Procrastination and prevarication is a trait endemic in the UK fire sector. The time taken between identifying a problem, acknowledging it as a problem, then debating what to do about the problem can take years, if not decades.

In case you think this is a generalism, just consider how long it has taken to get reports out about fires where firefighters have been killed or seriously injured, losing any momentum that may help ensure lessons are both learned and associated improvements are implemented. One can only guess at the numbers of firefighters who may not have suffered injuries or worse if reports such as that of the Balmoral Bar fire in 2009 (which concluded that heat exhaustion had been a factor in the tragedy) had not taken six years to be published.

This lag between serious events and the report does create a problem for the service in that even the most serious events can lose their apparent significance with time.

Missed Opportunities

The intervention by Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service at a residential care home in Cheshunt in 2017, which led to the rescue of 33 elderly residents (mostly immobile and many over 100-years-old) using improvisation and operational discretion in the correct context has only now (January 2022) been properly reported due to inquests and other legal issues. Similarly, the outcome of interventions at the Grenfell Tower fire where ad hoc rescues were undertaken (again with operational discretion on many occasions) in unique circumstances resulted in the saving of more than 60 residents. Undoubtedly, the lessons from Grenfell may take another several years before they will be applied at high-rise incidents elsewhere.

The incidents at Cheshunt and Grenfell are not unique and every day there are lessons being identified but remain in a silo marked “not for sharing” at crew, watch, station, district or service level. Gap analysis is a tool that is applied to many facets of the Fire and Rescue Service and is usually undertaken within a service, but sometimes the focal point can be too close to home and while improvements can be made locally, it does not mean others learn.

Operational Capability

The problem facing the service is that it is currently in a sweet spot: significant incidents are on the decline, fire fatalities and injuries are relatively low and nationally appear acceptable. Firefighter injury rates are also improving. Firefighter injuries declined between 2003 and 2015 ‘partly reflecting the reduced number of incidents attended as well as other factors’ (HMSO, 2020). Incident-related injuries decreased by more than two-thirds while training and routine activities dropped by around a half. ‘Since 2014-15 the number of injuries has plateaued at around 2,600 injuries per year then decreasing slightly to 2,466 injuries in 2019-20’. (Fire and Rescue Statistics, October 2020).

The latest figures, 2020-2021, indicate there were 631 injuries at fires with 89 RIDDOR reportable injuries and four major injuries. For other incident types, the numbers were 310, 40 and six respectively. Training accounted for the largest number of injuries, which was 713, 121, and 25 respectively, as well as a single fatality.

If the reduction in incidents is a direct outcome of fewer incidents, it is equally possible that identifying gaps in operational capability is also more challenging as there are fewer opportunities to examine what is happening at incidents. The question that does and probably will always remain unquantified is the effectiveness of the operational firefighter in resolving the emergency and mitigating the consequences. Then there is the issue of how do you identify gaps and how to address the gaps? There are some obvious (and already identified) training gaps in the way that the operational response is undertaken and some others which may be a little less obvious.

A good starting point to the successful resolution of any incident is for the firefighters on the first and subsequent attendance to understand the type of premises they are dealing with and also the risks associated with that premises. This is particularly important at more complex structures or more challenging incidents. Effective incident command and management is incumbent on having the correct information to enable situation awareness to be developed. The main tools of this are the information systems available on appliances and command units.

As shown in the Grenfell Inquiry, effectiveness and accuracy of information on section 7(2)(d) and site specific risk information (SSRI) data can be variable. At the Inquiry, the number of floors in the building was not correct and this could have had a major impact on the outcome. A minor misspelling of a chemical – ETHANE /ETHENE – can have serious adverse effects at a fire.

