After more than a decade, the Fire and Rescue Service in England has been participating in the first comprehensive inspection programme since the demise of the old Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Fire Services (HMIFS) and its successors including the Audit Commission.

As with many things, its findings are a mixture of good bad and indifferent, and while endorsing the successes achieved in the intervening 12 years, there are a number of significant findings which indicate that services still have a long way to go if it is to achieve an optimised balance between cost, efficiency and effectiveness – the elusive El Dorado of local government. What this means for the leaders of the Fire and Rescue Service is that the challenges that individual reports identify have to be met in a financial climate which is not going to get easier, despite now seeing the ‘end of austerity’.

Inspection Regimes

A national inspection framework has been in place for the fire and rescue services since the 1947 Fire Services Act and was carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectors. Following the introduction of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, inspections were carried out by the HMI and subsequently, the Audit Commission until 2007, before its overdue demise in 2013.

Criticism of the HMI regime included a perception of a too cosy relationship between services and inspectors and the impression that inspections were being carried out by those who were responsible for the systems and culture prevailing in the FRS at that time. On a more positive note, the Inspectorate (then, a large department within the Home Office) collated a large amount of operational, prevention and protection data which was analysed not only by statisticians but also qualitatively analysed by those who had specialised knowledge and experience within fire protection, community safety and operational response.

Of course, the landscape in which the Fire and Rescue Service now operates has changed significantly in the last 20 years also. According to the HMCIFS (England and Wales) annual report on the English and Welsh FRS in 2000, the number of incidents were on a decline from 1.15 million in 1995 to around 965,000 in 1999. This compares with the 582,551 incidents in England only for the year ending September 2018, and the number of deaths in 1995 were 364 compared with 248 between September 2017 and September 2018. Between 2008 and 2018 there were 29 per cent fewer incidents in total and 43 per cent reduction in fire-related incidents.

In terms of finances, the service budget for England and Wales in 1999/2000 was £1.648 billion. If this budget had increased in line with inflation, today it would be around £2.76 billion, rather than the £2.33 billion identified in the current HMI report. Unsurprisingly, this apparent deficit (16 per cent) perhaps explains why the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) firefighters is now around 32,000 compared with 42,000 in 2004 – a reduction of 24 per cent. In the last five years there has been an overall 17 per cent reduction in staffing.

 

“A massive inject into the training budget for the average FRS could payback a massive dividend in terms of reduced fires, reduced damage and reduced deaths and injuries”

 

Given this background, the Inspectorate find itself in an interesting place where efficiency savings have been achieved concurrently with a massive reduction in activity levels which should indicate that the “doing more with less” mantra has been achieved. Indeed, by many benchmarks the Fire and Rescue Service in England appears to be one of the most highly achieving public sector organisations in the country. Nevertheless, the Service is faced with challenges and the reports highlight these in the first tranche of inspections which were undertaken in 14 FRSs, particularly within the key areas of prevention, protection and response, as well as the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service.

‘Crown Jewel’ of Prevention

The prevention of fires and reducing the impact has been the jewel in the crown for the Fire and Rescue Service for over a decade and the Inspectorate recognises this level of success and particularly the way the Service has moved from a “one size fits all” blanket approach to a more precise way of targeting efforts. The Inspectorate has applauded the use of data including from health sources to support interventions with the most vulnerable in the community, including those who smoke, older people, those with disabilities and those with substance addictions and dependencies.

Inter-agency working with other public sector organisations is effective and an integrated approach to overall wellbeing works well in some areas. Wider areas of prevention including road traffic collisions and water safety are also heavily promoted, often at national level and appear to be successful. One of the key weaknesses, however, is the evaluation of prevention campaigns and so the effectiveness of efforts being made is unquantified and could lead to wasted time and resources.

One of the challenges that need to be faced in the arena of prevention is how to balance the need to deliver large numbers of preventative visits to high risk groups with training a large number of firefighters to carry out more specialised, vulnerable people work. Firefighters felt confident in carrying out generalised safe and well checks but not necessarily talking with vulnerable people from diverse backgrounds, and those with sensitive issues including alcoholism and smoking or those with potential mental health issues. The report recognises that all staff should be able to carry out the majority of visits both confidently and effectively.

