What will the post-Covid Fire Service look like?
While the Whitehall farce that is central government appears to be a bad pastiche of a Dad’s Army episode, it is true that eventually the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic will be over. Emerging infectious disease was correctly assigned a high probability score (four out of five) of occurring within five years in 2017, but only given a way off-the-mark “middling” impact score (three out of 5). The lessons learned and plans made to combat the flu pandemic during the past decade or so were forgotten and so now we will be faced with a tumultuous period of uncertainty during which the country and its citizens must all come to terms with what has happened and face an uncertain future.
The author speculate on whether the Fire and Rescue Service will be part of the collateral damage falling out of the disaster or can it redefine itself, changing like a chameleon to blend in with the ‘new normal’?
At FIRE magazine, we look into the future and what it will bring for the Fire and Rescue Service: will it be part of the collateral damage falling out of the disaster or can it redefine itself, changing like a chameleon to blend in with the ‘new normal’?
Predictions of how the future for the UK is going to look ranges from those of the optimistic “broad sunlit uplands” gang or the “we’re all doomed” mob. So, perhaps it is time to look forward, taking neither the utopian or dystopian future as predicted by many but rather a more nuanced best- and worst-case scenario for the future of British fire and rescue services.
State of the Fire Service
But first, a stocktake before the virus struck. By March 2010, the recession caused by the 2007/8 financial crash was in full swing. For the year ending March 31, 2010, fire and rescue services (FRS) in England attended a total of 669,000 incidents with 242,000 fires of which 102,000 were primary fires, 285,000 false alarms and 143,000 special services, with 24 per cent being road traffic incidents, 14 per cent lift releases, 11 per cent effecting entry and 11 per cent water removal. There were 325 fatalities of which two thirds (210) were in accidental dwelling fires. Non-fatal casualties and fires were around 8,500.
The equivalent number for the year ending December 2019 were 555,759 incidents, 157,156 fires (28 per cent of incidents) of which 68,871 were primary fires, false alarms 229,882 (41 per cent) and 168,721 (30 per cent). The number of medical incidents attended were 19,000, 31,467 RTCs and 14,474 flooding incidents. There were 45,609 ‘collaborating incidents’ – effecting entry, assisting other agencies and suicides and attempted suicides. Fire fatalities were 237 with 191 in dwellings and 7,021 non-fatal casualties. The reduction of nearly 115,000 incidents was due to the reduction in false alarms and fires, although the numbers reduced in ten years has seemed to level off somewhat, particularly when a large decline in secondary fires from the previous year (2018) is taken into account.
It may be that the number of incidents is finally bottoming out. This may be taken in several ways. If the numbers stay broadly the same for several years then it may mean that the balance between Fire Service resources and activity levels may be reached and stabilising. It may also be that we have reached the best level of incidents that we are likely to achieve and that the impact of the impending recession may cause deterioration in both the physical and the social fabric in the UK as a whole, which may result in a requirement for more activity to be undertaken by the FRS.
The finance of the UK FRS is equally interesting. Inflation between March 2010 and March 2020 has been 2.5 per cent. The UK budget for the FRS in 2009/10 was £3,105 million (equivalent to £3790 million today). The actual budget for the FRS in the last financial year was £2,739 million (Source: Statistica – www.statistica.com), which represents a nearly 28 per cent reduction in real terms. The importance of this is that it sets up a useful landscape for what is likely to happen in the future – a future once again with the Service likely to be facing reduced budgets but with a potential rising demand.
“If the nation cannot afford an emergency service that is focussed on a limited number of roles, then the Service needs to morph to encompass a greater role within the community”
Post-Covid-19 Fire Service
Considering the best possible outcome first, finance is going to play a huge part in what happens to the Fire and Rescue Service in the next decade, possibly the next two decades. But it may be possible that there is a sea change in the attitude of the British government to the public sector. It is clear from the way that Coronavirus has been tackled in the UK that there is a great deal of need for “big government” when disaster or catastrophe strikes.
It is possible that that the “free market” approach to public sector emergency management and other aspects of public services may change. It has become increasingly apparent that relying on commercial entities to deliver critical public services – the provision of personal protective equipment and medical life support machinery at a drop of the hat is difficult, particularly when industry and commerce rely on “lean” systems and “just in time” manufacture and supply. Stockpiling and warehousing – “just in case” systems – were considered previously to be an unnecessary waste of resource; money tied up in materials which could be better used. Others may consider the holding of reserves as a good insurance policy or provision of resilience.
Which brings us back to the FRS: do those in power consider the FRS to be “warehousing of resources”, to be plundered when finances get tough or as an insurance policy, a last-ditch resource for a wide range of emergencies? If one of the outcomes from the inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic is that “big government” is indeed considered to be the way forward in tackling social calamities then the future may be a little less bleak for the FRS.
One of the early lessons of the pandemic is possibly that if the nation cannot afford an emergency service that is focussed on a limited number of roles, then the Service needs to morph to encompass a greater role within the community. The use of volunteers to provide support for communities in a whole panoply of ways (community responders, welfare support etc) has given an indication of how the FRS can evolve in the future.
The FRS and its representative bodies may come under pressure to develop a wider remit which may include a statutory function to provide emergency medical support in line with an area or regional health plan: the overstretch of the emergency medical service (EMS) of the ambulance service is clear evidence of this need and given the lack of willpower to reduce national demand on the EMS service, this is an opportunity for the FRS. Ideological resistance to corresponding should not remain the insurmountable barrier it currently is: while everyone would agree that adequate funding of both the EMS and FRS should be provided, the reality is that in the short term at least this is not likely to happen. In the interests of the community, perhaps a rethink of the ideological resistance to corresponding by firefighters is now due.
