Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Cabinet Member "hasn't got a clue"

At last week's West Sussex County Council meeting, Cabinet Member David Barling answered one question by saying, "I haven't got a clue". That seems to sum up his lax approach to questions on our fire & rescue service. He also failed to listen to the question properly, so his snide response was also inept. 

I thought it was about time readers heard how David Barling responds to legitimate questions and concerns from fellow County Councillors, so here is a recording with some photos of the people speaking. The questioner is Bernard Smith, County Councillor for Selsey.

video  

You can watch the whole meeting on the West Sussex County Council website. This item is at 4.25.00 on that recording.

David Barling said, "I know what I am doing about Selsey", but failed to give any detail. Whilst the fire & rescue service has taken some action, there is no evidence that the Cabinet Member has done anything. It is time he told us exactly what personal action he has taken to deal with the part-time firefighter crisis at Selsey and across the County. If not, then he is admitting his abject failure.

You will also notice that, despite responsibility for the fire & rescue service in West Sussex resting with the Cabinet Member, David Barling tries to infer that the questioner has some responsibility. Sadly, that was nothing more than a cheap political trick, designed to deflect attention from his own failures.


Inaccurate and misleading information

In replies to written questions from Councillors, the Cabinet Member again gave inaccurate and misleading information. His reply to Councillor Andy Petch claimed that there were 10 fire engines at the Selsey Academy fire by 08:44, but the incident log shows only 7 had arrived by that time. It was actually 09:36 when the 10th fire engine arrived, some 52 minutes later than claimed. 

He then claims that all 14 fire engines were there by 10:35, but again that is wrong, as the 14th actually arrived at 10:48. The first emergency call was made at 07:52 and the arrival times of all the fire engines, as shown in the official incident log, were as follows:




It really is getting very difficult to believe anything the Cabinet Member says

Councillor James Walsh asked about a previous inaccurate answer from the Cabinet Member. In his reply he said that his answer referred to "responses into Bourne from Emsworth". If that was true, then why did he say, “Hampshire Fire & Rescue don’t actually come a great deal into West Sussex; approximately it’s about 50 times every year”? Perhaps he thinks other County Councillors do have access to a crystal ball, so that they can see what he is thinking whilst he is saying something completely different.

It is also interesting that he claims to have fire & rescue service statistics for a County Council Division, but has previously refused to provide Councillors with that level of detail on the grounds it would take too much officer time to prepare it.


Inferior Response Targets

Another written question from James Walsh asked, "The target response times in West Sussex for the Fire and Rescue Service to arrive at critical fires is set at 8-14 minutes, with a requirement to achieve that in at least 80% of cases. In similar rural counties the following targets are set, which apply to ALL locations in those fire service areas. Hampshire - 8 minutes; Kent, Norfolk, Surrey, Devon and Somerset - 10 minutes; in Suffolk and Oxfordshire - 11 minutes. Is the Cabinet Member happy that we have lower target figures than other similar counties, and that the latest figures show that 25% of incidents wait more than 13 minutes in West Sussex?

One of his excuses is that differing geography makes a difference. It is difficult enough to believe that any differing geography between West Sussex and Hampshire would make that much difference, but Devon & Somerset's geography should make it far more difficult for them to achieve their response targets. Yet the West Sussex maximum target response time is 40% longer than in Devon & Somerset.


So it does seem that the Cabinet Member is happy that West Sussex has inferior response targets and is also failing to achieve them.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Selsey Academy fire - more details

After delaying tactics by East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, I have now received the first part of the incident log for this fire. I first submitted a Freedom of Information request in October last year. (Note: East Sussex operate the Sussex Fire Control and carry out call handling and mobilisation for all calls to fire & rescue in both East and West Sussex).


It was previously reported by West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service that the first crew arrived 16 minutes after the first '999' call, but the log shows that it actually took 18 minutes. Response targets vary in West Sussex, based on their own classification of risk, from 8 to 14 minutes for the first fire engine and from 11 to 17 minutes for the second. So the first fire engine to arrive at this fire did not even meet the target for a second fire engine in a lowest risk area. With Selsey having a resident population of over 10,000, plus several thousand more in holiday accommodation at the time of this incident (August), it is difficult to consider it 'low risk'.

It must be remembered that it was only luck that resulted in Selsey's retained (part-time) crew eventually attending the incident. The Sussex Control had them recorded as not available, but as news of a major fire spread around Selsey, their firefighters called the Sussex Control to say they could respond. Had that not happened, it would have taken 31 minutes to get the minimum of 9 firefighters to this fire. That number was agreed, after a review by several fire & rescue services, as the absolute minimum to ensure safe and effective initial firefighting and rescue at any building fire.

