The eve of destruction: Climate change and the Fire and Rescue Service
Senior Correspondent Tony Prosser reports on the climate change challenges facing the service including those from emerging technologies
One of the problems when discussing climate change and energy impact on the world is that it is difficult to gain a sense of perspective in terms of scale and impact. As a small part of a world of seven billion people, it is easy to despair and feel powerless when considering the environmentally catastrophic events that have an impact far beyond comprehension of individuals, yet probably have been caused by us all in our own small ways.
It is for this reason that our collective hypocrisy is so prevalent: we all bemoan the high temperatures, flooding, the seasonal wildfire events yet most of us, particularly in the more developed countries, still happily choose to travel the globe. Despite the protestations of the climate change deniers, science seems uniformly in agreement about the underlying principle that the temperature of the planet is increasing and is likely to have a major impact on the way we all live our lives no matter where in the world we live.
The Ministry of Defence, in their publications on global strategic trends (Global Strategic Trends: The Future Starts Today, 6th Edn) indicate that as a risk, disruption and cost of disruption caused by global climate change, is not only going to have a hugely significant impact but is almost certain to happen. The dependence on oil and gas will diminish and by 2030, petrol and diesel powered vehicles will no longer be sold in the UK and many other countries. But it will take many years, if not decades (or centuries), to reverse the temperature increase of the last 100 or so years, and even this assumption presupposes that a total international cessation of the worse sources of pollution will be agreed.
Direct Impacts of Global Warming
Irrespective of the causes of global warming, some of the visceral consequences are already with us and have been reported on for several decades as the global awareness of major occurrences of flooding and major wildfires has increased. The spectacular wildfires in Canada and the USA (and those reported to a lesser extent in Russia and other “closed” countries – invisible consequences of climate change) make for great TV in the urban sitting room, but fires of this scale are becoming much more frequent in the UK.
The response to the changing face of “wildland” and rural-urban interface fires has followed the models used in other countries across the world: airborne fire attack using helicopters, an increasing reliance on off-road response vehicles (even in urban contexts), ultra-high-pressure (UHP) fog equipment, high expansion foam and wet water systems have become common place.
The introduction of tactical advisors for wildland firefighting has helped raise the awareness of all firefighters of the issues of this evolving risk. Where residential and industrial premises abut onto rural, high fire fuel loaded land such as forestry, crops or other forms of natural wildland, account will have to be taken of the preventative and protective measures that need to be taken to ensure that the buildings themselves are not exposed to undue risk from fire. This could mean mandatory spatial separation between urban areas or even individual premises to prevent direct or indirect fire spread from burning trees or crops. While spread from grass or field fire to buildings has occurred frequently in the UK, as global temperatures rise these type of incidents are likely to increase if not taken into account by governments, planners and builders.
New building types proliferate, including those designed to blend into the natural environment and incorporating environmentally sustainable and friendly material including (obviously) wood, but also the innovative use of straw, animal hair and fur in structural members. The use of grass and plants on “green” roofs which tend to be more combustible than more traditional materials may need to be prohibited. Properties in more rural areas may be even more at risk because not only is the likelihood of fires breaking out greater, but the firefighting resources available in these areas may be scarce or require a longer travel time to attend these incidents.
Looking at fundamental principles of the provision of fire and emergency cover, the speed of response to an incident or the weight of response are the two strategies available for the suppression function. In the more remote environments both strategies are hard to achieve in a cost-efficient way due to scarcity of resources. Attendance times are extended as is the time taken to assemble an appropriate weight of attack. In this case perhaps the only realistic approach is to accept the residual risk associated with remote rural environments and for owners of properties to insure against losses caused by fires in remote locations. Insurance actuaries will adjust premiums against the elevated risk and the owners pay for living in a rural idyll. Of course, global warming predictions of more such wildland fires will mean that more areas will be at risk and more will face hikes in home insurance. This type of insurance method is already widely used for many risk types and is factored into the algorithms that determine insurance costs.