Staffing of the FRS will remain challenging whatever scenario occurs. Funding for the FRS is unlikely to increase and there is already a suggestion of a new public sector pay freeze, after only a couple of years’ grace from the previous. How this manifests itself – job cuts again, recruitment freeze and reorganisations to reduce headcounts, while not wanted, may be the only way to maintain minimum service levels. Whilst it is likely that the main public concern is with the availability of pumps, there may be a tendency to forget the other parts of the safety triangle – prevention and protection. We are still in the middle of an inquiry that shows how there are severe consequences following the reduction of fire safety officer positions.
With the proposed changes to the way fire safety is being managed in the UK, now is not the time to be implementing further cuts in fire safety posts in the UK, such as the evisceration of most departments that occurred between 2010 and 2017 when over 400 positions were lost. Community safety, equally, should be maintained to stabilise the low number of fires and casualties in the home, a fight that has taken years to win.
“The fat on the bones of the FRS finances disappeared long ago and any further reductions will have a fundamentally disproportionate effect”
Restructured Service Provision
“Pain free” solutions to cutting costs include further mergers between services to regional and sub-regional structures, moving toward organisations, that was first proposed by Sir Ronald Holroyd in his 1970 report. The report considered the optimum size of services to be one containing around 1,100-1,300 staff and 30 stations (with two retained stations equalling one wholetime station). It may have taken 50 years, but the Holroyd-type solution may be forced upon services rather than by choice. It could even be considered that larger structures could be considered. Scotland now has one FRS serving a population of 5.5 million: ten similar sized services (plus London) could deliver savings which could usefully reduce the practical impact upon services within communities.
There is an opportunity to re-calibrate the Service: standardisation of equipment and procurement opportunities for savings that are still being promoted but rarely delivered on expectations in the past 20 years. Service to the community could be standardised using national attendance thresholds which would reduce the alleged “postcode lottery” approach to fire cover provision. There may also be an opportunity to develop a single model of FRA governance rather than the current dog’s dinner, which could be said to be one reason for so much inconsistency across the country.
The government could be tempted to move the FRS from local control and have direct control of services via the Home Office. This could use the police and crime commissioner as a political figurehead and allow chief fire officers operational independence – something like a nationalised service akin to Scotland – or not, which depends on how much politicians feel a tighter level of control would be necessary in the post-Covid-19 environment.
All of which sounds bad enough already, but the UK is facing a financial crisis (never mind the predicted number of deaths which may exceed the number of civilian casualties – 60,000 dead in Britain during the Second World War), the likes of which has not been seen for 90 years. This means that the measures needed to contain the financial collapse may be even more drastic and so the consequences could be even worse. The fat on the bones of the FRS finances disappeared long ago and any further reductions will have a fundamentally disproportionate effect. How do you save money when all your pumping appliances are already crewing at four and being propped up by overtime – lose the overtime funding and you lose the pumps. There are already services that have fewer than 50 per cent availability of pumps during the week (and this was before Covid-19), with overtime preventing reduction to critical levels.
Recent government strategy to rescue budgets in local government generally has been to cut off the funding at sources rather than rely of the dubious practice of identifying “efficiency savings” and pretending that things you would have done and were not done could be claimed to be a real saving. In a worst-case scenario, choking the sources of funding whatever the governance and funding structure, could continue along the trajectory of recent years. Just where further savings could be made is hard to identify without a major structural change to the Service along the lines of merger with the EMS, providing a combined response organisation.
Combined Emergency Service
As with some fire and rescue services overseas, most staff would be paramedics or otherwise medically trained staff who would respond occasionally to fires, swapping ambulances for fire engines. The type of model and balance used in other nations often depends on the ratios of fire/rescue emergencies to EMS “runs”. Fortunately, the funding associated with health-related organisations tends to be well protected and so financial stability may be achieved, but at what cost? Relegation to a small part of the NHS empire? Or police? From a government perspective (and they tend to focus of actual savings before efficiency) it could make sense – all emergency services together.
There could, in the very worst case, be a dismantling of the structure of the fabric of the FRS. Is it at all possible that there could be a consideration of a wholescale amputation of the fire safety function from FRS control as the building safety reforms get under way? Is it just paranoia or was the government response to the post-Grenfell fire building safety reforms document a bit light on the role of the FRS (with just a few mentions in 46 pages)? Nevertheless, is it possible that fire safety has been left on the shelf to gather dust for so long that others have seen a “land grab” opportunity? Returning the FRS to a response-only Service (with latent capacity being used for safe and well visits) would please some but this reductive approach would undoubtedly impoverish the Service, end the transfer of a wider knowledge about buildings across organisations and limit professional growth within the Service.
Fire Service Place in Society
The scenarios represented above are only examples of what could happen. The Covid-19 pandemic is truly an unprecedented event with consequences that will be with us for decades. How the FRS presents itself when the crisis phase is over will be critical to its future form. It has the opportunity to think about the future, the next 20 years rather than the next financial or political cycles, grasp the initiative and prepare itself for a challenging time ahead with ideas already prepared.
The Service needs ideas which allows it to remain an integral part of the fabric of the UK and not become a sideshow in an evolving society. In the end it is probable that things will not be as bad as we think they could be and this will be a temporary readjustment to a new normality. Things will change and not all for the better but just remember, with the help of ‘Dad’s Army’, the country’s challenges were overcome eventually. Hopefully, the 21st century Westminster on Thames platoon will get a grip on this crisis and deliver, and Service leaders will be in the vanguard and not the baggage train of managing the changes needed and improve the Fire and Rescue Service for the future.
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