The call was received at 07:52. Of the nearest six fire engines, only two were available. They were the wholetime crewed fire engines at Chichester and Bognor Regis, which were both sent with a total crew of eight firefighters. Three minutes later, a retained crew from Arundel was ordered to attend by the Sussex Control. It is not known if this was to provide the mandatory ninth firefighter, or if it was because more '999' calls were being received.

The incident log also reveals that the Emsworth fire engine is listed before Arundel in the attendance priority schedule, and both Havant and Emsworth are shown before Arundel in the dynamic mobilising list. The dynamic mobilising list is supposed to more reliably show which of the available fire engines can arrive the quickest. It is therefore not clear why the Arundel crew was sent at that time.

At a County Council meeting, Cabinet Member David Barling tried to pass the buck for the initial delay and he clumsily insulted Selsey's firefighters in the process. He then claimed that it was OK, as “lots of other engines all turned up within a few minutes of each other”. So, let us look at that in more detail.

We now know that the first fire engine, from Chichester, arrived eighteen minutes after the first ‘999’ call. The Bognor Regis crew arrived one minute later, as did the Selsey crew that had luckily become available. A total of 14 standard fire engine crews were required to contain and attack the fire. It took 31 minutes to get four of them there. After 1 hour and 5 minutes there were just eight. After 1 hour and 44 minutes it was up to ten, and it was just under three hours (2 hours and 56 minutes) before the final fourteenth fire engine arrived.

Not exactly “within a few minutes of each other”. Now I am sure the Cabinet Member will be prompted to say that they were not all requested at the start. True, but nearly three hours to get enough resources there to control the fire, raises serious questions about assessment, decision making, travel distances and resource availability. This is not intended to be critical of the junior and middle ranking officers who attended, but questions need to be asked. Is training adequate? Have cuts reduced resources to the extent that they are consciously, or subconsciously, overcautious about requesting assistance?

Previous reports have suggested that pressure is being applied to officers in charge to keep assistance requests low. Even without that, officers are painfully aware of the inadequate number of pumps often available. If that is discouraging officers from requesting the right number of resources, then that may explain the very long gap between the first call and the final fire engine to arrive. The speed and weight of attack are fundamentals in effective firefighting. Anything that undermines those principles is dangerous for the public and firefighters alike.


As a comparison I took a look at the response to the Chichester Sainsbury’s fire in 1993. There were fourteen fire engines in attendance in just 45 minutes, and all twenty-six arrived in under two hours.

It may not be the only reason, but the County Council's serious cuts in funding and resources must have played a significant part in the stark difference in the responses to these two incidents.

Friday, 16 December 2016

December Update Part 2

  • Less help from Hampshire Fire & Rescue for West Sussex residents
  • Sussex Fire Control concerns
  • Councillors misled
  • Council elections in May
  • Mid Sussex deserves a 24-hour immediate response crew
  • Government dishonesty
  • Response time failures
  • Are we really safer?
  • WSCC’s anti-Crawley bias
  • What is our safety worth?





Wednesday, 16 November 2016

TV cover Selsey Academy fire delays

Could faster fire response have saved Selsey school?



Whilst we don't know if it would have saved the school, any professional firefighter worth his salt knows that a faster response could have saved the school. 

It seems the call to this fire was made quickly, which should have given firefighters a very good chance of stopping it spreading. If, of course, they arrived quickly. As we know, it was actually one of the worst initial response times ever reported in West Sussex.

We must be very grateful that it was only property lost on this occasion. Had it been a family in Selsey, waking that morning to find their home on fire, there could have been a really tragic loss of lives.

Whilst there are difficulties recruiting and retaining part time firefighters, that was not the primary issue behind the delay. There were clearly enough firefighters in Selsey at the time, as evidenced by their ability to respond after a few phone calls were made.

The real problem is a management change. Instead of firefighters having to notify the times they are unavailable, they now have to notify, several weeks in advance, when they definitely will be available. That has resulted in a significant drop in the number of fire engines available.

As mentioned, there is a problem recruiting and retaining part time firefighters, and that may well have delayed the reinforcements requested by the first crew to arrive from Chichester. That would also have added to their difficulties in containing the fire. 

Yet there are many things that could be done to improve the situation, if the Cabinet Member, David Barling, stopped making excuses and took some positive action. It is high time he showed some leadership, banged heads together, sought help from other Councillors and other organisations, lobbied government and actually looked for the "new and creative options" we were promised to resolve this problem some seven years ago!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Cabinet Member helps the Police & Crime Commissioner’s bid for the Fire & Rescue Service

Having just viewed the recording of the latest West Sussex County Council meeting, I am again dismayed by Cabinet Member David Barling’s performance. I am left wondering, does he not listen to what he is told or asked, does he not understand, does he lack the time to do the job properly, or is he just badly briefed? You may wonder why his performance is so important. 

