At a time where it is difficult to read or find a news headline that evokes optimism, it can be difficult to remain positive. We are approaching two years in a world living with Covid and we now face the impact of higher energy prices, a shortage of commodities and the impact of insufficient numbers of people with either the skills or desire to fill roles critical to the country operating.
All of this seems to create a bleak outlook for our nation at a time when we were already anticipating the requirement to balance the national budget deficit created by activities to respond to and counter the pandemic. For those we serve there is a balance to be struck between what is desirable against what is affordable.
Past experience has seen decisions made that have resulted in a fall back to minimum standards rather than good practice. Sadly, the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry remains a prominent demonstration of the risks of such an approach. So how does our profession navigate this storm, the severity and duration of which is unpredictable and unknown?
In fire engineering for the built environment the challenges of sourcing affordable materials and technology may lead to increased prices and scaled-back projects. In relation to standards we have legislation and regulation to hold the minimum line although we have historically seen this line ignored and crossed with devastating effects.
The adherence to and maintenance of standards is regularly found to be wanting and inevitably the safety of many people will be reliant upon inspection and enforcement, Fire and Rescue Services have seen the impact of successive and more challenging budget cuts over a period of more than a decade, it is difficult to see how additional pressures can be absorbed without further erosion not only to emergency response but also of those staff responsible for inspection and enforcement activities.
There is a further risk that Services will have to reduce highly successful programmes that yield significant improvement on both the safety and well-being of communities but whose vast social value cannot be quantified in a cash equivalent. Regrettably, social value seems to be a currency subject to massive devaluation when finances are under pressure.
So, back to my question, how does the profession navigate this storm? I don’t think any one individual, organisation or body has the answer and neither should they be so complacent as to think they do. From the initial gloom of the pandemic we were impressed and motivated by the collective efforts of manufacturers and designers large and small who shared ideas, staff and technology to overcome some of the huge challenges created by the rapid global spread of Covid.
The medical profession, scientists and drug manufacturers broke down barriers to share information, data and resources to develop treatment regimes, equipment and vaccines which have allowed us to move forward as an international community in dealing with Covid. Is this the approach needed across the UK right now and if so is there a willingness to be ‘in this together?’
I have real concern for the future of the Fire and Rescue Service. The success of and advances in fire engineering, building construction and vehicle safety, along with the monumental efforts in community safety and education has reduced the demand on emergency response. This highly commendable success has seen a reduction in resources across all areas of the UK, with many of the successful approaches developed transferable to other sectors crying out for a reduction in demand.
Media and public criticism of the Police and Ambulance Services is all too common and is not a true reflection of the dedication and commitment of those serving in these services.
The pressures of inadequate social care and suitable pathways for dealing with mental health fall to our Ambulance and Police staff when those suffering this often misunderstood but all too common illness reach crisis point. Added to this, the historic changes to General Practitioners’ (GPs’) working, the difficulty in recruiting and retaining GPs and other medical staff have led to a reliance on response when a situation becomes acute rather than the ability to capture and control a situation in its development or even chronic stage. The result is a significant demand on the emergency response resources of Police and Ambulance in dealing with situations that could be more effectively dealt with through alternative pathways.
Can the fire and rescue service help? Could there be a role for the fire and rescue service with its strong track record of prevention? Alignment with the Police under the Home Office umbrella and the shared assurance of the HMICFRS provides the opportunity to develop in support of the community safety and crime prevention agenda if there is a willingness for engagement by all parties.
The crossover of Fire and Police into health is more complex. For all its strengths the NHS is an extremely complex organisation of organisations. The Ambulance Service, frequently its first line of defence, is a small part of the NHS and one which does not seemingly have either the capacity or structure to deliver any form of preventative or educational agenda.
The success of the fire and rescue service has long been recognised by respected medical professionals. In 2008 Professor Sir Michael Marmot was asked by the then Secretary of State for Health to review health inequalities and to make recommendations. Professor Marmot singled out the Fire Service for their success in fire prevention and suggested it as a model of good practice in assisting with the management of health inequality.
My concern for the future of Fire and Rescue Service is based both on a fear that it becomes eroded to the point that it cannot provide the emergency response that society needs and expects, and that opportunities for diversification that could benefit our communities, our health service and our emergency service colleagues without detriment to its own emergency response will be lost as Fire and Rescue Authorities and Chief Fire Officers are forced to confine their work to those activities they are lawfully required to deliver. In answer to my own question, I believe the Fire and Rescue Service can help and has much to offer but is there an openness to accept this across the wider public sector?
There should be optimism as we weather the current storms. The sharing of ideas, technology and information was certainly evident and welcome at the Emergency Services Show and the Fire Safety Event in September. After a 12-month delay, exhibitors and visitors were once again able to meet face to face and share the latest developments in technology across the vast indoor and outdoor exhibition area.
Learning zones were regular hives of activity as a broad range of speakers and delegates came together to share knowledge and information and to enhance understanding whilst completing valuable continuous professional development.
I continue to be impressed by the technological advances in fire protection, suppression and emergency response and look forward to next year’s event.
It is a pleasure for me to feature a special tribute in this issue to Roger Startin, Tom Hainsworth and Dave Frodsham, in recognition of their contributions to the development of PPE for the fire service over the last 40 years. Their contribution to the profession has gone far beyond the manufacture of firefighting apparel and they have supported numerous charities and charitable organisations in the sector. They are true Gentlemen and we at MDM wish them a long, happy, healthy and well-deserved retirement.
Stay safe, remain positive and look after each other.
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