There are a number of issues that this creates including developing sufficient capacity within the Service so firefighters receive specialised training to allow them to carry out these more specialised inspections. Additional training has a cost implication, whether that is providing overtime or an operational efficiency knock-on: with many services now having a standard ridership of four firefighters on an appliance; a reduction of even one firefighter may take an appliance “off the run”.

One potential solution to funding this additional training would be a paradigm shift in attitude which recognises that one “big red fire engine” staffed by full time firefighters could provide up to £1.2 million for training in prevention. A massive inject into the training budget for the average size FRS could payback a massive dividend in terms of reduced fires, reduced damage and reduced deaths and injuries. To date, few services, if any, have made such a ground shifting decision because of the political sensitivity of reducing the number of fire engines.

 

“At the moment it is difficult to find any correlation between changes in resourcing and fire losses in the UK because this information it is no longer collected by central government”

 

Regulating Fire Safety

The regulation of fire safety, unsurprisingly has also been identified as a problem area which services need to resolve. Prosecutions for failure to comply with the requirements of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, were for the most part as rare as a hen’s teeth during the 33 years of its existence. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which was the availability of sufficient funding to support prosecutions in many cases as well as a lack of expertise within individual brigades to carry out the necessary legal preparation and checks to develop a successful prosecution culture. As a result of this lack of capability, many prosecution were deferred in favour of giving the alleged offender a second, third chance to comply with the requirements. In addition, the precise nature of the certification process often meant that minor administrative errors ensured enforcement was stopped on technical grounds.

The introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) intended to reduce burden on business, place the onus on the responsible person to manage property safely and with the FRS carrying out an audit and enforcement activity. There does not appear to be a significant increase in the number of prosecutions with the change in legislation and to date there is no hard evidence that safety within non-domestic premises is improving.

Conversely, there is a suspicion on the part of many in the field that there has been a gradual degradation of physical safety measures within buildings which can manifest itself, sometimes catastrophically, when fire occurs. As a reaction to this inability to take on “hard prosecutions” it may be the case that a softer option is taken and the Inspectorate identifies that most services have moved to a culture of engagement with transgressors rather than one of enforcing (ie prosecuting) transgressors. Some services have not carried out a prosecution for over two years. If enforcement and prosecution is not seen as a risk for a business, then it is unsurprising that the Fire and Rescue Service inspection regime is seen as irrelevant for many commercial organisations.

Inadequate Enforcement

Once again, many fire protection departments have pointed out that they are both under resourced, understaffed and have difficulties in recruiting and training technically competent staff. This can be viewed as the chickens coming home to roost. Many services since 2004 have gradually reduced the size (and status) of their fire protection departments by over 50 per cent, transferring some staff to resource community safety departments (although in many cases these two are now both suffering from the same staff loss) and keepng the big red fire engines on the run. Risk-based inspection programmes were in some cases seen as more dependent on staff availability than the risk to public.

The overall fire risk posed in non-domestic buildings is something the changes not within a couple of years but more likely over the course of a couple of decades. The deregulated form of enforcement introduced by the FSO has only been in use for 15 years, but there are indications that it is failing to meet its original ambitions and without fixing may lead to an increase in fires, fire losses and injuries in nondomestic buildings.

Arresting and reversing this degradation of fire protection department staffing is key to changing attitudes to fire safety. Without sufficient staff, enforcement can be ineffective and intermittent and increase societal risk. Many services are now reverting to giving firefighters a fire safety role which gives them responsibility for carrying out fire safety inspections/audits of simple premises and leaving enforcement action and inspection more complex premises to specialist fire safety officers.