Well the County Council claim that the fire & rescue service is “safer in our hands”, but unfortunately, it is not in their hands. It is in Councillor Barling’s hands. In West Sussex, Cabinet Members make all the decisions and rarely take notice of concerns or views expressed by other Councillors. There is no effective scrutiny and accountability, so when Cabinet Members dodge, bypass or mock serious questions from fellow Councillors, it seriously undermines their already weak case to retain control of the fire & rescue service. 

Councillor Gordon McAra (Midhurst) voiced concerns about ambulance and police cuts in his area and asked about providing space for those services at Midhurst fire station. Councillor Barling happily claimed to have already “done it”, but then proceeded to say, “we are already in discussions with the police about co-responding”. So, either he has completely failed to understand what co-responding is, or Midhurst firefighters should be worried that they are now going to be dealing with break-ins, shoplifting and assaults!

Someone needs to tell Councillor Barling what co-responding is, because if he doesn’t understand, then he has no hope of making any correct decisions. Co-responding is when the fire & rescue service voluntarily attends medical emergencies for the ambulance service, to satisfy ambulance service response times and to carry out the ambulance service’s legal responsibility until they arrive. It has nothing to do with the police! He should also be aware that it is being pushed by the Government to cover up their under-funding of the emergency services.

Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Crawley Central) told the meeting that there are reports from other co-responding schemes of firefighters having to wait a long time for the ambulance service to arrive. He said this is because ambulance services often divert the resource, initially allocated to co-responder calls, to meet their response targets for a subsequent call. He quite reasonably asked what guarantee the Cabinet Member had that this would not happen in West Sussex.

Mr Barling said he could not give any guarantee and, if they had to wait, they would wait. He then rambled on about AVLS enabling Control to know where fire engines are, despite the fact that Control would obviously know where they had sent the crew! Worryingly, he suggested that if a critical fire & rescue call was received, then firefighters would abandon their patient. Councillor Jones said that they surely could not abandon a patient. Mr Barling’s lame response was, “we will have to wait and see”. 

The Cabinet Members' Reports mentioned that the Crewing Optimisation Group (COG) was part of the co-responding trial and Councillor James Walsh (Littlehampton East) referred to the Cabinet Member’s previous statements about COG making more fire engines available. He made the perfectly logical point that they “can’t be in two places at once”, and went on to say, “this must reduce the availability for them to meet their target, which they are already failing to do, this can only make it worse.” Councillor Walsh also voiced concern about the co-responder training being carried out in secret and without consultation with the public or with County Councillors. He added that this “lack of transparency will play in to the hands of Katy Bourne” (the Police & Crime Commissioner).

Councillor Barling dismissed these concerns by saying, “both of those points are fundamentally wrong”. His failure to grasp these simple and fundamental points should worry everyone. If a COG firefighter is sent to ensure a fire engine is available, but is then sent on a co-responding call, that fire engine will again be unavailable. Response times will therefore increase for any fire or rescue call, as another fire engine must travel from further away.

Improved accountability and transparency are core Government objectives in their plans for Police & Crime Commissioners to take over fire & rescue services. Councillor Walsh’s insight, that this further example of the Cabinet Member’s inadequate accountability and transparency will “play in to the hands of Katy Bourne”, is very significant. By contrast, Mr Barling’s failure to grasp this key weakness in the Council’s case to retain control of the fire & rescue service is deeply troubling.

Councillor Bernard Smith (Selsey) rightly voiced concerns about the failure to meet response times for the Selsey Academy fire. He also questioned the classification of the Academy as ‘low risk’. Mr Barling admitted that the Selsey fire station was not on the run, but then falsely tried to say it was because of recruiting problems. There were clearly enough firefighters in Selsey at the time, as evidenced by their ability to respond after a few phone calls. The real problem was inept management changes.

Previously, Retained (part-time) firefighters would notify Control when they were not available. In addition, most of them would co-ordinate their time off to ensure maximum availability of their fire engine. Now, unfortunately, they are required to give notice, several weeks in advance, of when they will definitely be available. It is that inflexible and bureaucratic procedure that resulted in firefighters, who were physically available to respond that morning, being shown as not available in the Sussex Control.

Mr Barling also implied that “Saturday night” was the reason that sufficient firefighters at Selsey “hadn’t volunteered to be available” on Sunday morning, which was quite uncalled for. He later talked about evidence being important, well if he has evidence to support that slur he should produce it. If he can’t, then he should apologise to Selsey’s firefighters.

