The state of the (fire) nation

Originally scheduled to be published alongside the HMICFRS’s tranche 3 report in December, it was pushed back to January 15 and, unlike the tranche reports, it is laid in parliament fulfilling HMICFRS’s obligations under the amended Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Remember that the Policing and Crime Act 2017 created the new inspection regime, reviving a process that had been dormant for a decade.

Elsewhere in this edition of FIRE, there is a dissection of the tranche 3 reports (see pg 18 of February FIRE magazine). FIRE looked at tranche 1 and 2 in previous editions, so what has the State of Fire to say that has not been said before?


State of Play

The most significant addition is the discussion about the role of the Fire and Rescue Service and its people. There is existential angst in the State of Fire.

The last time the Fire and Rescue Service was prodded in the same way was in 2002 when Sir George Bain carried out his review as a result of industrial action that saw red fire engines firmly parked in appliance bays while green goddesses roamed the streets instead. The result of that effort was the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act, replacing legislation largely unchanged since 1947.

Is this the same? Maybe, but not quite: it is true that there are many references – veiled or blatant – to the big stick of legislation. Take National Operational Guidance as an example. The report says that services should, ‘Intensify their efforts to implement these national arrangements. Otherwise, Parliament should make them do it’.

Two of the four new recommendations (there are a couple more in the tranche 2 report, confusingly) contain explicit references to legislation. One relates to the operational independence of chief fire officers and seeks to clarify the demarcation between those who are responsible for governance and the operational decision making by the chief fire officer (see pg 14 of February FIRE magazine for more on operational independence). This feels a bit left field and very police oriented but deserves further exploration through a future governance-focused thematic inspection.

The other recommendation states, ‘The Home Office needs to determine – in consultation with the fire sector – whether the functions specified in the 2004 Act are still current’.

This is the big one. The 2004 Act made fire safety a core duty for the first time alongside firefighting, road traffic accidents and emergencies. Responding to flooding and emergency medical incidents are not part of the core role of the firefighter as set out in the Act.

The Fire Brigades Union, assisted in the past by the likes of Lyn Brown MP, the erstwhile shadow Fire Minister, regularly used the opportunity of extreme flooding to tell the public and government that responding to flooding should be a core duty and as such pay should be commensurate with that additional responsibility. The same argument applies to responding to emergency medical calls, but this is more recent.


“The most significant addition is the discussion about the
role of the Fire and Rescue Service and its people. There is
existential angst in the State of Fire”


Reformed Firefighter Role

Is 2020 the year that the role of the firefighter is brought up to date? Adding more duties is too blunt and will not solve the other big finding in the report: resources are not necessarily in the right places to reflect the risk inherent in the local area. The big change in the 2004 Act was the introduction of risk-based approaches – set out via the integrated risk management plan that is mandated through the National Framework in England.

Take fire protection as an example. In a post-Grenfell world, the spotlight on fire safety in high-rise high-risk buildings is intense. Fire and rescue services do not just look at these types of buildings but all non-domestic buildings where the 2005 Fire Safety Order applies. It is a huge job, but the inspectors find fire and rescue services wanting.

‘We are concerned that many services don’t do enough to make sure premises comply with fire safety regulations. In some services, they don’t consider this a high enough priority in their IRMPs and they allocate their resources elsewhere’.

This point about resource allocation and the primacy of the IRMP is made many times in the State of Fire. If the role of the firefighter is to be modernised, then it must reflect the modern risks a firefighter may face. On the whole firefighters do not inspect buildings under the Fire Safety Order. These inspections and the development of the risk-based inspection regime that governs the work are done by specialist fire safety inspection officers. HMICFRS offers examples of where the blending of the two roles, particularly in low risk areas, may be the route to a better use of firefighter time.

Unfortunately, when budgets were cut under various austerity drives over the past ten years, fire protection, arguably a Cinderella service before June 2017, was an easy target. The report notes that the reduction in specialist staff led to low levels of enforcement and a reduction in skills along the way. Getting those staff back into fire and rescue services and trained up is not an overnight job but the Grenfell Tower fire has given this added impetus with work already progressing in many services.

Over in the world of fire prevention, the report notes, ‘Most services also do non-statutory prevention work, such as water and road safety education. This is positive and illustrates how services can adapt their focus to respond to local needs. But this work shouldn’t be at the expense of carrying out their primary functions’.

It is true that some of a firefighter’s time is spent on prevention work. However, most prevention work is carried out by non-operational staff and they do not really feature in the State of Fire. There is an irony here as towards the back of the section on People, the report says, ‘We heard consistently throughout our inspections that non-operational staff feel less valued than their operational colleagues’. Indeed.

