Time to slow down and reassess: Is speed and weight of attack up to scratch?

FIRE Correspondent Tony Prosser reports on changes to incident response and attendance times driven by a move from national requirements and questions whether integrated risk management plans are influenced more by financial restraints than societal risk.

One of the fundamental premises for providing emergency cover for fires and other types of incidents is that of speed and weight attack. For over a hundred years, a rapid response to a fire, with an appropriate weight of resources has been the best way to reduce damage, limit life loss and generally serve the community.

The calculations for the speed and weight of a response were dictated by the nature of the risk, generally economic and, occasionally, societal life loss; the potential for extension (principally of fire) and the general environment in which the risk area existed – city centre and heavy industrialised, large towns small towns and rural environments. These risk calculations were based upon surveys of an area and led to national requirements for weight of attack and speed of response.

The exercise determining the standards for a given fire (and rescue) service was carried out regularly and the guidance itself modified as a result of changes in national expectations and economic imperatives. Since 2004, the Fire and Rescue Services Act required each fire and rescue service to produce an integrated risk management plan which allowed them to set their own response standards for the first time, albeit ostensibly with the aim of utilising other aspects of fire risk management – i.e. fire prevention and fire protection – to produce a holistic approach to fire in that area. For example, where a reasonable response time could be not achieved by responding resources, a fire prevention strategy would be used in the community to reduce the levels of fire risk.

It has been argued, that instead of IRMP processes being used to properly assess risk, economic realities mean that finance is now the key determinant in the speed and weight of response and that changes imposed post-2008 crash mean that reductions in speed and weight of attack are a function of financial restrictions and not a reduction in inherent community and societal risk. It is possible that the correlation between a reducing budget (and reduced numbers of firefighters, stations and appliances) and reduced fire deaths and injuries is serendipitous and drawing correlations between the two factors may be an optimistic fallacy. As with most things fire related, things may not always be what they seem and unpicking the threads can be illuminating.

Assessing the risk of fire deaths and significant building damage is always problematic: the hazard is always there, the risk may never be realised and as a result the fear associated with a fire or any other type of incident may be diminished to appoint where it is not recognised or even considered. How many times have we heard that the type of incident was unforeseeable, unpredictable, or unprecedented? The danger is, as has been seen at a wide range of incidents in recent years, that while they appear to be a remote possibility, nobody seriously considers them until post-disaster. We need horizon scanning for the next big potential fire disaster: residential care homes, industrial or commercial premises where workers (often part of the “grey” or “twilight economy”) live in the workplace at night in totally inappropriate social and dangerous living conditions.

incident responseDefining Risk
An important gap in the discussion of risk is that in the UK, it has been very difficult to determine what is an acceptable level of risk? Roughly speaking, the chances of somebody dying in a fire is less than one in 170,000 and around one in 23,000 of an injury required hospital treatment. If the average lifespan is 85 years, then the chances of an individual dying from fire within that period is around one in 2000 or 0.05 per cent compared with one in ten or ten per cent over a lifespan for smoking.

The cost of the fire death is a somewhat averaged figure, set at around £1.6 million and based on Department of Transport calculations. Cost benefit analysis calculations using this figure can be used in a variety of ways and has been done so in the past, particularly by Emergency Fire Cover Review (Pathfinder project) at the end of the 20th-century. To paraphrase, if a resource such as a pump, community safety prevention initiative, or community protection measure (eg installation of smoke alarms, sprinklers et cetera,) reduce the death in a particular geographical area, then its cost could be offset by the number of additional lives saved due to that resource.

If it could be calculated that enough additional lives are saved by introducing that resource, then it means that there would be a net societal, and perhaps more importantly, a financial benefit from the saving of lives valued at £1.6 million each. There have been some who expressed the opinion that this model is too simplistic in that while £1.6 million figure is applicable to someone of working age with productive “economic value”. Those whose economic output is relatively low, which tend to be those who die or are seriously injured in fires, possibly have a lower value and invalidate the calculation. From an economic standpoint, this may be a valid notion but is obviously, from humanitarian and moral perspective, absurd and goes against all the values of the Fire and Rescue Service and government itself. However, cost benefit analysis does attempt to come up with a meaningful method of modelling fire cover based upon fire deaths, injuries and losses. This is not always been the case.