Fire Risk Intelligence

More importantly, while the ability to gather this information and use it at an incident in the form of mobile data terminals exists on most fire appliances, it remains uncertain as to how often such information is accessed and at what stage of the incident continuum use is made of the information at the sharp end. Audits of the systems, if and when carried out, invariably look only at the accuracy of information, the ease with which firefighters can access it and the visibility and utility at the incident ground. What is very rarely assessed is the number of occasions on which appliance crews attend a specific location (a high-risk premises) and actually use this information during that first attendance. A case of having tools but not using them. Furthermore, training for preparing such documents has with few exceptions been rare in previous years, which means that information can be incorrect, misinterpreted or just misleading.

Fire risk intelligence has become a neglected skill as systems have become more complicated and detailed, requiring firefighters and others gathering such information and, more importantly, turning it into useful knowledge for operational use. This is clearly a gap that has existed for many years, but there has been no real impetus for developing a national training model for data collection, interpretation and presentation that can be effectively used by all.

Command Skills

Of course, on arrival at the incident, firefighters need to have the skills and knowledge to use equipment effectively. Just how much time spent in practicing and learning about the physical and practical aspects of the firefighter role (at any level) varies with service, station, watch and individual. The concept of training for competence (or more pejoratively, ‘training for adequacy’) does little to encourage to attainment of excellence or expert status. Whether the ‘10,000 hour rule’ is valid or not (bearing in mind the original concept – The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, by Professor Anders Ericsson, University of Colorado in 1993 – was based on the study of elite violinists!), it is clear that practice does/can make perfect.

It seems, though, that there has been (at least anecdotally) a significant reduction in the amount of time that firefighters spend carrying out more mundane aspects of training including ladder work, pumps and pumping and equipment-based training.

Intuitive use of equipment in all circumstances is something that many organisations still practice including in military and high-risk industries. If, in the FRS, this is not the case and that practical training becomes of less importance, then this may be leading the service into a crocodile trap, boxed in a channel of adequate performance with no easy way out.

Command skills of operational managers is key to both the successful resolution of operation incidents and the safety of the crews involved in firefighting or extrication etc. Developing command skills has always been problematic for the Fire and Rescue Service because of the challenges of simulating accurately the conditions on the incident ground and the physical and logistical issues of organising large scale exercises. With the number of incidents reducing, it has become a common worry across the industry that junior commanders, those on the first attendance at incidents, and even more senior officers are getting less practice opportunities year-on-year. The introduction of recording command hours’ experience has in itself created issues including many officers struggling to meet the almost arbitrary requirement of ten or 20 hours of command activity in a year. In many services this has only been achieved through simulated exercises on audio-visual systems and those involving role players. This is very much a second-best solution as obviously incident activity provides the most useful experience in the real-world environment.

Practising command skills is likely to be a continual challenge for services with reducing the numbers of employees in services to enable sufficient resource availability to develop meaningful exercise scenarios. Exercises in any event are expensive and can be of limited value unless they incorporate sufficient benefits for all participants rather than the individuals being assessed or observed.

With the current moves towards developing an effective methodology for multi-tier entry across the service, the ability to acquire and practice command skills becomes even more important. The existing barriers to developing existing staff and maintaining their command skills, may be exacerbated when direct entrance to senior command levels becomes routine and new, robust and credible alternatives may need to be found.

Methodologies have already been developed overseas, particularly by Dutch fire and rescue services and cross organisational learning, particularly in this area, should be undertaken as a priority to identify potential training gaps and ways of resolving these. This is also likely to be required for those following a traditional career path as there is a real threat that command experience becomes almost an abstract concept with limited opportunities for practicing ‘in vivo’ for new officer entrants or existing commanders.

Cross-border Exercises

At a wider service and regional level, the inspectorate has identified that there has been a reduction in cross-border exercising which can become a critical risk particularly at larger incidents. Different services tend to have different procedures, even though there may be a formal agreement in place regarding such items of equipment as green apparatus procedures and even the provision of resources for hazardous materials incidents. Although cross-border exercising has been identified as a significant gap in training by the inspectorate, the challenges of carrying out large exercises of this type across two or more services is organisationally and logistically challenging, particularly where there may be a high level of on-call staff required, which can mean depletion of actual fire cover across a significant portion of services area. Some services have gone to the stage of allocating OTB resources at incidents to tasks such as water relaying, provision of equipment and peripheral issues as a result of incompatibility of equipment and systems and procedures between the services. Lack of cross-border exercising can only magnify this problem.