There is a phrase that is guaranteed to make any principal fire officer’s eyes roll: latent capacity. Luckily it does not appear in the State of Fire. The argument runs that if fires are going down, but the number of firefighters stays the same (although that is nonsense given firefighter numbers dropped around 25 per cent since 2004) then they have more time to do other things. Some of those other things were prevention related. Reading the State of Fire, it looks like HMICFRS would have preferred fire and rescue services to spend more time on inspecting buildings rather than straying into the fringes of prevention.

One other area that is taking up too much time and effort threatening any attempt at reform of the Fire and Rescue Service is false alarms. This feels like a problem hiding in plain sight. False alarms continue to be the biggest demand services face at 40 per cent of all incidents attended by fire and rescue services in 2018/19. That is an average figure, with the range extending from 23.7 per cent in Lincolnshire to 50.1 per cent in West Sussex.


Best Practice

‘Services should have adopted the NFCC’s best practice guidance for dealing with these false alarms. But we found that not all had. In line with this guidance, most services do challenge calls to some degree’. Given the other calls in the State of Fire for legislation, perhaps this is an area that could benefit greatly. There will never be a time when there are zero false alarms but there must be scope for reductions to get this figure down even further and free up the time to do something more impactful. It is not a sexy area but that does not mean it could not do with more attention.


“Sir Tom says that if reform is to materialise, then leaders in all
parts of the fire sector need to make bold, long-term decisions”


The history of fire and rescue is cyclical, and the current cycle shows that the protection is perceived as more important than fire prevention and resources should therefore follow the former. If risk is a continuum with prevention first, protection second and response when all else fails, then a rebalancing needs to be carefully calibrated. A knee-jerk reaction to resource allocation could end up with a reversal of all the incredible prevention efforts that so successfully contributed to the reduction in the number of fire fatalities in the years since the creation of the 2004 Act. That would just be perverse.

These are the issues that the Home Office will need to grapple with as it ponders how it will respond to the recommendation about roles. HMICFRS wants the Home Office to consult with the fire and rescue sector: ‘To review and with precision determine the roles of a) fire and rescue services; and b) those who work in them’. With a deadline of June 2020 this is a tall order for the Home Office so let us hope they are already on the case.

Sir Tom Winsor is clear about where the leadership for this naval gazing should come from. ‘It is, in the first instance, for national government to set its expectations of the sector, including being more specific about what it wants the fire and rescue service to do. But it is then for local government to work with fire and rescue services to bring about change. If this doesn’t materialise, it is for national government to mandate reform’.


Mandating Reform

So that is clear then: this is the chance for the main players in the Fire and Rescue Service – the NFCC, the LGA and the FBU – to get together and work with the Home Office to come up with the answers because if they do not, the big stick of legislation will do it for them.

That may be more difficult now given the roasting Sir Tom gives the FBU where he describes the FBU’s ‘considerable influence’ as a barrier to sector reform. He goes on to say that in some services, ‘It goes too far and is sometimes contrary to the public interest. This is not acceptable: the FBU should not unduly dictate how fire services are provided to the public’.


“This is the chance for the main players in the Fire and Rescue
Service – the NFCC, the LGA and the FBU – to get together and
work with the Home Office to come up with the answers because
if they do not, the big stick of legislation will do it for them”


Unsurprisingly, FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack was forthright in his response. He tweeted: ‘Utterly wrong. @HMICFRS choose to use their report to attack our union. For a century we’ve defended firefighters and campaigned for improved public safety. We are not going away any time soon – or any time at all’.

Looking at the workforce reform required to support any changes to the role of fire and rescue services, the State of Fire offers a detailed look at issues like diversity, training and development as well as bullying and harassment. Sir Tom describes the 2015 Thomas Report into the conditions of service as a lost opportunity where very few of the recommendations have been implemented. When a quarter of staff surveyed by HMICFRS as part of inspections report they have been harassed or bullied in the last 12 months, it demonstrates that there is much to be done to improve the workplace.

No surprises on the diversity front either. ‘Despite most services saying they are increasingly committed to improving diversity and inclusion, in this respect change in the sector is woefully inadequate’.

HMICFRS do not help the case by producing a report filled with operational firefighting imagery. They, like many others in the media, fall back on tired old tropes about what fire and rescue services do: they put fires out, do they not? Well yes and they do so much more as the text of the document illustrates but the images do not reflect it. Six non-operational images (mostly of people with clipboards, oddly) and a photo of Grenfell Tower simply do not cut it.

The next round of inspections will start again this year and the State of Fire will now be an annual publication, which does not give fire and rescue services or the national bodies much time to make improvements. The inspections will focus on how services identify and plan for their risks – much of what has been discussed above will be embraced.

Sir Tom says that if reform is to materialise, then leaders in all parts of the fire sector need to make bold, long-term decisions. Working together is the key but are all the parties up for it or will the Home Office need to intervene with its big stick? Maybe some new fire legislation will offer parliamentarians some light relief from Brexit. Let us hope not.


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