Setting Attendance Times
Dating back as far as the Norman invasion there have been attempts to control the fire and its consequences, including the post-1666 Great Fire of London legislation that stood the test of time for centuries. The Royal Commission 1921 to 1923 under Sir Percival Maitland began addressing many key issues including the control of fire services, funding, pay and advanced ideas such as the installation of sprinklers in industrial premises. While the Commission was sitting, a disastrous fire in Hartlepool caused £1 million worth of damage (over £60 million at today’s prices) but ultimately the Commission delivered little of value.

The Riverdale Committee sitting between 1935 and 1936 considered many of the same issues as the Royal Commission and delivered a report in 1936 which made recommendations to consolidate Fire Brigade law, put the Fire Service nationally on a statutory basis, enforcing statutory duties and introduced organised government inspections of brigades. It also considered the setting of standards of attendance, which would have been introduced but for the declaration of war in 1939, which delayed implementation of national standards until the cessation of hostilities.

Riverdale identified several categories of urban and rural environment and identified speed and weight attack categories to manage the risk (fire risk only – saving of life could be seen as a collateral benefit and not a justification for resources) within those areas. Congested urban areas and the industrial areas five minutes, smaller towns between ten and 12 minutes and largely rural areas and scattered villages having attendance time of 15 to 20 minutes. The speed and weight of attack guidance produced in 1944 is set out below:

A Risk: Predetermined attendances due to special risks
B Risk: Two pumps in five minutes, three in eight
C Risk: Two pumps in five minutes and three in eight
D Risk: Two pumps in eight minutes
E Risk: One pump in ten minutes
F Risk: One pump in 20 minutes

Clearly, a relatively sophisticated risk assessment process had resulted in a balance between identified risk and the response in terms of speed and weight of attack, ready for the post-war Britain. Over the decades, as the risks were able to be assessed with greater sophistication, standards were reviewed and by 1995, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Committee (CFBAC – now lost as a result of the Bain review and FRSA 2004) Joint Committee on Standards of Fire Cover reviewed and refined the standards which were amended to:

A Risk: Two pumps in five minutes, one more in eight
B Risk: One pump in five minutes and a second in eight
C Risk: One pump in eight to ten minutes
D Risk: One pump in 20 minutes
Remote Rural Risk: “When possible”
Special Risks: Pre determined attendances as required for the risks identified.

It was also the case that confidence levels for crewing on the first two pumps to arrive was set at five and four firefighters on 75 per cent of occasions, thus ensuring a minimum of nine firefighters within ten minutes at fires within risk categories A to C.

The system was not perfect: as a result of concerns about sending one pump to a residential fire in suburbs of large cities and town centres on medium and small towns (generally categorised a ‘C’ risk) – numerically and geographically the areas with the greatest populations where most fire deaths occurred. Some metropolitan services proposed an ‘Urban C Risk’ to ensure the weight of attack would be appropriate by sending a second pump to all property fires.

An example of where the normal ‘C’ risk speed and weight of attack could create additional risk occurred when initially a single crew (consisting of six firefighters) attended a fire in Zephaniah Way (a ‘C’ risk) in Blaina, South Wales were mobilised to what became a “persons’ reported” fire. While it is debatable that a second crew mobilised simultaneously to the incident would have changed the eventual outcome, it is possible that the rescue of two firefighters trapped within the building following a deflagration by a crew from a second pump (only mobilised once the persons’ reported status was identified) may have prevented their deaths. It should be noted, however that many services never strictly followed the ‘C’ risk categorisation and did send a second pump to all property fires in any event.

rapid responseIntegrated Risk Management Plans
The quest for the Holy Grail of matching risk resources and response continued through a relatively sophisticated process sponsored sequentially by the Home Office (HO), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and carried out by the Fire and Research Development Group (FRDG) – another victim of the Bain Review. The Fire Service Emergency cover (FSEC) Pathfinder project (it too changed its name several times during its existence) developed a scientific approach to a speed and weight of attack model for a variety of risk types. This became a politically charged project when various factions argued the need to increase attendances and attendance times while others argue the opposite case.

Events overtook the project and with the passing of the FRSA 2004, integrated risk management plans became the order of the day, giving fire authorities the ability to set their own attendance times, and, if necessary, the weight of attack to meet existing risks. It was no surprise that most services set standards which are identical to those they were able to achieve immediately before the introduction of IRMPs. Many FRSs set target attendance times and percentage achievement levels for ‘critical’, ‘non critical’ and ‘other’ groups of incidents. Thus, a service may set the target for arriving at critical incidents within eight minutes on 80 per cent of occasions. The more urban a service, the more likely it has whole time responders which have a quicker response time which can be averaged to offset generally slower attendance times in the more rural areas.

