The financial situation: crisis or challenge?
FIRE correspondent David Warner-Howard looks at the difficult decisions facing fire and rescue authorities and offers some suggestions for meeting efficiency targets.
Now we have the figures from the DCLG. 'Fire resource expenditure will reduce by 13 per cent in real terms over the Spending Review period. Central government grants to local authorities will be reduced by 25 per cent over the same period, and to achieve this level of savings, the Fire and Rescue Service will need to modernise, increase efficiency and deliver workforce reform. It will be for individual fire authorities to decide how to make these savings'.
So now fire and rescue authorities (FRAs) will have to face up to some severe cuts to their budgets. How this situation has arisen is not for me to debate in this article; everyone will have their own personal opinions.
In an organisation where over 80 per cent of the budget is spent on salaries - reductions in staffing levels may well become inevitable. We already read about various studies that are underway and some of the options under consideration including:
- Merging of fire authorities
- Closure of retained stations
- Downgrading of wholetime stations to that of retained status
- Closure of wholetime stations
- Reducing staffing levels
- Flexible duty hours
- Alternate staffing
- Senior staff reductions.
- Building replacement programmes to be re-assessed
- The curtailment of some service provisions
- Use of volunteers to promote fire safety awareness.
In my article on 'nationalisation/regionalisation/contracting out' published in the May 2010 edition of FIRE, and written before the new change in government, I explored some ideas for cost saving including the merger of FRAs and, whilst I do not intend to go over that ground again, some of those ideas may now receive greater prominence. I therefore intend to look at some of the other issues that should be addressed.
Closure and/or Merger of Stations
In the past we have seen one new station replace two older stations. This may create some cost savings but must inevitably lead to longer attendance times, particularly with today's traffic congestion. Do such moves always improve service delivery? Would a simple reduction from two two-pump stations to two one-pump stations have been more effective?
Closure of retained stations is often mentioned, but does this really save very much money? A retained station is a very cost effective means of providing fire cover in appropriate areas, so unless there are recruitment difficulties, such moves are unlikely to go far to meet the projected budget cuts.
Closure of wholetime stations or reverting them to retained cover may be necessary, but perhaps changing some of them to day manning might prove to be a more cost effective solution. (See section on flexible manning below)
Minimum Manning Levels
For many years now the Minimum Manning Levels (MML) for standard pumping appliances has been five riders. But why five? In the 1960s-70s London Fire Brigade had their MML as four riders for the pump escapes and three riders for the pumps. Whatever others may say, the system worked and did not appear to produce any dramas during shifts when the MML had to be applied at some stations.
Probably unknown to many of today's firefighters, some 30 years ago a practical study was undertaken at the Fire Service College to evaluate MMLs. This study concluded that four or six riders produced an effective team, whereas five riders was neither effective nor an efficient use of resources.
These findings did not find universal acceptance by some of the 'sponsors' to this evaluation and the report was never published, but it did suggest that five riders should not be considered a 'magical' figure that could not and must not be changed.
A FRA committed to standard size pumping appliances with five riders MML might now be considered inflexible by today's needs and fiscal requirements, so there may well be scope for change. Several FRAs have started operating smaller appliances with reduced crew levels. This makes sense as over 90 per cent of fires are dealt with by one hose-reel jet or less.
This has generated many heated arguments over the years, but why should it? The job 'in hand' is more important than the one that may or may not occur. Is it really necessary to fully staff a wide range of appliances at a wholetime station when alternate staffing could achieve adequate response at a lower cost. After all, if an incident requires the stations 'special' appliances and this leaves the firefighting resources unstaffed, a standby crew can easily be organised as part of the normal mobilising arrangements.
In other European countries, France for example, a typical rural retained station will have the following:
- A paramedic ambulance
- A general firefighting appliance
- A rescue tender
- One or two cross-country water tankers.
- An urban station, equivalent to a UK divisional headquarters, may have:
- Up to four paramedic ambulances
- A general firefighting appliance
- A rescue tender
- Three cross-country water tankers of various capacities
- Turntable ladder
- Hose layer
- Rope rescue van
- Diving unit plus several rescue boats
- Major incident tented accommodation with heating and lighting
- Various special equipment trailers
- Junior firefighters training vehicle.