Insurance Weighting Model
In the USA fire insurance is often based on the Insurance Services Office (ISO) grading of an area. It uses four criteria in its scoring model: the fire department (50 per cent weighting); water supply (40 per cent); emergency communications system (ten per cent); and, community risk reduction (5.5 per cent). The weighting of the fire department is high because insurance companies see this as the key factor in determining the extent of losses at fires. Generally speaking, the formula results in a calculated grading of a fire department from one (the best) to ten (the worst) and insurance premiums adjusted accordingly. Interestingly, some housebuilders use the gradings as a tool to encourage sales of new houses and many fire departments advertise their gradings as a matter of civic pride. A fire department’s poor grading can even lead to public and commercial pressure to build new fire stations and improving the water supply in towns or cities.
How would such a commercial grading system in the UK help determine the provision of fire and rescue resources for communities (now there is a thought!). In many areas of the UK, as well as the availability of response resources (particularly in many areas crewed by on-call firefighters) there are also now major challenges in the provision of water in large areas: incidents now often require the mobilising of water carriers, additional pumps or high volume pumping units to deal with fires which, not many years ago, would have been dealt with comfortably by a pre-determined attendance of two or three pumps setting into a hydrant.
In case it is thought that this problem occurs only in the rural extremes, some services are now sending water carriers etc to city and town centres, such are the challenges of obtaining adequate supplies from what is essentially a Victorian water supply system in many areas.
Global warming will exacerbate this problem and lead to changes in vehicle types and deployment strategies for services, replicating those of many Mediterranean countries where water carriers become the second vehicle at many, if not all stations. Seasonal crewing of more rural stations may be required, including enhancing staff numbers in the “wildfire season” – again a model used across the globe.
Flooding, whether caused by weather or heightened sea levels, is expected to increase in frequency and impact and may have an effect on 20 per cent of the UK landmass and include permanent reclamation of land by the sea in some coastal areas. The role of the FRS in flooding has been adopted as a statutory role in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (with funding of £1.8 million to replace flooding and water rescue equipment by the Welsh Government) but not in England as yet.
Emergency rescue, providing humanitarian support and helping with community recovery, has become a major demand on services during flooding events. Erratic weather patterns mean that floods can occur during all seasons (unlike wildfires), but under-provision of appropriate rescue boats and other equipment has meant that firefighters revert to the concept of “operational discretion” (officially or unreported) to undertake rescue and emergency work on a not infrequently occurring basis. This “foreseeable risk” will become more prevalent as global warming increases. Additional provision of equipment and the redefining of duties of the FRS will be required given that water borne incidents represent the greatest threat of an on-duty firefighter death in the UK at the moment.
On June 19 this year The Times reported that climate scientists are now calling for heatwaves to be given “names” in the same way that storms have been designated since 2015. In many ways, heatwaves have been a hidden climate killer and between 1,000 and 3,000 people die every year as a result of excessive heat. According to the UK Health Security Agency (the organisation formally known as Public Health England), in 2021 there were 1,634 excess deaths from heat: with 90 per cent of victims being 65 years old or over. In 2020, the equivalent numbers were 2,556 with 2,244 over 65.
Supporting communities during heatwaves could be something that could be considered as a role that the FRS can undertake, working in partnership with other agencies in much the same fashion as existed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The naming of heatwaves may seem an exercise in fatuousness, but it is believed by many health communications experts that using names does mean that awareness will be raised during heatwave conditions. This supports emergency planners and responders to implement pre-arranged measures, and is a means of addressing this increasingly common weather event with relatives and neighbours becoming aware of the risks to help vulnerable individuals and groups.
FRS Supporting Role
If the warming of the planet does continue then additional matters may require the support of the FRS in a supporting role: the loss of water resources in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world may lead to mass migration, placing both emergency and support requirements on local authorities; again a role which may be appropriate for the FRS. The reduction in usable land in the UK can also drive an internal migration which may add to population changes and demands on service in some cities and towns.