In response to Councillor Smith’s concerns about risk classification, Mr Barling embarked on nonsense about Selsey being a ‘low risk’ area. The actual risk to people’s lives, when their home catches fire or they are in a road crash, or of a building being destroyed is no lower in Selsey than it is in Worthing or Crawley. So, he was in fact saying that, because they have fewer calls in the area, he considers it acceptable for fire crews to take longer to attend emergencies in Selsey. It is clearly not about the risk to people or buildings, but about the frequency of calls to the fire & rescue service.

He also made the astonishing claim that “lots of other engines all turned up within a few minutes of each other”. Reinforcements actually took much longer to arrive than they should have done, because of County Council cuts and crewing shortages. The idea that several fire engines, from different stations up to around 30 miles away, all arrived within a few minutes of each other is pure fantasy. Conveniently, apart from the times of the first three fire engines to arrive, the response times for the other crews that attended have not been published.

Councillor Smith also asked if the delayed response had resulted in more damage to the Academy. Now common sense will tell most people that the longer it takes to start firefighting, then the further the fire will spread and the more damage will be caused. In this case firefighters could have been at the school within six minutes, but the first crew took nearly three times longer to arrive. Yet Mr Barling claimed that fire officers had assured him that “this was pure conjecture”. Well if any fire officers did tell him that, then he needs to find some better trained and more experienced fire officers. There is a wealth of evidence, test results and professional experience to confirm that delayed responses result in more damage and can sometimes result in loss of life.

I want the fire & rescue service to be controlled by elected Councillors, but with such a disappointing performance from the Cabinet Member, I must agree with Councillor Walsh - David Barling is making it far too easy for Katy Bourne to make a solid case to take over West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service. 


Sunday, 16 October 2016

More dangerous cuts on the way

I have been receiving worrying reports of more cuts next year. Now it is perfectly true that the root cause of the cuts is the Government, who happily withdraw large amounts of funding from local authorities with no consideration of the consequences. However, West Sussex County Council’s leadership cannot escape some of the blame. They should have been shouting from the roof tops about the damaging effect of cuts, but for a long time they stayed silent. Recent weak criticism by the Council Leader of some Government policies is too little, too late.

In a report on the Council’s Financial Strategy, the Director of Finance said, “This is the most challenging Financial Strategy the County has ever faced, with significant demand pressures faced, on-going significant reductions in grant support from Government and uncertainty over other funding streams and the future funding system for local authorities.” It also seems that some Council services are likely to overspend this year. In addition, many of the savings forecast to come from this year’s cuts, and agreed only in February, may not be realised, thus worsening the overall position.

With costs rising as a result of such things as the weaker pound and the improvement of dreadfully low pay in the care sector, the situation can only get worse. It is also reported that West Sussex receives the lowest school funding level per pupil in the country, amounting to some £200 million less than many London boroughs. School results are already below average in West Sussex, so further cut backs in schools will do nothing to improve results.

There have been suggestions that our Fire & Rescue Service may have to save more than £2 million next year. Last year’s cuts of £1.6 million resulted in the loss of five frontline fire engines. Previous cuts saw the closure of three fire stations and the loss of six fire engines. The often quoted ‘back office’ areas, where it is claimed that cuts can be made without affecting the service, have been squeezed dry, so it is difficult to see how any cuts can be made without seriously affecting frontline response.

The cuts made so far have already seen an increase in response times, in some cases significant increases. Any further cuts to staffing and frontline fire engines will be disastrous, but there is clearly a danger that they will see this as their only option. Could Lancing and East Preston be closed? Might they look again at that illegal crewing system that involves continuous duty, part on station, part on call. Might they go down the route of Hampshire and North Yorkshire and use inadequately crewed vehicles to replace properly crewed fire engines? I sincerely hope none of these will be considered.

They should first shout long and hard at Government and be honest with MP’s, instead of pretending cuts are not damaging. Short sighted cuts to the fire & rescue service do not save the country money. The costs arising from fires and other emergencies, such as property damage, loss of business and social care, all increase and together outweigh any savings. If that fails, the Council need to consider using some of their reserves to soften the blow, and they really must resurrect the plan to merge East & West Sussex Fire & Rescue Services. That may be the only way to save money with minimum effect on frontline service.

With County Council elections next May, perhaps now is the time to start lobbying Councillors to get their finger out and campaign to stop the finance reductions. With most West Sussex County Councillors being in the same political party as the Government, surely they can bring some pressure to bear. I also hope to see Councillors and candidates from other parties regularly speaking out on these issues.    

