Fire and Rescue Services play a crucial role in making our communities safer. In this post, we shine the spotlight on our colleagues in the fire and rescue sector to understand what their biggest priorities and challenges are, to build shared understanding across the emergency services community.
The demand that Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) face has changed in recent decades. The number of fire incidents attended by FRSs in England peaked in 2003/04 at 473,563. This number fell to as low as 154,461 in 2012/13, although it has since increased to 182,825 in 2018/19. In 2018/19, only around three in ten incidents attended by FRSs were fires (40 percent were fire false alarms and 28 percent were non-fire incidents). Similar trends are seen across the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The long-term decrease in the number of fire incidents is due to many factors. Some of them are grounded in wider social trends, such as a decline in the number of people who smoke; or in technological changes, such as the use of flame-retardant materials for furnishings. However, the FRSs themselves have also contributed significantly to this trend. They have long worked to prevent fires and improve fire safety, for instance by raising awareness of fire risks in the home and diverting people from fire-related crime.
The challenges each individual FRS faces, across the UK, vary considerably. These include the service’s size and financial position, as well as local factors such as geography, road networks, levels of affluence and deprivation, industries and employment patterns, and – most importantly – the people who live, work and spend time there.
There are four key responsibilities for Fire and Rescue Authorities that they must ensure that they make provision for including:
Extinguishing fires in their area
Protecting life and property in the event of fires in their area
Rescuing and protecting people in the event of a road traffic collision, and
Rescuing and protecting people in the event of other emergencies.
Fire and Rescue Authorities also need to collect information to assess risk in their areas as well as protect the health and safety of their workers. The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 also gives the Government responsibility for producing the Fire and Rescue National Framework which outlines the Government’s high-level priorities and objectives for FRAs in England.
In the modern FRS, fighting fires is only part of the role. Greater emphasis is placed on their role within the community, with firefighters spending more time raising awareness, conducting home fire safety checks and communicating fire prevention and other safety messages.
This requires the ability to communicate with all groups within the community, especially the elderly, young adults and school children. It involves carrying out presentations and talks, visiting people’s homes and talking to residents about how they can plan to avoid and survive a fire if it occurs. In many instances, this will involve the fitting of smoke alarms on behalf of those people to ensure their safety.
Firefighters face all kinds of different challenges – there are unpredictable environmental factors like floods and storms, there are road traffic collisions and unforeseen events like oil spills and the growing threat of terrorism.
Protecting society against all of these dangers requires a forward-looking approach and new kinds of skills and knowledge.
So how are Fire and Rescue Services across the UK adapting and changing to face current and future challenges?
In 2016, the Home Office outlined an ambitious programme of reform within the fire and rescue sector, building on the great strides in prevention and collaboration that they have already made. The revised National Framework seeks to embed these reforms, which include:
National Operational Guidance (NOG) is the foundation for developing operational policies, procedures and training for firefighters to deal with incidents effectively and safely. It is ‘industry good practice’ for everybody in fire and rescue services to draw on.
London Fire Brigade, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Local Government Association have worked together to develop a programme of guidance to replace the existing manuals and bulletins.
A high-level stakeholder group with representatives from across the services in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) as well as the fire sector, such as the trade unions and professional associations debated every new piece of guidance and made recommendations to the Strategy Board.
National Operational Guidance simplifies the development of policies and procedures in FRSs. Every FRS is obliged to carry out its own risk assessments and identify appropriate control measures to protect its staff and communities. The risks in different services are often very similar or identical.
National work to identify hazards and control measures closely aligns to local risks and complete adoption of National Operational Guidance will often be possible. Having a national, high quality product to draw on improves the quality of service delivery and saves a lot of time and money when different services are doing broadly the same thing.
It is also much clearer to those outside the service (including coroners or those responsible for matters such as public inquiries) that the service has a sound body of intelligence and good practice on which its activities are based. They will base their expectations of the service on National Operational Guidance and will expect it to have been appropriately considered.
In his first report, State of Fire and Rescue – ‘The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019’, Sir Thomas P Winsor of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services HMICFRS, outlined four key recommendations for FRSs for the future.
The Home Office has made increasing the diversity of the firefighter workforce a key priority in their fire reform programme, suggesting that the ageing workforce would present opportunities to fulfil this ambition.
The findings from recent HMICFRS reports into the Fire and Rescue Service highlight that while there is work under way in most services to increase diversity across the workforce, some areas are working to further increase race, religion, disability, LGBTQ+ and gender diversity.
The National Fire Chiefs Council has committed to:
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