The future of fire

25 May 2016

A big day for Reform yesterday, as the Home Secretary made her first speech on fire reform for us, having taken responsibility for fire policy in January. The full text of her speech is available here and good twitter feed here.

She rightly paid tribute to the reform achievements of fire services so far, which I tried to summarise in this blog a month ago. An extract from her speech:

“Since 2001, the number of fires in England has been reduced by nearly two thirds. Fire deaths have fallen by almost half and we have seen similar reductions in the number of non-fatal casualties…. Most importantly, fire services embraced prevention over response. Today, prevention work in communities is second nature to every firefighter and core business in every local fire and rescue service. Over 600,000 homes were visited by fire personnel in England in 2014-15 and nearly fifty-nine thousand businesses were checked for compliance with fire safety laws and given tailored advice on prevention and fire safety.”

She went on to challenge fire services to achieve three things: to achieve full collaboration with each other and with other public services; to deliver a more flexible and diverse workforce; and to improve their accountability.

Collaboration

I have been lucky to spend a lot of time with individual fire services – most recently Buckinghamshire last Friday; previously Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire; and on Thursday, I will visit Surrey.

In all of these cases, the fire service was or is collaborating with other counterparts. Just some examples: Buckinghamshire is combining its data with Thames Valley Police and South Central Ambulance Service, to understand better who are the citizens at greatest risk.  Greater Manchester firefighters are answering non-emergency 999 calls in a partnership with North West Ambulance.  Surrey and Sussex co-operate over police, fire and ambulance. Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria share a control centre; Buckinghamshire, Royal Berkshire and Oxfordshire share another.

The question is how to drive further collaboration, especially when local political support for change is weak. I wonder here if the new framework for independent inspection, also announced by Theresa May, could help.  Perhaps the new inspections could provide an even more detailed assessment on value for money than the excellent HMIC provides for police forces. HMIC is working to introduce “force management statements” for police forces i.e. clear annual statements of police service resources and plans to improve efficiency. Statements of this kind could reveal which forces, and their political leaderships, are lagging behind.

theresa

Workforce

The Home Secretary was wonderfully uncompromising: either use the national pay negotiating machinery (the “National Joint Council”) to deliver a more flexible workforce, or abandon it and deliver the more flexible workforce anyway. As she said:

“It is in your hands to change it, and my challenge to you is to deliver that change or have the courage of your convictions and withdraw.”

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service have moved away from employing staff on the traditional national terms and conditions (grey book) and are refreshing the workforce with apprenticeships.

I’m sure there are other examples. These forces are the pioneers but there is no reason why other services cannot follow.

In Q&A, the Home Secretary was asked whether PCSOs and retained (i.e. on call) firefighters could share their responsibilities. In my view that is a very good idea and could be extended. Emergency medical technicians could be included too. Perhaps reserve soldiers also?

The wider media rightly picked up the Home Secretary’s criticism of a firefighter workforce that is “96 per cent white and 95 per cent male”. Visiting then fire chief Tony McGuirk in Merseyside some years ago, Tony explained to me that an increase in diversity had the additional benefit of improving the delivery of the fire safety message to different communities.

Accountability

The Home Secretary said that Police and Crime Commissioners will have the ability to take on responsibility for fire services, as a means of providing clearer local accountability.

The simple test will be whether fire authorities and PCCs come together in the coming months; and whether fire services themselves move to actual mergers. If little of that activity takes place, perhaps the Home Secretary will bring forward stronger direction two years from now.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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