The severity and ultimate damage at incidents in urban areas is likely to be less due to be speed and weight of attack while the opposite is true in rural areas due to the extended attendance times. The same is true of life risk where an attendance time of less than five minutes would result in a statistical probability of death of 3.8 per hundred fires (according to the FRDG research) compared with 4.2 deaths per hundred fires where attendance times between six and ten minutes. Similar results occurred with property damage at fires. There is an element of controversy with the reporting of attendance times. Some times reported/represented include the time taken to receive and handle calls while others report the time from mobilisation from station to arrive at the incident. Sometimes the reported attendance times fail to make the standards they use clear.

Rapid Response Vehicles
In the 15 years since introduction of IRMPs and self-regulated standards, many things have changed. For the best part of 60 years a fire engine was a fire engine was a fire engine: this is no longer the case. Introduction of rapid response vehicles (RRVs) can have two purposes: the ostensible purpose it is to have a more rapid attack on a fire (or other critical incident) meaning that interventions will be quicker, damage reduced and, lives maybe saved at fires under the incidents by these crews undertaking early intervention.

The smaller vehicles also have another purpose, reducing the attendance time at these incidents means that ‘the clock’ stops sticking when they, and not the full attendance arrives. Used in much the same way at the ambulance services use single paramedic units, community responders and co-responder fire and rescue resources to improve attendance time figures. RRVs can also help to reduce average attendance times particularly in busy urban environments.

In terms of effectiveness of containing the incident, particularly incidents where there is a serious fire, rapid intervention vehicles generally require additional resources to extinguish the fire. It may be no coincidence that the attendance times generally focus on the first attending pump as this is the main figure that the public would recognise as how quickly help will be at hand. While rapid response vehicles reduce the time for attendances, hybrid vehicles which combine a functional appliance role as well as a generic pumping capability, for example, as a combined aerial rescue pump (CARP) or pump rescue water tower (PRWT), have slower response times generally due to size, weight and lack of manoeuvrability of the vehicles but have an operational requirement as a standard pump.

Attendance Times Slowing
Also increasing attendance times are the ever-increasing traffic levels and congestion and the need for firefighters to rig in their personal protective gear before mounting the vehicles at stations. The Home Office Manuals of Firemanship (sic) written in the 1960s, stated that turnout times at stations should be no more than 20 seconds during the day and 30 seconds at night. Turn out times in London in 2017 were around 76 seconds down from 132 seconds a decade earlier – a significant improvement but still more than expectations of a generation before and represents over 20 per cent of the attendance times within the metropolis.

Attendance times, whether accurate or not (and however defined) continue to extend as a result of circumstances, many of which are beyond the control of the Fire and Rescue Service.

The reduction in the number of stations, appliances and firefighters undoubtedly have a significant impact on attendance times as well alterations to the deployment of resources  brought about by rationalisation (read reduction) of funding. Reducing attendance times will require additional funding which is unlikely to be available in the required amounts in the near future or a radical rethink in how resources are used.

The weight of attack has also been reducing with standard crewing of a maximum of four now becoming the norm in an increasing numbers of services. Recently, an experienced watch commander claimed that the sum of a crew of five is far greater than its component firefighters and that losing the fifth person has a substantially greater negative impact on capabilities than the 20 per cent they represent. A trade-off between a slower speed of attack with a greater weight of attack may be a solution to the reduction in actual numbers of firefighters attending incidents but one that comes at a price and one that does not appear to be embedded in service polices to any great extent, particularly on the first attendances.

Losing National Standards
The loss of national standards – speed and waiting attack, agreed crewing confidence levels – means now the number of resources attending incidents and the consequential capabilities of those reduced assets can differ according to post code as well as managing expectations between neighbouring services. The funding of services is unlikely to be increased until a point is reached where the balance between inputs and outcomes tilts in a negative way.

Because of the nature of fire deaths – usually in ones and twos across the country – it is unlikely that the impact of a gradual increase in fire deaths and injuries will have an immediate funding increase. If a sudden, sustained and significant rise in deaths (or more likely, in large fire losses) occurs, things may change. After all, in the words of Bill Clinton: “It’s the economy stupid”.

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