As I write this editorial the country has been enjoying a spell of particularly warm weather with incidents across the UK stretching Fire and Rescue Services to a position where several Services have had to declare major incidents. In response to this, the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council was quoted as describing ‘stretched’ fire and rescue services across the UK dealing with an ‘unprecedented level of wildfires’.
The term ‘stretched’ should be further explored. It should be no surprise that when call levels rise above what historic and predictive data demonstrates as a ‘norm’, Fire and Rescue Services will find it difficult to respond. Whilst many will argue that Services have become more efficient, the reality is that much of the resilience that used to exist has been eroded to the point that six individual Fire and Rescue Services declared simultaneous major incidents. That should cause alarm for the NFCC, politicians, authorities and Chief Fire Officers, let alone the public who, despite having to acknowledge long wait times for a Police and Ambulance response, have been able to rely on genuine emergency response from Fire.
The second part of the statement also gives me a cause for concern. I have written before about the use of the word ‘unprecedented’, which in this context means ‘never happened or been known before’. What is the validity of this statement? London Fire Brigade drew much of the media attention yesterday with quotes of call numbers. Looking at an article posted by London Fire Brigade in response to Storm Eunice in February this year, the article states that the Brigade base its call levels on figures starting in 2000 when electronic data is available from. Based on this, there is a clear evidence trail suggesting that they had their busiest day since 2000, but have the call numbers seen on that day genuinely never been known before?
I challenge these points not through wishing to discredit anyone, and certainly not to denigrate the incredible effort shown by Firefighters in incredibly arduous conditions but to ask the question are the real facts being reported? Yes, Fire Services were stretched, but who is asking why? Who is looking at the impact of fire cover reductions, staffing reductions and crewing levels across the UK? Who is looking at the retained duty system through a national lens? A duty system which, despite the efforts of thousands of committed, professional firefighters, fails to provide the level of cover the public believe exists.
This summer has once again highlighted the issues of climate change with scientific comparisons to the weather seen in 1976, which has become this generation’s baseline for hot weather, demonstrating that we can expect worsening future recurrences of this type of event. When the cooler Autumn comes, and the country starts to think about flooding events, there is a need to consider whether the UK Fire and Rescue Services are adequately resourced and planning for both normal call levels and the levels we might expect from the undeniable impact of climate change and, as tough a financial climate as we are in, resourcing of the UK Fire and Rescue Service needs an honest review.
In May the Government published its long-anticipated white paper and launched its consultation on ‘Reforming Our Fire and Rescue Service’. The white paper covers the 44 Fire and Rescue Services in England with wide-ranging issues raised for discussion and consultation within sections entitled Building on Success, The Way Forward – Strengthening our Fire and Rescue Service, People, Professionalism and Governance.
The white paper proposes that Fire and Rescue Services build on a legacy of reform introduced by the Home Office over recent years to make them more efficient and effective and adapt to public safety challenges and emergencies. Post-Grenfell, a focus and funding for fire protection are promoted.
In reference to the introduction of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the white paper states that the Inspectorate has found considerable strengths across the sector but more needs to be done through local and national reform. It specifically gives the example that some FRSs continue to neglect prevention and protection activities.
Some of the content in the white paper reflects aspirations of previous Governments, Fire and Rescue Service leaders and representative bodies whereas proposals in the areas of Governance are new and reflective of the changes to Police Governance, perhaps unsurprising given the clear and direct relationship between the Home Office and Police and Crime Commissioners and the Mayoral model. However, unlike the Police, the political governance proposals are not confined to existing models due to the variations in boundaries across the 44 Fire and Rescue Services in England. The white paper proposes a number of potential options that would significantly change the oversight of Fire and Rescue Services and significantly change the role and responsibilities of Chief Fire Officers.
Interschutz, the five-yearly International Trade Fair for Fire Rescue, Civil Protection and Security returned to its home in Hannover, Germany. Technology that might have been dismissed just a few years ago is now becoming mainstream in the range of solutions available to fire engineers globally. Electric and hybrid fire appliances, robotic firefighting and unmanned aerial vehicles have gone from concept and prototype into production and use.
The flip side of new technology can include the creation of new risks. The number of electric vehicles (EVs) on UK roads is increasing rapidly. The issues of fires in these vehicles extend to firefighting and fire protection of garages and car parks. EV fires are a clear example of why fire professionals must maintain sight of emerging risks and ensure services and staff are trained and equipped for new challenges. Whilst firefighting solutions were on show at the event, I do wonder whether the UK Fire Service is being trained and equipped at a rate that matches the increase in EV ownership and whether the fire is recognised as a significant safety factor in EV production?
Closer to home, the Emergency Services Show (ESS) is once again being held at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre on 21 and 22 September. I continue to urge fire professionals at all levels to consider attending this or other organised events. The opportunities for visitors include attending free CPD events, engaging with manufacturers and meeting with other professionals. Admission to the ESS is free and can give a fantastic return on the investment of your time.
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