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Expert Comment: Fire and rescue services reforms

paresh Tuesday 21 May 2013

As the latest study by Sir Ken Knight, a former Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser to the government calls for greater interoperability and working towards a unified Fire and Rescue Service in England, Dr Paresh Wankhade, Director of Centre for Research in Emergency Services & Training (CREST) and Editor of International Journal of Emergency Services, analyses the implications of these latest recommendations.

The government commissioned report, led by Sir Ken Knight who recently retired as the government’s Fire and Rescue advisor, has reviewed the efficiencies and operations in the fire and rescue authorities in England.  It builds on the previous reviews undertaken during the last ten years notably the Bain Review (2002) and the Fire Futures report (2010). The review provides context to the current risk assessment for the fire and rescue service in the light of massive reduction of fire incidents (by more than 40%) and calls for a new approach and model for the fire services in England.

Some of the key recommendations of the report include:

  1. Deaths from fires in the home are at an all-time low with incidents have reduced by 40 per cent in the last decade, but expenditure and fire fighter numbers remain broadly the same. The review suggests that there is room for reconfiguration and efficiencies to better match the service to the current risk and response context.
  2. Increased efficiencies could lead to annual savings of about £200 million
  3. Some fire and rescue authorities spend almost twice as much per person per year in some areas than others, but there seems to be little relationship between expenditure and outcomes.
  4. Fire and rescue authorities have transformed themselves from organisations that dealt with fire response to organisations also covering preventative work and have succeeded in reducing incidents. They now need to transform themselves again to reflect the completely different era of risk and demand.
  5. The 46 fire and rescue authorities, each with different governance structures, senior leaders, and organisational and operational quirks does not make for a sensible delivery model. There is a lack of local political appetite and incentive to combine.
  6. Interoperability or collaboration, and co-location with other blue-light services do happen but the progress is patchy and driven or hindered by local relationships.
  7. Greater sector leadership is needed to drive through a culture of learning from good practice and challenging services to rise to the level of the best.
  8. National level changes to enable greater collaboration with other blue-light services, including through shared governance, co-working and co-location, would unlock further savings.

However the most radical and perhaps more controversial recommendations or ‘options’  as the report puts it,  relate to the future operating model for the fire and rescue authorities in England. These include amongst others:

  • Moving towards a more national model, through enforced mergers to reduce the number of fire and rescue authorities or potentially a full merger in the style of Scotland;
  • Allowing fire and rescue authorities to procure their fire and rescue service from a mutual;
  • Following international example and privatising the provision of fire and rescue services;
  • Merging fire and rescue services with one or more of the other blue-light services, improving interoperability;
  • Sharing governance structures with other blue-light services, such as Police and Crime Commissioners taking on the role of fire and rescue authority;
  • Improving join up at a government level between sponsors of the blue-light services and other departments that hold an interest in activity related to fire and rescue work.

None of these recommendations are new including the opposition to these proposals from various quarters. The review has met with severe criticism from the Fire Brigade Union (FBU), the main union representing fire services personnel criticising these proposals as nothing more than a cover for introducing more cuts. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, attacked the report as "a fig leaf for slashing our fire and rescue service to bits" (Guardian, 2013). The response of the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), the body representing the Fire Chiefs has been more guarded. The CFOA has generally welcomed the proposals for greater efficiency and in acknowledging the contribution of the fire service. It has however raised concerns about report’s reference to international examples of privatisation of the provision of fire and rescue and argues that fire and rescue service remain a publicly provided service and that profit should never come before protection (CFOA, 2013). It has also been sceptical about any move towards a single fire and rescue service which would have to be driven by central government and would require significant investment not necessarily guaranteeing significant savings. Media reports quoting response from the operational fire officers has been rather mixed (BBC, 2013). There has been no official response from the government to these proposals as yet.

Another important recommendation in the report is improving interoperability between the three blue light services (fire, police and ambulance) currently actioned through the Joint Emergency Service Programme (JESIP) housed within the Home Office and currently chaired by the Fire and Rescue Service. The CREST hosted Resilience Conference in October 2012 deliberated the various issues impacting multi-agency cooperation within North West of England. There remain, however, huge challenges in effective coordination and joint-working. The three main blue light services work under different government departments- the ambulance service under the Department of Health, the police comes under the Home Office and the Fire and Rescue Service falls under the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Similarly the Category 1 responders (as defined in the CCA, 2004), work within different departments-The Environment Agency is part of the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), local authorities come under DCLG whereas the Coastguard Agency is an executive agency of the Department of Transport, and so on. There are also disagreements between the emergency services in sharing resources and having control of the emergency 999 call facilities. The fire service proposal to share 999 facilities with the ambulance service (Fire Futures, 2010) did not find support with the ambulance service. It does have some merit given the joint work being done by both the services in the rural areas in England and the fact that emergency medical response is provided by the FRS across many parts of Europe and in North America.

The report alludes to the unified ‘Scottish’ model for emergency response services.  The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was created on 1 April 2013 replacing the country's previous eight regional services. The unified service with its new headquarters in Perth, operates with three "hubs" in the north, west and east of Scotland. Similar debates are currently debated for policing reforms in England (Winsor Reports, 2011; 2012) .  Police Scotland was formally established on 1 April 2013 after the merger of the eight former police forces and is now the second largest force in the UK after the Metropolitan Police. The key arguments supporting both the mergers relate to efficiency and savings by pooling resources, therefore protecting front-line staff and services. It is too early to evaluate the impact of these momentous changes in Scotland but there is no doubt that in coming days, this debate will gather further momentum in England.

The coming months are likely to witness a greater polarisation of views between the critics and the sympathisers of these latest recommendations, especially, on the issue of merger and reorganisation leading to a single unified service and the involvement of the private sector in the fire service delivery. These are early days but in my view, the report provides an excellent opportunity to the CFOA in playing a key role in shaping this debate and leading constructive and honest discussions with various stakeholders, notably the FBU and the government. The lessons from the experience of the newly created Scottish Fire and Rescue Service should be objectively assessed. This is an opportunity too good to be missed.

Useful links:

Kinght, K. (2013), FACING THE FUTURE: Findings from the review of efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England 


Fire Futures (2010) 


Bain Review (2002)


Chief Fire Officers Association (2013), Press Release - CFOA response to 'Facing the future' report


BBC (2013), Firefighters' views on proposed service reforms


Guardian (2013), Do fewer fires in Britain justify rescue service cuts?


Scottish Fire and Rescue Service


Police Scotland


 Ambulance Service Network


Winsor Reports (2011, 2012)

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