But there are also glimmers of improvements that means the dependence of the UK and indeed the world on fossil fuels may no longer be total. Renewable energies including wind power, solar biomass and hydroelectric sources accounted for 43 per cent of the UK’s domestic power generation in 2020 and by 2026, with nuclear power added, 56 per cent of UK power demand will be provided, with wind powered energy provided doubling in that period. Despite the negative images promoted by sensationalised accounts of nuclear incidents, many are now convinced that this is likely to be a key source of “clean energy” for the foreseeable future until fusion power can do more than make a warm cup of coffee.
Current thinking is that future plants will not be like the existing megastructures but rather smaller plants of the type like those being developed by Rolls-Royce and others. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) use standardised parts, manufactured and assembled off site then installed in small units, equivalent in size to one-and-a-half football pitches, compared with the many hundreds of hectares currently required for conventional nuclear power stations. One of the selling points of the SMRs is that they could also be used to power carbon dioxide capture technologies – a double win for the planet. Needless to say, with this new technology comes new risks and the need for new approaches to managing incidents in such plants. Smaller units could reduce the already very low risk and impact of a serious nuclear incidents, making it possible to deal with events more quickly and effectively than in a larger facility. New technology will, by necessity, likely require a different approach to emergencies and with the experience of the past and innovative operational design and thinking the new nuclear power solutions will go some way to reduce and, hopefully, reverse the trend for warming the planet.
Other technologies such as wind power and hydroelectric systems are relatively old school now and even solar power is not the very latest thinking but rather a useful and reliable source of clean energy. The next step change in harnessing clean energy will be the widespread provision of “grid scale” battery facilities which are directly connected to the power network, providing up to 2 Gigawatts (GW) of flexible capacity allowing energy companies to integrate renewable energies and support mass scale electric vehicle charging.
One of the first facilities in the UK is the Energy Superhub in Cowley, Oxford which has a 50MW/ 50 MWh lithium-ion system by Pivot Power, which also includes an innovative urban decarbonisation project. Creating and connecting more plants will lead to a national network of such units. As with all new technology, there has been a degree of apprehension about safety and risks associated with the “next big thing”.
Fire Risks from Emerging Technologies
The introduction of lithium-ion batteries units in New York led to the New York Fire Department (NYFD) initiating a project to evaluate the risks and develop strategies to deal with any potential incidents. Paul Rogers, a NYFD Lieutenant of 25 years’ experience, led a group to assess risk and support services manage lithium-ion battery risks. While lithium-ion battery fires are rare, the consequences can be serious and of high risk to responders. The risk of explosions from the batteries, particularly post fire, led to services in one instance standing by for several days post-extinction in a battery storage facility attached to a solar farm, to make sure the incident was safe to leave.
As an example of misinformation related to the problems with these batteries, Rogers mentioned an academic paper which ‘compared the explosion risk of battery storage to weapons of mass destruction’. This is very similar to some of the equally damaging assertions made by those resistant to technological change in the past (from opponents to rail travel claiming people travelling above 30 miles per hour would not be able to breath, to the more outlandish criticisms of nuclear power). Correcting misunderstandings of this nature and ensuring the public and responders alike have a true understanding of the risks and solutions to potential problems with new technology is seen as one of the key factors in safety managing these new and emerging technologies.
More obliquely, climate change is likely to become an increasing drain on financial resources now and in the future as measures to reduce and reverse the impact of global warming become more complex and costly. Set against the potential increase in demands upon the FRS is the current financial arrangement which means that increases in operational and community support roles may stretch services beyond their breaking points. Reduced staffing levels, fewer response vehicles and stations, all mentioned previously in FIRE, limit the capacity to expand the role of the service in many areas.
The climate change challenges facing the UK in the future are going to be enormous and the country needs an effective and efficient FRS rather than an endangered organisation being whittled down year by year.
Write a Comment