The Isles of Scilly is an archipelago 24 nautical miles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall. There are five inhabited islands whose combined resident population is around 2,200. There are also numerous smaller islets.
The island of St Mary’s has the largest population and St Agnes stands as the most southerly point in Britain.
Tourism represents 85% of the local economy and employs more than 70% of the islands’ population.
The Isles of Scilly Fire and Rescue Service (IOSFRS) is the statutory local authority fire and rescue service covering the islands. It is the smallest fire and rescue service in the United Kingdom. The islands have long-established relations and operates a service level agreement with Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service who provide support to the Service.
The Fire and Rescue Service forms part of Council of the Isles of Scilly People and Communities Directorate with the Director fulfilling the role of Chief Executive of the Fire and Rescue Service. The service is an integral element of the Council’s wider strategic and community services that support the health, safety and wellbeing of the island’s community.
IOSFRS delivers its services through their Community Risk Management Plan (CRMP). Fire Protection activity is delivered in partnership with Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS). Each of the five inhabited islands has fire stations staffed by on-call Firefighters. The absence of metalled roads and rugged terrain on three of the islands presents a challenge for firefighting, which has been addressed for a number of years through fire appliances formed of tractor and trailer combinations.
St Mary’s has a more standard fire appliance with a four-wheel-drive support appliance capable of towing a trailer with additional equipment. The island of Tresco operates a six-wheel-drive, all-terrain water tender.
St Mary’s airport also has an operational and reserve airfield firefighting appliance staffed by airport firefighters. Tresco has a rapid intervention airfield crash rescue appliance serving the island’s heliport. The airport fire service provides a range of maintenance and preventative services on a commissioned basis. A number of the of the on-call staff are also employed as Civil Aviation Authority airport firefighters and mutual aid arrangements exist to support IOSFRS.
In 2020, Kevin James was appointed as the first full-time Station Manager for the Service, UK Fire Editor, Phil Martin met with him to discuss the future, the challenges and the opportunities for England’s smallest Fire and Rescue Service.
What is driving change for the IOSFRS?
A changing risk drives organisational change for the IOSFRS. The size of the islands does enable the Service to identify site-specific risks and then to effectively record and manage these with detailed operational plans for higher-risk sites. Community and people risks are affected by the seasonal population variations and it is estimated that 100,000 people visit the islands in the summer months, but in the winter this settles back to a predominantly resident population.
As with all public services, the IOSFRS is constantly challenged to deliver the highest standards in an increasingly challenging fiscal environment. The demographic of the islands means that our resident population is getting older which changes the people risk and presents a challenge in the recruitment and retention of staff.
There are ambitious plans for new transport links for the island to modernise the aging freight and passenger ships that are essential for servicing the islands’ needs and the islands have embraced electric vehicle technology, as a Service we need to anticipate, plan for and manage new risks as they emerge.
Along with other public services and UK Fire and Rescue Services there is an expectation that the IOSFRS delivers continuous improvement. The first inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) resulted in an initial action plan for improvement, which provided a focus and measure for improvement. Following a second, more recent inspection, an updated report is due imminently and there is a confidence in the Service that the direction of travel and rate of progress will positively reflect the Services commitment and effort to deliver improvement.
What are the priorities for the IOSFRS?
Our current priorities are being driven by the ongoing implementation of the HMICFRS improvement plans. In addition, we are engaged in a recruitment campaign to bring staffing levels to the required numbers at all of our fire stations. The transfer of estate management and a review of the operational fleet has created a programme of improvement for our buildings and vehicles. This has resulted in improvements in building stock and the replacement of aging vehicles and equipment.
IOSFRS prides itself on its community engagement. Limited resources create challenges to delivering prevention and safety messages, although effective partnerships with other responders such as the Police, Ambulance, Coastguard and the RNLI assist in ensuring messages are delivered consistently and efficiently.
What unique challenges does the IOSFRS have?
Primarily our location. As a group of small islands, IOSFRS has to be self-sufficient in the knowledge that mutual aid will have to come by either air or sea. Additionally, whilst we train to provide inter-island support the logistics and transport of staff and equipment between islands requires careful planning and can be weather dependent.
The requirement for the IOSFRS to achieve and maintain the national standards and expectations of other UKFRS’s is challenging. The Service is required to deliver the full range of activities as identified by the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 as the other legislative requirements of any other Fire and Rescue Service and Authority. This is particularly challenging when the Service has just two full-time staff in an otherwise on-call service.
Delivering training and maintaining compliance requires innovation and partnership. A long-established relationship and service level agreement with Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS) provides access to both locally delivered training and training using CFRS facilities and the Fire Service College (FSC). Firefighter development courses are completed on St Mary’s with external validation through CFRS, whereas specialist training such as breathing apparatus and driver training is completed on the mainland. Due to the limited exposure to operational incidents, IOSFRS require their incident command trained staff to revalidate their Incident Command Level 1 qualification on an annual basis. In addition, IOSFRS send two prospective or current incident commanders as part of the CFRS group attending the Officer Development Course at FSC annually.
The Service’s working relationship with other responders and agencies on the islands is both strong and positive. The opportunities and benefits resulting from these relationships ensure that each of us have excellent data-sharing agreements resulting in shared understanding of individual and common issues and emerging risks.
IOSFRS, like other FRSs, is fortunate to have incredible on-call staff who are committed to delivering to the highest standards. Despite low levels of operational activity, the Service enjoys a proportionally high retention rate and this is a testament to a Service whose community ethos remains strong and at the heart of what they do. That isn’t to say that recruitment isn’t an issue for IOSFRS. The sparse populations on the smaller islands means that the numbers of people able to meet the entry criteria for a Firefighter role is minimal.
Where do you see the Service in five years?
The result of the consultation on the Government’s white paper for the fire and rescue service is almost certain to change the landscape in which UK FRSs operate. Whatever that means for IOSFRS our vision will continue to be that we deliver a first-class fire and rescue service, taking advantage of the unique opportunities the islands have whilst building on our relationships with partners both on the Isles of Scilly and on the mainland.
IOSFRS will continue to develop skilled staff capturing the benefits of new technology whilst recognising the constraints of training and limited exposure to operational incidents. The advances in virtual reality training offer exciting opportunities for staff to gain immersive practical experience in a wide range of incidents reflecting the risks on the islands.
The upgrade of transport links to the islands will make the islands more accessible. The ships and aircraft serving the islands will evolve to embrace electric vehicle technology and the Service will have to adapt to these and other risks.
In five years the IOSFRS will be an efficient, well-trained organisation with a comprehensive understanding of its risk, serving a well-informed community capable of understanding and helping itself.
For more information, go to www.scilly.gov.uk/community-safety/fire-rescue