When any service proposes to change emergency cover it will generate debate, but if we stand still whilst communities change around us it means we won't provide the best or most effective services possible to protect them.

And while our primary aim is to serve and protect the public, we must never forget our duty to protect our firefighters by providing them with the best equipment and training available, quickly adapting to change and learning from our own experiences and those of every other fire and rescue service.

Continual improvement is therefore something we all strive for, but balancing that with the financial restrictions that services have faced in recent years makes it even more complex. To meet these challenges, West Sussex has just undergone its biggest restructure of fire and rescue services for more than 60 years.

Through its Fire Redesign programme, crewing at two retained stations has been upgraded to include wholetime firefighters, three stations have had a pump removed, and three retained stations have closed. Money and resources have been invested in firefighter training, and there have been internal modifications to the organisational structure and mobilising procedures. 

These changes have improved the overall balance of emergency cover based on community risks and response times across West Sussex, and saved £1.5 million for the taxpayer.

It involved some difficult decisions and there was some, perhaps understandable, local concern where resources were being withdrawn, but the whole process was delivered without any disruptive industrial action.  So how was this achieved?

Assessing risks to set response standards

The origins of Fire Redesign stem from abolishing the old prescriptive style of attendance times, and the need to replace them with local response standards based on risks to people not density of buildings. 

A 'risk map' of West Sussex was created by dividing the population up into 503 areas with each having approximately 1500 residents. We assessed the community risks in each area using census data, social demographic software, FSEC, and then analysed that against historical call data and the experience of local fire officers.

Each area is given a risk rating and a locally agreed response standard based on its low, medium or high risk classification. The risk map is constantly monitored and risk ratings are revised annually to ensure the service provided meets community needs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Matching resources to community risks

Having analysed the risks and demand for our services, it was then important to make sure that fire stations, firefighters and community safety resources were in the right place to deliver them.

The analysis showed the need for extra resources in towns that had seen significant expansion large population growths, like Littlehampton and Burgess Hill. Both were busy two-pump retained stations, but the increase in population also needed to be met with an increase in community safety initiatives, particularly targeted at 'vulnerable' residents. 

Upgrading these stations to include wholetime firefighters on a variable crewing system (VCS) would be a welcome investment, but the harder decisions involved retained stations in areas with low risks and few calls.  The evidence showed clearly those stations at Bosham, Findon, and Keymer did not affect our overall performance when they were not available, and that the close proximity of other wholetime stations meant response standards would still be maintained if they were closed.

The change process

The evidence was strong but West Sussex had not closed a fire station since the 1960s, and there was no avoiding the fact it would be unpopular in some quarters. It was important therefore to seek a political view point (and support) from the County Council and after due consideration they agreed Fire Redesign was a package of proposals that supported their own Fundamental Service Review to modernise services and deliver them more effectively.

This view was mostly backed up in discussions with our own staff on senior officer visits to stations and watches, although in true Service tradition most thought improvements could be made elsewhere.

The decisions on which stations to recommend for crewing changes were taken at a strategic level and broadly accepted by staff, despite personal sympathies for colleagues who were directly affected.

Public consultation

The public consultation included an online survey and public meetings, with forums and focus groups facilitated by Opinion Research Services (ORS), an independent social research company. 

The FBU shared a platform with service managers at several of the public meetings, and whilst they welcomed the crewing upgrades and investment in training, they voiced their concerns at any loss of resources or possible delay in attendance times. 

Local media gave a strong voice to local campaigns, but reporting was generally balanced. The service has worked hard in recent years to build a positive working relationship with its media contacts and was able to use that trust and insight to explain the proposals to journalists and reassure the public.

There were objections and petitions where stations were to be closed or have a pump removed, but crucially, there was wider support from people who saw the countywide nature of the proposals and accepted the need to move resources to where they are most needed.

The feedback from the consultation was made public in a report from ORS and made available on the service's website.

Implementing the decision

The decision to adopt the proposals in full was made by the Cabinet Member for Public Protection at West Sussex County Council in November 2010, and we began the difficult process of reducing posts by working with HR partners and firefighters to discuss employment options based on their individual circumstances.

We wanted to ensure skilled firefighters were kept wherever possible, and worked hard to ensure redundancies were kept to a minimum. The VCS crewing began at Littlehampton and Burgess Hill in January and after an open application process several retained firefighters were able to take up some of the new wholetime posts there, and at other stations with wholetime vacancies. Others moved into to full time jobs in our operational support functions. 

Sadly however, it was inevitable that others would leave the service when the stations closed and 23 retained firefighters took the option of voluntary redundancy. There were no compulsory redundancies, and the three stations closed at the end of March.

Risk based service improvements

Saying goodbye to colleagues is never easy but as we explained throughout the whole process, Fire Redesign was about matching resources to risks in the modern era, and the decision to close the stations was no reflection on the firefighters or their past achievements.

Populations and risks change, and we are not using public resources effectively by keeping fire stations in low risk areas with a low number of call outs, especially when good alternative cover is available from adjacent stations, and resources need to be increased in higher risk areas whose population has expanded enormously.

We have made significant changes and Fire Redesign in West Sussex has delivered:

  • Improved response times to a greater number of residents
  • Increased prevention resources to support vulnerable people
  • A 40% increase in operational trainers and organisational development staff to ensure safer firefighters
  • £1.5m efficiency savings.

Whilst it is true, we have saved the public money, Fire Redesign was led by the service's Principal Leadership Team, not finance officers, and was driven by a need to protect the public and provide the best services possible, not just cut costs. Change does not have to be universally popular, but by making changes that are based on solid evidence, and by talking to staff, politicians and the wider public, the consensus of opinion in West Sussex is that we have improved the balance of resources for emergencies and prevention work, and been able to invest in firefighter safety through improved training.

 Posted: 16.52pm, 21.06.11, rachael.haydon@pavpub.com