In the light of the publication of Sir Ken Knight’s report on the future of the Fire and Rescue Service Dr Dave Sloggett explores some areas where new innovations may help target resources more effectively:
Sir Ken Knight’s report looking at the current operations of the Fire and Rescue Services offers some important insights into how in such austere times efficiencies can be gained. His conclusions are given greater weight coming from a man with such a wealth of experience in the fire service.
However as is often the case when such important pieces of work are published the mainstream media latches onto one facet of the report and fails to understand the wider implications. Headline figures that suggest nearly £200 million could be saved if a number of relatively simple measures were introduced lack a nuanced understanding of the ways in which the fire and rescue services conduct their operations. Some observations about the wider media portrayal of Sir Ken Knight’s report are therefore important.
Just because the incidences of fires of decreased significantly it is not right to make simple assumptions that the scale of fire fighting resources can similarly be scaled back. The underlying mathematics in this is not linear: a large number of second order effects also must be considered. The debate also needs to address how the fire and rescue services should be so configured as to ensure that it provides a resilient operation that can serve the needs of society.
At a time when the National Risk Register contains such a wide range of potential problems to which the emergency services might have to respond it would be foolhardy in the extreme to imagine that cuts in services will not have a potentially dramatic impact upon the ability to respond to major incidents. Events linked to climate change impacts or terrorist attacks are noteworthy examples.
Specific skill sets
The increasing diversity of chemicals and related toxic waste carried by road also poses problems for the fire and rescue services. Dealing with these and the wider CBRN threat requires specific skills sets. These are not readily compatible with the ideas of increasing the numbers of retained firemen.
The ideas expressed in the report will resonate with some fire and rescue service chief fire officers. There are a number who have already made significant steps towards aligning the service they provide with the needs of the community. Some have conducted in-depth studies of areas at risk and changes in local demographics.
This kind of analysis is important especially if it is done in the context of emerging and planned trends. Changes in the ways services are provided however need to take the longer view. This is an area where short-term thinking will inevitably increase risks for both general public and fire fighters. Arguably this form of analysis could go a lot further. Have fire prevention strategies run their course? Or could more be done? What else might be done to optimise the delivery of the service?
False Alarm Problems
One area cited in the report bears some additional comments. The report shows that the enduring problem of false alarms has barely changed in the last decade. This is an area where some additional innovation could be beneficial. One possibility is to start to make greater use of the increasing bandwidth that is available from local wireless networks to stream pictures from the scene to first responders. This would also deter hoax callers.
As fourth generation technology becomes increasingly accessible in local areas fire and rescue services could benefit from being able to receive not just the traditional 999 call but also real-time images of the location of the fire. Whilst this may have limited use in the majority of fires in some cases it could be crucial. It is a subject that perhaps might benefit from some new innovation.
If images collected by the public as part of the 999 notification were streamed straight into the control rooms senior staff would be able to make decisions about the scale of any response to an incident. Units responding to a request for help could also use the same networks to receive real-time video from the scene of the fire – helping responding units prepare ahead of reaching the scene.
Fewer Fire Stations?
One obvious concern to arise from Sir Ken Knight’s report is the implication that fewer call outs mean reduced number of fire stations. The public will be rightly concerned if it appears some parts of the community are served within a faster period than others. The notion of a ‘post-code’ lottery is already established in the mind sets of the wider public when it comes to the sensitive issue of the health service. Any attempt to close stations could easily be portrayed by the media and those opposed to any changes through a similar lens.
Some fire and rescue services have already started to address this issue opening new fire stations and closing ones that are simply in the wrong location. It has to be said that on occasions this has met with quite vociferous opposition from members of the public. The public it seems like having the fire and rescue services nearby.
One other possible innovation is to introduce the idea of aviation support into the fire and rescue service. Where response times might prove testing, especially at certain difficult times of the day when traffic levels are high, deploying a regional aviation asset to the scene of a fire may provide a solution. Funding for the introduction of such a service, which could be integrated with the police aviation operations, is clearly available in the capital reserves built up in the fire and rescue service.
Carrying six firemen and associated equipment an air support unit could be on scene quickly. In technical rescue scenarios this could prove to be highly beneficial. However in routine responses aviation support is unlikely to ever fully replace the desire to set a pump to the scene. In more complex fire-fighting situations it could however provide an aerial view of the scale of the incident.
Once the assets are deployed from the helicopter it could take off and provide real-time imagery from the scene to the control room and to other units that have been mobilised. This would allow the situation to be assessed with greater clarity. It would also help on those occasions when mutual aid is requested.
An interesting question to ask is just how many fires could be dealt with in this way? A fast initial response delivered by air followed up where required with the mobilisation of ground units. Aviation support is not as some have tried to suggest a luxury that would only be available at certain times of the day. Night-time operations are also entirely feasible as the police aviation operations routinely show.
Weather restrictions can impose some limitations but they are not as frequent as many people believe. Police helicopter operations have amassed years of experience in responding to a range of emergencies and are now an integrated part of the way that policing operations are conducted in the United Kingdom.
These are just a small number of examples of ways in which the fire and rescue services could introduce new methods of working to meet the challenges it now faces. What however is crucial is that the debate that now follows the publication of Sir Ken Knight’s Report is a mature one. It should not be based on simple media driven headlines.
When the resilience of society as a whole is being debated against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding climate change and the increasing threat from terrorism an analytical approach is needed not one that is driven solely by accountants or representatives of Her Majesties Treasury.