03 August 2015

Imagine if you will that a service provider entirely dependent on central and local government funding has had its central government income reduced by over 20% in the past five years with a further cut of 7.5% planned for 2015-16 and you will envisage a body under extreme financial pressures. Imagine further that this situation will worsen as the decade proceeds such that the total shortfall by 2020 will be some £600 m. Based on this, you would expect that organisation to have changed over the last five years and to be implementing radical structural and service delivery transformations to survive into the future.

Moving from hypothesis to stark reality, that body is collectively our Fire and Rescue Services [FRSs]. Since 2010, more than 5,000 front-line fire fighter jobs have been lost in the UK and there are 39 fewer fire stations and 145 fewer fire appliances, with the Metropolitan Services especially hard hit as they depend on central funding for up to two-thirds of their income. With control room and on-call fire fighter staff also down, response times to dwelling fires in England are now almost two minutes slower than they were a decade ago.

The future of our FRSs is now strongly dependent on an effective response to not just the ever-deteriorating financial picture but to factors including extremes of weather, an ageing population, the number and types of housing and premises and, not least, the threat of further terrorist attacks.

In 2013, Sir Ken Knight produced a report entitled ‘Facing The Future’ which featured a wide range of discussion points relating to potential changes to the FRSs. FIRESA Council as part of the FIA acted as contributors to the review that included the observations that the 46 Services in England have differing governance structures and delivery models, an example of government’s localism policy that acts as a fundamental barrier to achieving collective efficiencies and made worse by a paucity of sector leadership and sharing of best practice. It refers also to duplication in the design, commissioning and evaluation of fire-fighting products and calls for a more sensible approach to product customisation, issues close to the hearts of our Fire and Rescue supply members. On procurement, the report refers to potential financial and other resource savings through a collaborative approach.

Government made clear its support for some strands of Sir Ken’s thesis including collaborative procurement, infrastructure sharing, mergers and a greater proportion of on-call fire fighters. Material support then came in the form of a £75 m transformation fund that has gone to 37 efficiency-generating projects and within this, £5.54 m to help fund the merger of the Wiltshire and Dorset FRSs.

A key barrier, however, to implementing change in a concerted fashion is that central government continues to adopt a largely ‘hands-off’ approach in respect of fire safety policy and legislation and it’s no coincidence that DCLG, which holds responsibility for our FRSs, is already the most downsized government department. Substituting government responsibility with sector-led change might be viewed positively in principle but organisations such as the FIA and the Fire Sector Federation have no legislative or regulatory jurisdiction and are reliant, therefore, on non-mandatory solutions.   

There is a problem also with an FRS-led approach as to date they have functioned largely autonomously and hence have tended to be divergent rather than collaborative. This is manifest to premises owners who will find that their local FRS response to an automatic fire alarm depends on where they are in the country and also to suppliers to the Fire and Rescue sector who, for example, will have to spray paint their fire appliances differing shades of red or provide one of 97 variants of ladder depending on which FRS is the customer.        

A joint FIRESA Council/CFOA seminar held at the Fire Service College in December 2014 provided an invaluable focal point for the state of play going into this year. Then Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt stated that the public sector must exist within its means and that there must be new ways of thinking and resourcing, adamant that the pace of change must gather momentum and address issues such as product standardisation, collaborative procurement and equipment testing. CFOA Vice-President voiced strong support not just for Fire and Rescue collaboration but also for ‘Blue Light’ cross fertilisation which is coming into increasing focus, while CFOA Board member Ann Millington conceded that the FRSs need to be better clients and must achieve reward for collaboration rather than for separatism, welcoming the creation of an FRS ‘national back office’. Pivotal to the proceedings was the FIRESA Council presentation given from the suppliers’ perspective which led us through the ultimately failing National Procurement Strategy introduced by the then ODPM in 2005, the austerity measures since 2010 and via Sir Ken Knight’s report to the present time of moves to make substantive changes that must preserve FRS capabilities with less financial resource.

Looking at the individual responses of the FRSs, we’ve seen that the financial cuts have already impacted materially on front-line and backroom resources and that is set to continue. A snapshot internet search at the time of writing yields news stories in the last month alone of cuts taking place at no less than a dozen FRSs. The Wiltshire/Dorset merger to reach fruition in April next year may be repeated elsewhere in the country, itself following the creation of a single Service in Scotland in 2013, while Cleveland FRS maintains its interest in becoming a Public Service Mutual. Government in the previous parliament had already attempted to enable through a thwarted legislative order to allow local authorities to contract private provision of fire and rescue and may still be minded to do this while some Services, including London and Surrey, have already contracted out some non front-line functions. We note also that the Fire Service College was sold to Capita in 2013. Meanwhile, the spotlight now falls on rescue equipment itself with fire appliance lifetimes being extended and some eventually replaced with smaller specialist vehicles such as Small Fire Units.

Co-responding and shared ‘blue light’ services are much on the agenda and there is significant evidence that some FRSs are actively developing synergies with the police and ambulance services; indeed, some have received transformation funding for such projects. In July, a joint Police and Fire and Rescue Committee was established to consider future collaboration between the two services in Merseyside.           

We have perhaps already reached the point at which unilateral measures within each FRS cannot achieve the efficiencies and financial savings needed and in fairness, this has been recognised for some time. It is pleasing, therefore, to see the equally difficult more nationally-driven initiatives gaining traction although some of these are certainly not without controversy and will require careful debate if they are to offer genuine improvements to the Services rather than being simply cost-cutting measures. Certainly, a more concerted approach to equipment specifications, evaluation and procurement are unequivocal gains that can and must be pursued. More contentious is the Home Secretary’s view that the FRSs should come under the ultimate jurisdiction of Police Commissioners, not surprising given the low level of public support for these Commissioners and the fact that the police and fire currently fall under different government departments. Whether it is central government, local government through the Local Government Association, CFOA that is looking at several national initiatives or indeed other relevant bodies such as the FBU, each has their own priorities and visions for the future that can appear largely distinct. In any case, with Westminster maintaining what has been described as a policy vacuum in respect of Fire and Rescue, local decisions are set to dominate over any measures to be implemented at a national level.                                  

Donald Rumsfeld’s much-derided quote from 2002 which features knowns and unknowns in several permutations actually makes more sense than it is given credit for and the principle may be applied here. As far as FRS evolution is concerned, there are some known knowns but quite a few known unknowns although hopefully not any unknown unknowns. Without extending this analogy in detail, it’s clear that there are many transformations being pursued which are indeed known but what is less certain given practical and political challenges is which of these will gain tangible momentum over the coming years and, of those, which will be localised, regional or possibly national. What we can be sure of is that the FRSs overall will be very different by the end of this decade with or without government intervention.