Another government, another white paper: the Bain Report, 2002 (The Independent review of the Fire Service), the Knight Report (2013) etc and now Reforming our Fire and Rescue Service. There is an element of schadenfreude on the part of observers noting that each of the above reports purports to point out the many failings of a service that no one has noticed before. This time the subtext is building professionalism, boosting performance and strengthening governance. Consultation has begun and will end on July 26 this year (or given the delays in publication, it may be some time later…).

Once again the report recognises the success of the service and its members’ skills but wants to build services with communities at their heart. One is tempted to ask if the Home Office or the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (now sharing responsibility for the FRS and its minister) has looked at where the service has come from and the legacy of the past 20 years or so. A decade where statistics for fires, fire deaths and fire injuries have never been so low and no firefighter deaths since 2013 should be celebrated and the service lauded; most particularly since the number of firefighters have been reduced by almost a third.

Professionalism, Performance and Governance

The report itself makes a number of suggestions and proposals under the three headings of professionalism, performance and governance mentioned above after congratulating itself on the strides made by the various departments (DCLG, MHCLG, Home Office etc) in the last decade. Among these successes is the establishment (or the re-establishment) of the independent inspectorate disbanded following the 2002-2004 strike and replaced by the Audit Commission until they were decommissioned. The new ‘fearless’ (a good use of hyperbole?) inspection regime undertakes rigorous analysis of evidence and provides best in class examples for others to follow.

The Grenfell tragedy is cited as the impetus to improve focus and funding for fire protection, with earlier successive governments having diminished the importance of fire protection, which was eventually emasculated by the commercially friendly self-regulation of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the transfer of staff to community safety or fire prevention roles, with the resultant loss of nearly two decades of fire protection experience.

There is also no comment on the need for the government to learn the lessons of the reduction of the Civil Service begun in the 1980s and the impact this has on legislation and guidance (such as that which allowed the use of ‘limited combustibility’ materials on the outside of high-risk high-rise buildings) and oversight of the building industry.

There are more lessons to be learned from Grenfell Tower. The Building Safety Act has received Royal Assent in April, but despite being published in May, the white paper still refers to the Act as the Building Safety Bill indicating that reducing the number of civil servants in government still further may not be such a good idea after all!

The additional £30 million government provided to support the fire protection function is a drop in the ocean compared with savings made by the loss of 10,000 firefighter posts. Just how much more effective would it have been to use the frequently mentioned ‘latent capacity’ of 10,000 firefighters in fire protection and other key roles filling the gaps that have only just been identified by government, but have been the subject of this magazine and many individuals for over a decade?

The government has been helping services to improve with, among other things, technology, to support communications and control room systems. Hopefully, this will not replicate the technological success that was the ‘Regional Fire Control’ project. At least with only £7 million (yes, £7,000,000) to parcel out between several projects, the loss is likely to be substantially less than the billions of ‘the future of fire controls’ fiasco.

The national negotiating mechanism is seen as ‘sluggish’ and the report suggests that this delayed the ability of the service to respond to community needs. The potential risk of a pandemic has been a staple of the National Risk Register for decades but despite the foreseeability of this hazard, what measures were in place to ramp up containment and vaccination should such an outbreak occur? Clearly nothing that could have been used for a different virus. If there had been such measures, agreements with staff to support emergency measures could have been in place prior to the events and not rely on urgent work arounds to solve the problems – it happens in other countries, why not in ‘world beating Britain’? Given the disastrous early national response to the pandemic, it is hard to see how Covid can be used as an attack on negotiation mechanisms. And, let us not forget, the government could have used the emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to put protective measures in place if it wished to.

History Lessons

From the grander perspective, the report claims the built environment has become more complex and that the nature of the risk facing community has changed and that the FRS has not had the recognition it deserves. The conspiracy theorists among us have pointed out that at large, well reported incidents, police and ambulance services are mentioned but ‘other emergency services’ is the term used even at large incidents where the FRS predominate, such as the Stratford swimming pool chlorine gas escape a few months ago. Is the FRS being airbrushed out of the picture or is it just service paranoia?

The paper reports that chief fire officers have not been able to manage resources flexibly to change shift patterns to meet changing risks. Have the authors not visited stations across the UK in the last 15 years? As a suggestion, visit Merseyside, Manchester, West Midlands, Royal Berkshire, or virtually any other service. It also proposes that services need to plan for times when they need to ‘simultaneously respond to large scale emergencies and a range of smaller incidents’. Have the authors not looked at sections 13 and 16 of the FRSA 2004 – mutual aid? It says that ‘staff need to be trained to respond to incidents safely, adapting to the ever changing nature of malicious risks, such as terrorist incidents’. Watch the evening local news there seems to be a major terrorism exercise taking place at least every week.

The lack of understanding of current and past practices of which they write is notable. Aptly, it was Churchill who provided the assertion that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but learning from the last 20 years that has been clearly missed by these authors.

The paper makes reference in the people section to the NJC straying beyond its scope and into operational matters and that to improve professionalism section, a College of Fire and Rescue could be created tasked with research (such as the Fire Research and Development Group FRDG – closed after 2002), data (FRDG again), leadership (where do we start?), ethics (service core values, Aspire leadership etc), and clear expectations for the FRS (integrated risk management planning, Fire and Rescue Services Act, fire and rescue national frameworks etc). So far so good, but it has already been expressed by many, not just the representative bodies, that the real purpose of the paper is to wrest control of the FRS from a wider local democratic base and place the service in the hands of 44 individuals who would oversee a chief fire officer with operational independence to manage the service responsively and flexibly.

It is not often that two literary quotes are used in a FIRE article (calm down Ed – I know you do!) but the one that springs to mind is Samuel Johnson’s response to a friend’s manuscript: “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Anyone reading the white paper would be hard pushed to better this response.

The Bain Report was criticised for being extracted from previous reports but it had the merit of having been thought through before publication. Despite having the gestation period longer than a pregnant elephant, this white paper still feels like a hackneyed, last minute, work in progress essay pulled together overnight without any reflection on what is being written and without sense of context or history.

‘5/10, must try harder’ is a reasonable mark and hopefully a final proposal will be crafted following engagement with a range of stakeholders and experts from the service.