With the current concerns about high-rise high-risk buildings, it is particularly concerning that the HMICFRS has identified that ‘some services cannot assure themselves that their control room are adequately set up to handle multiple fire survival guidance calls or are adequately exchange real-time risk information with incident commanders’. The HMI asserts that FRSs do not include control staff in training plans as they focus more on the response side of the service. While undoubtedly this may be the case and is a critical training gap, the undermining effect of budgetary restrictions will not allow a sea change in the attitude to fire control training overnight.

Coming around in a full circle, the HMICFRS has identified that in the 13 services assessed in 2021, all but four were required to make improvements in the way they debriefed and learned from ‘routine emergency incidents’. Many services now rely on electronic data capture for debriefs/assessment for all but the most routine incidents, sometimes asking all attendees at an incident to provide an electronic response.

The gathering of data is all very well but the analysis of several dozen sets of data is resource intensive and often not carried out. Where analysis is carried out, the data may be flawed (for example, where a question can be answered selecting a response from a drop-down menu, there is always a higher number of responses using the top three answers). One service assessed over 900 incident data sets and found after cleansing that only 120 were valid for use. But the capture and analysis of data to provide an assessment of the effectiveness of the service provided is essential if the service is to improve (and incidentally, make safer firefighters). If the HMI has identified this failing, are services unaware of it themselves or is it being ignored? It is not a difficult question to ask and find the answer. Perhaps the lack of effective debriefing is an extension of the instinctive process of self-protection: to keep it on crew/watch/ station/district/or service to avoid individual, team or corporate embarrassment.

Command Assessment

The use of assessment of non-technical skills for incident commanders is not new and neither is using behavioural markers to identify potential or existing suitability for development. The use of a behavioural anchored rating scale (BARS) was a fundamental part of the assessment development centre (ADC) closely associated with the largely defunct integrated personal development system (IPDS, as if you had forgotten). Hopefully, unlike the behavioural assessment process for ICS NTS (TLAs are us today, are they not?), it will not become a process which candidates can learn how to provide the correct answers for a short period (during the assessment) and revert to type shortly afterwards as was often reported in the case of some FRSs. The gap in the process is what you can do to help those preparing for development in a) identifying and b) addressing development needs. Furthermore, those carrying out the behavioural assessments must be properly developed so that the service does not only recruit, develop and promote ‘people like us’ reproducing the ‘halo effect’ that has been so detrimental in developing the truly diverse workforce that for the service has been an aspiration for over 40 years. Without doubt, behavioural marker schemes have the potential to improve the selection and development of commanders, but hopefully the potential pitfalls of any directed and systematic approach are fully examined to avoid unintended consequences such as that which befell the implementation of the IPDS concept.

For some, the UK FRS is at a critical point in its evolution: lowering activity and success in reducing deaths and injuries has become a double-edged sword with the service under continual pressure from central government to reduce budgets. It is easy to see why training can be an easy target for savings but only up to a point. Where once there were teams in services for recruit training, BA, RTC, specialist rescue and water training, many services have been forced to combine these specialisms creating multi-role instructors, often just keeping their heads above water.

Another pressure on some smaller services has been the transfer of large numbers into larger services creating both a disproportionate numerical and experience deficit in the smaller services (where is that on the corporate risk registers of the home counties FRSs?). This puts pressure on both training departments which are already stretched to breaking point: a definition of a ‘wicked problem’ if ever there was one.

There are solutions to meet the demands of many gaps in FRS training in the UK. The problem is that things are happening so quickly that the Fire Service appears to spend its time firefighting the existential threats and not having the capacity to stop and think about what the service needs in the next decade. The inspectorate can point out the problems but the service should generate its own solutions. A strategic gap analysis of FRS training and development would be a good start and help get the service it wants to meet future challenges.