David Wright discusses the possibility of merging, major structural changes, and challenges that the Fire and Rescue Service faces under the new government's proposals of social change and public service cuts
Now that the sword of Damocles has fallen, in a manner of speaking, we see that the time for new ideas is finally arrived. And the new ideas have suddenly arrived by the spadeful. Just like the boxes of Jack and Pandora, once the lid is off, it is difficult to put all the things back where they belong. Some ideas are plausible, some are eminently sensible and there are others which may be flights of fancy forming a wish list of what a utopian world of emergency cover would look like according to the Fire and Rescue Service.
Whether or not the deficit reduction policy is driven more by ideology than financial necessity, the fact of the matter is that at least for the next 12 months (yes, it could be that short a period according to the bookies!) the UK is on the road that leads to a shrinkage of the public sector by a significant amount. The 25 per cent reduction in revenue support grant for the fire and rescue services will inevitably mean a reduction in staffing levels, efficiency savings on an unprecedented scale and the generation of ideas to deliver "more with less". Depending on your perspective, a four-year deficit reduction plan is only a medium-term measure. For a strategic perspective, a longer term view is necessary. The recession and consequential deficit reduction plan may force upon the service a radical, long-term change in organisation and delivery of services which may, if some have their way, completely reorganise the way protective services are structured in the UK.
"There is nothing new under the sun" according to one old sage. Many of the new ideas have their basis in the past or in other parts of the world. One of the ideas currently being promoted involves the creation of an umbrella organisation for protective agencies in the community. Although the thinking is in an embryonic stage, the overall idea is to bring together all the protective agencies in a geographical area creating a single organisation, under the control of local politicians in a distinct legal entity. The organisations that would come under control of the new agency could include the Fire and Rescue Service, Ambulance Service, Trading Standards, Emergency Planning, Environmental Services, Casualty Reduction and Building Control. It is also envisaged that the Police Service would also come within its responsibility. There are a number of potential structures for this organisation including a two armed organisation with the police service from one arm and other services in a separate part of the organisation. The chief constable would be responsible for police obviously, but the remainder of the structure would be the responsibility of the Chief Fire and Rescue Officer (CFRO). The CFRO could be responsible for the four areas. Response (including both fire and ambulance services), legislative arm, prevention services and coordination function, possibly under the control of the emergency planner.
The idea is that this structure replicates to a certain degree that which is already in existence in the United States, Canada and Australia. The primary model is that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in the USA. The governance structure within the USA differs greatly from that in the UK. A Mayoral system which permits an almost autonomous decision-making within towns and cities places defined responsibilities on that position in the case of emergency. Hence, the preliminary response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, hurricane Katrina, and a host of wildfires in the mid and western states were coordinated initially through the mayor's office (via the OEM), then a state-wide response and finally a federal response through FEMA. The French have a similar system whereby the local mayor is initially the person in charge of the overall response to the disaster, coordinating police, fire and ambulance services as well as the council response. As this disaster extends beyond the curtilage of a town or city, the Department (equivalent to a county area) and, finally, the state take control of the management of the disaster.
The logic behind this model is sound and its application provides a natural extension from an isolated event to a national emergency in a logical, progressive manner. It is also fair to say that despite the logic, there have been instances where things have not run smoothly. For example, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was less than perfect resulting in the resignation of the head of FEMA, and more importantly, a catastrophic failure on the part of federal agencies to mobilise and respond to what was a "rising tide" event (with plenty of warning to address issues such as evacuation of communities and preparation for emergency actions). Equally, it should be noted that lessons have been learnt from these previous events, and the likelihood of a repeat becomes more removed with experience. These lessons have been learnt in the UK (for example the peremptory mobilisation to the East Coast surge in the last decade).
So, if we can agree that the theory would make sense, at least in terms of the emergency response elements, then there are still many practicalities including opposition by other parties to making such an all-embracing agency a reality. The idea of a combined FRS and ambulance service is not new. Birmingham and other areas had its own fire and ambulance service until reorganisation in 1974. In the early 1990s, the Chief and Asst Chief Fire Officers Association (CACFOA) mooted the idea that the fire service should take over the emergency arm of the ambulance service. A furore erupted with accusations of "empire building" and a takeover mentality being made by those members of the ambulance service and the wider National Health Service management. A hasty withdrawal was made by the fire service and the idea shelved. Some will argue that the time the combination of the two services was more pertinent in the 1990s than it is today. At that time, the paramedic service was in its infancy and a distinct identity for emergency response service combining fire and ambulance could have been evolved. The separation of the emergency ambulance service from the passenger transport elements and the wider NHS can now, be achieved only with enormous effort. From ambulance service point of view, one will be forced to ask why move from an organisation that is politically venerated and ring fenced from budget reductions to one that has no such protection? In addition, there is clearly a huge resistance on the part of the NHS (and the ambulance service particularly) to what they view as a predatory takeover of the service. The Fire and Rescue Service leadership has so far failed to make a compelling and coherent case that would convince ambulance leadership of an overwhelming benefit for merger.
There are other problems with developing a community protection agency in the UK. One suggestion is that the agency covers an area based upon county structure. This would involve a massive deconstruction and reconstruction of existing and new governance structures which would absorb a great deal of administrators' energy. In addition, it could recreate barriers between organisations that have only recently been overcome. Close relationships in the prevention field between social, health and education services and the FRS have taken many years to develop. A new agency with a prevention-based remit would almost have to start the relationship building again.
With a move towards greater localism and more emphasis on a mayoral-based local government structure, it may be unlikely that the proposed model will be workable in the near future. Operational independence of the police service, the FRS and others (what role would the NHS have when dealing with ambulance related issues?) would mean that a great deal of energy would be absorbed coordinating a local county based response service.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is often used as a mantra by those naturally resistant to change. The integrated emergency management systems already well developed in the UK appear to work well at the moment. Even without the regional resilience Forum, the national response levels: 1 (initial response), 2 (local area response), 3 (regional response) and 4 (national response); are well understood as are Gold, Silver and Bronze terminology across a wide range of primary and secondary responders. While not perfect, the response to the London bombings, the Litvinenko poisoning, Buncefield and wide area flooding incidents have been reasonably well-managed in the circumstances. Would an overall integrated agency add value which was to be cost beneficial?
While a recession does provide an opportunity of sorts to critically evaluate the services we provide and eliminate waste, it should not be seen as an opportunity to promote self preservation at the expense of damaging relationships between organisations. Moves which are proposed with the best of intentions and include the needs of the community can be seen as predatory in the eyes of those who have not proposed such moves. While the long-term efficacy of the proposition of a single integrated agency is theoretically sound, the political realities and human nature mitigate against it being acceptable to both individuals and organisations. The public declaration of a fire service-led change has been seen by some to be premature and naive. If in good time such a move becomes reality, it will only be after a long period of gestation involving all parties coming together and agreeing an effective way forward. For the time being, major structural changes in the organisation of the blue light services and peripheral community protection services, are unlikely to be appetising for a government already committed to and embroiled in extensive social change and public service shrinkage.