The Audit Commission has released a new report, Rising to the Challenge in which it claims that fire and rescue services could save as much as £200m a year without threatening the safety of firefighters or the public.
Michael O'Higgins, chairman of the Audit Commission, said: "There is no doubt that firefighters do a great job but the best services have shown they can respond to incidents more efficiently without jeopardising safety. The rest must follow their example."
The report is, I fear, a typical finance person’s view of an emergency service that believes it can be represented by efficiency targets, KPI’s and utilisation rates. It is, in part, a worthy review of the historic statistics and finances, but should represent only one of the views that government, both local and central, uses to decide on the future direction of the Fire Service. The idea that an emergency service can be run just like a business – matching future resources to historic numbers of incidents – is positively frightening, as are the following quotes from the report:
‘What is needed now is a system which deploys the resources of people and equipment so they are prepared to deal with the most likely risks of fire in the most cost-effective way” – surely we’re more concerned with saving lives than money?
“capacity substantially exceeds the likely call on it” – good, long may it continue
“Fire services can do more to reconcile the mismatch between the availability of resources and the time when those resources are required.” – really, and which glass ball should they use to predict where/when the next major fire will occur?
What absolute balderdash – we need a fire service that can deal with incidents and emergencies that are, by their very essence, unplanned and incapable of being predicted accurately. Unusually for once, I concur with a union view, as expressed by Matt Wrack, the Fire Brigades Union General Secretary:
“It is clearly written by people with no knowledge whatsoever of firefighting... whose only interest is in finding ways to penny-pinch on public safety”
“It is true that you can strip fire stations of their night cover, so long as you are willing to risk lives because firefighters cannot get to fires fast enough. We know that the public wants to go to sleep at night knowing firefighters are ready if they are needed. But the Audit Commission does not seem to care what the public wants.”
“ .... more firefighters are being killed at fires than at any time for 30 years. I find it incredible that, in the face of this information, they still put forward proposals which will place firefighters in even greater danger.” (In the five years since 2003, at least 22 firefighters have died while on duty, significantly more than in the previous five years.)
In the face of a 10%+ growth of the population in the UK, firefighter numbers have remained unchanged. The report rightly points to the more efficient use of firefighters – the numbers staying roughly the same but with around 1,000 firefighters moving from full-time to retained – and with more flexible rostering.
But the report chooses not to investigate nor report on the several major incidents which have highlighted shortages of personnel and equipment that has lead to inadequate responses by the fire services to those events and, in some cases, to the deaths of firefighters.
Throughout the majority of its 108 pages, the report focuses on front-line firefighters numbers and efficiencies, whilst avoiding any investigation of the 35% growth in non-firefighting members of staff over the past 7 years. A major omission - why? Surely this is an area where efficiency savings can be made without affecting the front-line services? Or is one set of civil servants trying to protect another? When/if I need the fire service I’d like to have a properly trained firefighter please – not another pen pusher.
Turning back to inappropriate comments from the Audit Commission, Michael O'Higgins said: "In today's financial climate the fire service, like the rest of the public sector, must rise to the efficiency challenge."
But, according to the report, “expenditure by individual fire services in England varied from just under £30 per head of population to just under £60 per head”, and is exhorting the fire services to save a further 10% of their costs. At a time when Central Government is throwing £1,000’s per head of population into the banks, I’m happy to pay the extra £6-£12 per annum to have a fire service that is more likely to be there quickly if/when I may need it.