21 September 2012 by Graham Ellicott, Previous FIA CEO

Last weekend I had a long time to think while I cycled 200kms in a day to raise money for Parity for Disability, a local charity of mine that has been severely affected by the recession and government funding cuts. Cutting through the saddle sores was the overriding view that localism is effective in certain circumstance, my favourite charity for example, but not in other areas and I firmly believe that Fire and Rescue is not one of them.

I’m sure you will ask, why not? Well, in my opinion that’s because the public in the UK has a basic expectation from its emergency services as to what they will do. If they all start to do different things in England then this will devalue their great reputation in the eyes of the guys on the Clapham Omnibus.

These differences are really now beginning to appear as Government funding cuts start to bite in England but also because the Department of Communities and Local Government has decided to allow the 40+ English Fire Authorities to make most of their own decisions with, in many cases, little or no guidance. In particular, there is now a wide variance in attendance policies to automatic fire alarm signals. In some cases Fire and Rescue Services will not attend any of these signals. Whereas, in other cases there is still full attendance and in between there is a ‘Heinz’ 57 variety of approaches.

One might ask, in the 21st century is it not possible for the English services to come together and agree on a consistent policy? It would appear not. Even with enthusiastic support from the fire trade in the way of suggested protocols. Indeed, even if there were say, five different regional policies that would be something but no, every English Fire and Rescue Service does its own thing. It’s no surprise I guess, when you take into account all of the Fire Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs and all of their political counterparts. Trying to fit all of these guys into one room to hammer out a consistent approach would mean hiring the Albert Hall – what private sector company would operate in the same way? None that I know of!

For the Fire and Rescue Services that have chosen not to attend or have reduced attendance, sooner or later there is the distinct possibility that somebody will die as a consequence, property will be destroyed and jobs lost. Surely this is the last thing the economy needs at the moment?! Of course, that’s not to mention the cost to business in having to deal with all of the different policies.

The Government’s Localism Bill also allows Fire and Rescue Authorities, after public consultation, to charge for attendance at certain types of false alarm. Currently only one Fire and Rescue Service has decided to charge but it’s unclear at the moment who will receive any invoices. In the FIA’s opinion, bills should go to the person that can solve the problem, namely the person in charge of the building. If bills are sent to the Alarm Receiving Centre (the interface between the building in question and the Fire and Rescue Service) which has happened in the past before it was ‘outlawed’ in the early 1990’s,  it’s highly likely that they will disconnect and not pass any signals at all; this would be a disaster for fire safety. Again, one would ask why can’t there be a reasonably consistent national approach?

Charging for attendance at false alarms could also lead to the most vulnerable in society being killed or injured as they are the ones who occupy and work in the properties where unscrupulous landlords/owners may turn off alarms rather than risk having to pay for attendance in the event of a false alarm.

With the Fire Sector Summit 2012 almost upon us, you soon will have the chance to hear and participate in a debate concerning Localism and Fire. Please come along, bring your comment and let’s see what happens. Whether or not you agree with my views is moot but the more of a public airing this matter gets the better for all concerned with fire safety.

I’m not raising money for charity this weekend but I will be back on my bike again and I will spend my time thinking. Hopefully not about Localism and Fire though, as cycling through England’s pleasant countryside can be ruined when one has to wonder about disasters waiting to happen.