What does the future hold for Fire and Rescue Services?
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16 December 2014
Everyone engaged in the Fire and Rescue sector will be acutely aware that fundamental changes are already taking place to our FRSs, prompted largely by the need to deliver a more cost-effective service across the UK. What is clear is that their collective mode of operation will be very different in just a few years than it is now and that several key strands of this evolution will be determined by a co-operative partnership between the FRSs and the suppliers to the sector.
Since Sir Ken Knight’s ‘Facing The Future’ report of 2013 which highlighted a number of options for change, central government has made clear its support for some strands of his thesis including collaborative procurement, infrastructure sharing, mergers and a greater proportion of on-call fire fighters. Material support has come government in the form of a £75 m transformation fund that has gone to 37 efficiency-generating projects and within this, £5.5 m to help fund the forthcoming merger of the Wiltshire and Dorset FRSs. What has been apparent for some time, however, is that change is to be sector-driven and delivered and that this will require fire-fighting equipment suppliers to be fully engaged in relevant aspects of this evolution.
A Memorandum of Understanding signed by CFOA and FIRESA Council earlier this year has proved timely and among the commitments that have already been realised was to convene a joint seminar that has provided an indispensable focal point for the collaboration of Fire and Rescue practitioners with their product and service providers. Taking place at the Fire Service College on 2nd December, delegates enjoyed an informative and thought-provoking agenda that brought the salient issues into focus and which will empower both FRS personnel and industry suppliers to be active participants in the future of our Fire and Rescue Services.
Chaired by CFOA President Peter Dartford, the programme began with a welcome from our host, Fire Service College CEO Jez Smith, who set the background for the day, noting the need for avoidance of duplication among the FRSs and the creation of economies of scale wherever possible. The College itself has a vital role to play in partnership with other stakeholders and Jez called for bold leadership within the FRSs that will challenge the existing disparate practices.
Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt providing the Keynote Address welcomed the CFOA/FIRESA Council MoU before stating that the public sector must exist within its means and that there must be new ways of thinking and resourcing. She was adamant that the need for change is overwhelming and that the pace of change must gather momentum and address issues such as product standardisation, collaborative procurement and equipment testing through the CFOA/FIRESA Council axis. The Minister also touched on FRS personnel issues such as on-call fire-fighters and volunteers and also looked to the fire protection industry to continue to drive down the number of unwanted automatic fire alarm signals.
The CFOA Vice-President Paul Hancock encapsulated the theme of the day in his presentation entitled ‘The Importance of Working Together’, voicing strong support not just for Fire and Rescue collaboration but also for ‘Blue Light’ cross fertilisation which we know to be a longer term vision of the present coalition government. He suggested that with less than half of the austerity measures currently implemented, the way ahead will require close working partnerships that promote a clear vision with or without direct government involvement.
CFOA Board member Ann Millington took the podium with a strident and entertaining view on procurement of the future, conceding that the FRSs need to be better clients and that we must grasp opportunities to work together. The Services, she said, must achieve reward for collaboration rather than for separatism and welcomed the creation of a ‘national back office’ that presently has 30 FRSs represented. Ann is firmly behind product standardisation [quoting the existence of 97 variants of ladder in the UK market], greater visibility of equipment innovation requirements and a whole new approach to procurement that begins with agreed specifications and proceeds to tender with sufficiently flexible contracts via a lead authority for each product type. In her words, repetition of these processes over 46 FRSs is immoral and she was especially scathing of the ever-growing number of contract providers and the duplicate Frameworks that emerge which are so costly and time-consuming for the suppliers to address.
Pivotal to the proceedings was the presentation from the suppliers’ perspective given by FIRESA Council’s Chair and Vice-Chair, Derek Gotts and Ian Callaghan respectively. Following an introduction to the composition and work of Council, Derek noted its primary objectives which focus critically on strategic partnerships with CFOA and the FRSs, the Fire Sector Federation, the Fire Service College, central and local government and a range of events organisers. He then moved on to the suppliers’ experience of the market over the last ten years which has seen the ultimately failing National Procurement Strategy introduced by the then ODPM in 2005, through the austerity measures since 2010 and via Sir Ken Knight’s report to the present time of tangible moves to make substantive changes that must preserve FRS capabilities with less financial resource. The NPS brought uncertainty and a hiatus in orders and led, contrary to its intentions, to a market that sees a growing profusion of Frameworks and tenders, mini competitions and Framework call-offs that are as onerous as new tenders and what remains a disjointed approach comprising elements of regional and local procurement. There is clear evidence of duplication in many aspects of the FRS/supplier interface and unnecessary waste in terms of both personnel and financial resource that must be rectified.