 

“This year’s programme of inspections should be viewed not as an end in itself but as a snapshot or benchmark of the English Fire and Rescue Service”

 

Operationally Sound

From an operational perspective most services assessed so far deliver what is determined to be a good response to incidents, but there are concerns. The speed and quality of response has been seen in some cases to have potential for improvement. Inspectors found that despite services setting their own response times, some are still missing those targets. There are a number of reasons why this so and include the fact that traffic density has increased in the 15 years since the abolition of national response times and also reduction and relocation of the number of stations has also played its part. Matching availability to risk both spatially and temporally can prove difficult in many areas and making the balance between the time of maximum incident intensity (daytime) and the greatest lost to life (night time) creates demands on the service which can be difficult to balance.

Learning from operational incidents is a key aspect of improving service delivery and delivering outcomes for the community. While most services carry out operational delivery at large and small-scale incidents, effectiveness with which these debriefs are carried out varies – some services inform all staff of learning outcomes while others are less effective at disseminating learning points. The underused National Operation Learning system has been suggested by the Inspectorate as the way ahead, but this will require another seismic shift in attitude by many services who need to be more willing to share information about incidents where they have made mistakes and which others can learn from.

Service Found Wanting

So the Inspectorate has lifted the rocks under the Fire Service and found, unsurprisingly, to most within the sector, that it is wanting. The report(s) so far show that all services could improve in some areas but the bigger pattern emerging within shows how the “benign neglect” of the FRS by government in the late 20th century (a term first coined by FIRE Magazine) has been allowed to continue in the 21st century.

By and large, services have been allowed to determine what they do and how they do it. Attendance times for incidents have been set by fire and rescue authorities themselves, usually based on what was achievable at the time of the introduction of integrated risk management plans, based on sometimes flawed widespread consultation with a public that is generally unfamiliar with fire risk management terminology (uninterested or even ignorant of what is the actual risk to them from fire). The principles of speed and weight of attack of interventions appear to have taken a backseat to the prevailing reduced budget settlement in determining the number, location and type of appliances the service requires.

It is difficult enough to determine a national level of acceptable risk never mind a local acceptable level, but if you do not know what you will accept, how do you know what services you have are good, bad or indifferent? This lack of understanding of the impact that the changes in emergency cover are having on risk is easy to hide when the national statistics on deaths and incidents are improving, but meaningful research on the impact of changes on national fire losses is absent. At the moment it is difficult to find any correlation between changes in resourcing and fire losses in the UK because this information it is no longer collected by central government (again because of the multiple decimation of the civil service) and the losses at major incidents such as the Ocado fire and Grenfell Tower are not built into a true picture of the cost of fire in this country.

As in most things, attitudes and practice in the Fire and Rescue Service is cyclical. Inspection reports that review performance targets are only set locally, with no real leadership or direction being shown at central government level. It is a fire and rescue structure that is fragmented and cohesive – is there such a beast as the British Fire Service?

 

“Imagination is needed to resolve this ‘rising tide crisis’ in the English Fire and Rescue Service”

 

‘Rising Tide Crisis’

This year’s programme of inspections should be viewed not as an end in itself but as a snapshot or benchmark of the English FRS. It is a low point both financially and organisationally, and like most public sector organisations, straining at the seams, from which it will need to improve in the future. Even where overtime is considered, many services now appear to be utilising this mechanism to the point such that any industrial action which stops its use could seriously affect the service’s ability to respond to operational incidents.

Perhaps it is now time to have a serious discussion on resetting national standards based on a national understanding of risk, acceptable risk and how that risk is truly managed in an integrated way and properly funded. There is a lack of analysis of data to find out why things are happening and not just what is happening: there is an urgent need to dig deeper and identify what is needed to make improvements. The root cause of problems can usually be put down to a combination of two things: lack of money or lack of effective management. Additional money is an impossibility in the current social and political climate. Management is also hamstrung as we only know the symptoms of the problem (as in the Inspectorate reports) but not the disease.

Imagination is needed to resolve this “rising tide crisis” in the English Fire and Rescue Service. The Inspectorate has identified many problems but has left it to others to resolve. The alternative is to start managing and reducing the expectations of individuals and communities about what the fire and rescue services can achieve in the future. It is time to put our collective thinking caps on.