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Fire Control Failure - London now, Sussex next?

London Fire Brigade Mobilising System Crashes Again!!!

How long before this happens in the Sussex Fire Control, if it has not already happened. Over four years ago we were told that the mobilising system used by West Sussex was in need of replacement and that a new system to cover both East & West Sussex would be provided in 2013.

When the Sussex Fire Control finally went operational in May 2014 there was still no new system. They are having to operate with the original and separate mobilising systems, which require more staff to operate them. Staff they don't have. In March this year, ESF&RS (who run the combined centre) refused to say how many times the long awaited combined mobilising system has failed acceptance tests. They claimed the information was exempt under Section 42(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

West Sussex used to record mobilising errors, so that the cause could be identified and action taken to stop a repeat. Incredibly, ESFRS could not provide any information on mobilising errors! They said, "This information is not recorded by ESFRS and therefore we do not hold the information requested". If they don't record this information, they cannot stop the same error being repeated.

To maintain what they call a "flexible" minimum of seven on duty in the control room, overtime was required on 425 shifts last year (West Sussex previously had a minimum of four on duty for their system). Describing a minimum as "flexible" suggests that, when it suits, the minimum is sometimes lower. They also deny reports that there have been times when non-Sussex Fire Control staff have had to be used to operate mobilising or radio positions in the control room.

It is clear that staff in the Sussex Fire Control are having to work with inadequate equipment, inadequate crewing and are having to work excessive overtime. Inadequate crewing on fire stations also means that they are constantly battling to deploy decreasing resources, even before a single call is taken. When simultaneous or serious incidents have to be dealt with, the additional pressure on them must be enormous.

Sussex Fire Control staff deserve our praise and thanks, but both East Sussex Fire Authority and West Sussex County Council should be condemned for this dangerous mess.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Dangerous neglect of our Fire & Rescue Service

Nationally 10,000 firefighter jobs have been lost in the past six years. Response times are now the slowest they have ever been and delays are reported to have cost lives across the UK. You can read more on the FBU's website.

In West Sussex front-line fire engines have been cut by 24% in just six years. In addition, there has been a failure to honour promises to improve the availability of fire engines crewed by Retained (Part-time) Firefighters. "New and creative options" to achieve this have been replaced by changes that have made the position even worse.

The fire at the Selsey Academy last month was a shocking illustration of how neglected the service has become. Four of the six nearest fire engines were not available, including the one at Selsey, because of a lack of firefighters. 

Up until 2010, fire engines were allocated as follows

The Bosham fire station has been closed and that fire engine was permanently removed. Whilst the other six remain, they are not always crewed.

When the call was received to this fire only these two fire engines had crews

In addition, the standard crew on the Chichester and Bognor fire engines has been cut from five on each to four. How short-sighted that is becomes clear when you realise that for safe and effective operation, five firefighters are required at a car fire and nine firefighters are required at a building fire. So instead of sending one fire engine with five firefighters to a car fire, they have to send two, with four firefighters on each. Instead of sending two fire engines to a building fire, they now have to send three. With the cut from 46 to 35 fire engines to cover the County, in just six years, that strains resources even more.

For the Selsey incident, the third fire engine had to come from Arundel, which is nearly twenty miles away. I dread to think what would have happened if, instead of the Academy being on fire, it had been a house fire in Selsey with people unable to escape. If there were only a total of eight firefighters on the first two fire engines, a breathing apparatus search could not start until the Arundel crew arrived. Either that, or the Chichester and Bognor firefighters would have ignored safety procedures and started a search. That would have exposed themselves to greater risk and to the possibility of disciplinary proceedings.

It actually transpires that there were enough firefighters in Selsey at the time to crew their fire engine, but they were not all shown as available. This is because the only new, but not very creative, option WSF&RS came up with was a revised contract for Retained Firefighters. Instead of reporting when they are not going to be available, firefighters now have to say when they will definitely be available. They also have to do this several weeks in advance. This is not very flexible and has certainly not improved fire engine availability. In fact some fire engines that used to achieve 100% availability, now struggle to achieve 30% availability.

This incident was on a Sunday morning, when historically most crews would have been available, yet on this morning two thirds of the nearest fire engines were not crewed. Worse still, nothing had been done to alleviate the situation. 

Official figures show that they now fail to meet their generous response times for one in four critical incidents. I can now well believe the shocking unofficial reports from within the service of times when less than a third of the significantly reduced number of fire engines can be crewed.

This is a crisis, but the Cabinet Member continues to wear his blinkers and pretend that all is well. It is time that he let Councillors establish a task and finish group to investigate and halt the continuing deterioration in the Fire & Rescue Service's performance.