Flexible Duty Systems
Flexible hours regularly features in articles and news stories, but as there is no easy definition of what such a title means, it is a little difficult to make comment.
Making a simple change to the start and finish times of the established shift pattern of 0900-1800 and 1800-0900 has been proposed by some FRAs, but what that may achieve in terms of efficiency or cost effectiveness is a little difficult to ascertain.
Then there is the change from two pumping appliances fully crewed during the daytime and only one at night. Perhaps this maximises crews for other fire safety and training activities during the daytime and leaves one for night cover, but this argument assumes certain levels of emergency activity. If one examines closely the rate of activity of calls received, there is no pattern to suggest that such a change of availability could be sustained on a universal basis. Different stations will have varied patterns, such as a high rate of incidents in the late afternoon and early evening, whilst others may find exactly the opposite.
Day staffing is a 'flexible' system that has operated successfully for many years. It is a system that has not received much press comment in recent times. It is flexible in that crews are only at the station during daytime periods, but are available from home at night. Such a system can be very cost effective (approximately half that of a shift station) but with the opportunity to have a more effective response, particularly where wholetime firefighters are willing, available, and allowed to undertake additional 'retained' cover when off duty.
I will cite an example of a wholetime shift station with retained support that operated a pump escape, water tender ladder, hydraulic platform pump, rescue tender and light 4WD pump. During the daytime it was only possible to crew one appliance with wholetime crew and one with a retained crew. Following a change to day staffing it was possible to crew all five appliances when necessary.
Building Replacement Programmes
The building programme is likely to be the heaviest casualty of budget cuts. Many imaginative building programmes were being proposed: new eco stations, community fire stations and major refurbishment programmes featured across the country.
If these are financed purely through local authority budgets it is likely that many will have to be shelved. In years past the fire station was a prominent feature of most large towns and the architecture reflected that town's status. Those days are past, but perhaps one thing has been overlooked.
Planning for the future makes changes to the size and areas covered by business and housing. Station locations now need to be more flexible. A traditional building cannot be moved and may be difficult to dispose of. A lighter, more 'temporary' arrangement could be more effective and reduce costs.
Sharing buildings with other emergency, or non-emergency organisations, can reduce costs, whilst renting accommodation is another alternative.
Curtailment of Some Service Provisions
Most FRAs have embarked upon wide-scale publicity campaigns covering safety in the home, domestic smoke detectors, schools education packages, safe driving - the list is endless.
These activities do require resources and cost money. Should we curtail these initiatives or do we contract out to the private or voluntary sector? Public awareness is essential if we are to reduce losses, both in lives and property, and to abandon the good work would be a retrograde step that may rebound on us in the future.
In recent years the role of the FRAs has been expanded to include many traditional non-fire related emergencies - 'special services' that were previously carried out at the discretion of the local FRA. We have all pressed for such activities to be officially recognised and funded, but, in the light of projected massive cuts in expenditure, where does that leave the future of these services? Should they continue to fall within the role of the FRA, or should they be devolved to the private or voluntary sector?
A taboo subject perhaps, but one that should be addressed. Several companies have reached agreements where a salary reduction would ensure job security until circumstances improve. No-one likes this issue, but could job security, albeit at a lower income level, be a preferred option to redundancy?
Another issue worth exploring has to be the salary differential between the lowest paid employee and the highest within the company/organisation. Various eminent persons have written on this subject, even going so far as to suggest that the widest difference should be no more than 200 per cent.
There is no doubt that there will be many meetings during which some agonising decisions will have to be made. Redundancy, either by natural wastage or enforced, is now a real possibility. Contracting out of some services may be inevitable.
Because the Fire and Rescue Service is a nationwide concern, should all these decisions be left to individual FRAs? If it is, we run the risk of some piecemeal decisions. Would a national government-led forum be preferable? It would at least set a standard level across the country.
The UK Fire and Rescue Service is second to none and is something we should all be proud of. It may have to make major changes, some unpleasant, but the quality of delivery should remain foremost in our minds.
Posted: 10.07am, 02.03.11
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