Fanning the flames of fire service reform

29 October 2013

The nature of how we deal with fire is changing. Strict building and materials regulations, combined with preventative technologies in commercial and domestic buildings mean that over the last decade, the number of call-outs the fire and rescue services have received has fallen by 40 per cent. Our focus has moved from reactive to proactive measures to fight fire. National campaigns and interventions targeting high-risk homes have led to a 60 per cent drop in the number of citizens who die in fires.

The fire service must seize this unprecedented opportunity for reform. Despite the reduction in call outs, the number of firefighters remains the same and expenditure has not fallen, currently standing at £2.2 billion, or £38 per person in the UK. The time has come to find ways to reduce Fire and Rescue Service spending without compromising the quality of service provided to the public.

Across the country, fire services provide the same standard of response at very different costs, varying from £26 to £50 per person. There is no identifiable reason for these discrepancies, and yet still they persist. If the top-spending 25 per cent of fire and rescue services found efficiencies that reduced their spending to the median, this would save £196 million.

The key direction for change, identified in Sir Ken Knight’s report Facing the Future, is to get fire service authorities across the UK to work together. Despite the clear benefits, we are yet to develop adequate Fire and Rescue Service interoperability here in Britain. France and Canada, amongst other countries, have well developed integration across Blue Light Services which, as work by the World Health Organisation establishes, saves money and lives; the United Kingdom lags behind.

Smaller services still run their own, idiosyncratic, back room services and have their own control centres: merging these would be a simple and cost effective first step. Proximate fire and rescue services need to share specialist services more efficiently and work together to cover large territories for the lowest cost. The biggest and most important change, as discussed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security, would be moving towards an Emergency Response Service, wholly amalgamating the fire and ambulance services. Steps towards this could include strengthening attendance based payment agreements: when the Ambulance Service pays the Fire Service for meeting their first aid response standards, a practice which has already proven successful in several Ambulance Trusts.

Fire services need to prioritise similarity and efficiency above personalisation. Management structures need to be actively reduced and reorganised to bring them into line with one another; training needs to be centralised at the Fire Service College so that all firefighters are trained in the same protocols – and a basis for innovation in interoperability can be established; services should share procurement to enable economies of scale and develop standard specifications for equipment to reduce the cost of sourcing and evaluation.

The fire service needs to engage with a fundamental rethink of how the service should adapt to changing need. Currently, out of the £2.2 billion budget, £1.73 billion is spent on staffing. We do not need so many full time firefighters any more, and moving to an on-call model of staffing could save millions. Most fire service work is now raising awareness and prevention: some of these duties could be handed to community workers where appropriate. Information sharing across public services could highlight high risk homes without the fire service having to conduct their own investigations.

There is huge room for change which would both reduce spending and improve the quality of service. Members of the fire service must engage with this change. Initiatives designed to increase efficiency such as FiReControl, a plan to combine control centres for proximate fire stations, had to be cancelled after it was undermined by firefighters resistant to the scheme. We must capitalise on pre-existing unofficial alliances – where fire services work together to gain the advantages of interoperability without the difficulties of local politics – as a good place to begin.

It is essential that initiatives to save money and improve the quality of resilience have the full support of the services which they involve, and are brought in from the bottom up rather than imposed from above. We are faced with a difficult task, of reducing fire service spending without putting the public at risk. To achieve this, the Fire Service needs to be prepared to let go of traditional divides and embedded ways of management and training, and to move towards more efficient ways of working in today’s context of how we fight fires.

Blog by Rosie Oliver on fire and rescue service reform

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