutory work to be curtailed.

Individual fire and rescue authorities currently make locally based decisions on resource management, derived from local risk assessments, within their Integrated Risk Management Planning processes. Major wide-area flooding follows river drainage basins, not local government boundaries - and there is considerable risk that locally focused resourcing decisions will not provide a scalable response that can adequately deal with incidents that span many local agency boundaries and areas of responsibility.

Any wide area flooding event will involve structural collapse of flood damaged buildings, contamination of large numbers of people by sewage and chemical laden flood water, the movement of large volumes of water, and a requirement for enhanced command support. The New Dimensions programme has given the country a national capability to respond effectively to all these issues. As originally established, the New Dimensions programme included a further work stream, subsequently dropped, for Water Rescue. This remains the crucial missing link - at the recent EU international FloodEx in the Netherlands, the UK contingent provided key assets in USAR, HVP, Mass Decontamination and Enhanced Command Support that were the envy of our European partners. The fundamental gap is in the actual rescue of casualties from flood zones - we currently have resilient and robust national systems for everything but the actual rescue of those in need.

Whilst water rescue remains outside national resilience systems, quality assurance, planning and coordination remain ad-hoc, loosely organised through a coalition of the willing. In an era of austerity and facing the necessity of focussing on compliance with statutory duties, that willingness to undertake non-statutory work may well evaporate.