Ian Callaghan went on to detail the FIRESA Council/CFOA MoU and some specific issues that Council wishes to address, these including: support for product innovation; collaborative procurement [including visibility of medium-to-long term requirements]; equipment specification and standardisation; and remaining influential in coalition and opposition fire safety policy stretching to proposals for joint ‘Blue Light’ operations. He emphasised particularly the equipment evaluation scheme which seeks to eliminate the frankly ludicrous situation, and a prime example of duplication, whereby each FRS carries out its own independent assessments. Backed by output-based national specifications, suppliers envisage an open and transparent model that is divorced from any specific procurement processes and, importantly, is dynamic, enabling modified and new equipment to be evaluated as required. Perhaps headed by a Technical Committee and with work carried out by product type by appropriate lead organisations, the aim is to establish a library of rigorous test reports that, rather than promoting a ‘winner takes all’ link to procurement, enables each FRS to reach its own judgment on its preferred product from a technical and users’ standpoint.
An Open Forum which followed the morning session proved lively and impassioned. While it’s not possible to recount the discussions in detail here, what became evident to all is that if, being the real world, there will be significant challenges in getting to that better place that we anticipate, there is both the will and the vision to lead us there.
The agenda for the afternoon commenced with Councillor Mark Healey of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee offering a local government perspective and a fascinating view on the realities of what the Authorities have to do to in response to funding cuts. He suggested that a lack of central government direction has created a policy vacuum that is being filled with individual solutions. His Devon and Somerset Fire Authority enjoys a good relationship with its FRS and has already made a number of changes including moving towards more on-call fire fighters, investing in light rescue pumps and, following the merger, making long term revenue-generating use of its unoccupied sites.
Given the likelihood of further FRS mergers in the future, the address from ACO Robert Scott of the Scottish FRS proved an invaluable insight into the amalgamation of the previously separate Services north of the border. While its capital budget has grown from £15 m to over £22 m [although VAT can no longer be reclaimed], there were significant criteria attached to the merger including no frontline redundancies or station closures, no alterations to personnel T&Cs and no carry-over of financial reserves. Robert was able to report, however, that many duplications have been eliminated and that the combined Service is proceeding with future business planning and restructuring that will achieve further efficiencies. His message to the audience was that while the position of the English and Welsh FRSs were their own to evaluate and respond to as they see fit, they would do well to shape their own futures before government imposes its will upon them.
There followed David Matthews, a renowned expert in the field of global standards in Fire and Rescue, who offered an appraisal of the current position and calling vehemently for greater FRS involvement in the various Standards Committees. The formal programme was completed by CFO Paul Fuller who spoke of the work of the Fire Sector Federation which is achieving notable outputs through its various Workstreams.
Initial feedback on the event is encouragingly positive, with Andy Roe of Godiva saying ‘it brought together influential speakers from within the government and industry to focus on the future direction of Fire Service procurement under current and future government funding’. Suzanne Prince of WL Gore opined ‘as a FIRESA council member I was delighted that the seminar was a great success. It has now set the framework to work as a partnership with CFOA, the Fire Services and central and local government in the future’. Lesley Wardle of Primetech said ‘I was proud and privileged to be involved with an event that attracted the calibre of speakers we had on the day. This certainly has put FIRESA Council on the map and will hopefully show prospective members the value of being part of the FIA/FIRESA Council.’ Andy Barber of Antares TDC commented that ‘the event created a real inflection point. Penny Mordaunt MP stated the need for the FRAs to drive change with an increased pace, suggesting that technology and thereby industry had a significant role to play in the future of the Fire and Rescue Service while ACO Robert Scott gave a poignant insight into changes made there which actually served as an excellent warning to the 46 FRAs in England to take control of their own destiny. The question is, can you afford not to be part of this debate? Join the FIA/FIRESA Council and get involved!’