Monday, 14 August 2017

Top job changes could cost taxpayers an extra £300,000

On 1st April, I submitted a Freedom of Information request for details of the business case and costs in relation to the recent splitting of the Executive Director & Chief Fire Officer post in to two posts. I also requested the same information in relation to the decision to combine the two posts in 2014. The request was acknowledged and I was told to expect a response by 4th May. It did not come, so I sent a reminder. It was acknowledged, but I still had no response.

I contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, and they wrote to West Sussex County Council, on 16th June, to point out their failure to comply with the legislation. They also directed WSCC to respond within ten working days, but they did not. This breach of the law is currently awaiting allocation to a case officer at the Information Commissioner’s Office.

On 7th August, I finally received a response from West Sussex County Council, but it is far from satisfactory. Astonishingly, they claim that there are no documents to justify these senior management changes. The suggestion that the person, or persons, approving the decisions in 2014 and in 2017 had no paperwork setting out the justification, rationale and cost of these changes defies belief. If the claim is true, then I feel sure the Local Government Ombudsman and the National Audit Office would have serious concerns about such lax governance.

According to West Sussex County Council £532,000 - £353,000 = £19,000

They have provided some salary costs, but claim they don’t know the associated cost of provided vehicles, accommodation and support staff. Something else I suspect the Local Government Ombudsman and the National Audit Office would be concerned about. The salary figures provided are incomplete and appear designed to mislead. They claim that replacing a combined post, which cost £193,000 per year, with two posts totalling £372,000, will only cost an extra £19,000!”

The figures shown for the combined post included the Deputy Chief Officer post, but the figures for the separate posts do not. As they still have a Deputy Chief Officer, that cost should be included, so the extra cost is at least £179,000. That figure does not include the vehicle, accommodation and support staff costs associated with the extra post.

It should also be remembered that the original plan was for Sean Ruth to continue as Executive Director, whilst receiving a Chief Fire Officer’s pension in addition. Despite retiring from the Chief Fire Officer part of his combined role, it seems his salary was not going to be reduced. That is quite astonishing when you consider that the new Chief Fire Officer would be responsible for 90% of the directorate’s budget.

Add in the pension payments and the difference in costs between 2016-17 and 2017-18 must be an increase of around £300,000 per year. Sean Ruth recently changed his mind and left WSCC, but if the Council appoint a new Executive Director, council taxpayers would still be forking out an unnecessary £193,000 on top of the pension costs.

Since 2010, the County Council has cut personnel crewing fire engines by 32% and middle managers by 26%. Senior manager posts were initially cut, but increased again in 2013.

It is utterly scandalous that nearly a third of the firefighters who save lives in West Sussex have been cut, whilst highly paid manager posts have doubled, even though they manage fewer people. The Council said they could not afford £63,000 a year to keep second fire engines at Midhurst, Petworth and Storrington, but they are happy to squander money on senior manager posts.

The misleading figures from WSCC mean the exact full costs are unclear. It is obviously more than £19,000, but is it £179,000, £193,000, £300,000, or something else? We must be told exactly what the full costs of this debacle are and council taxpayers deserve a thorough investigation in to this appalling misuse of their money.


WSCC’s creative accounting:





Single post 2014
Pay
NI
Pension
Total
Executive Director and CFO
140,000
18,000
35,000
193,000
Director & Deputy Chief
116,000
15,000
29,000
160,000
Total
256,000
33,000
64,000
353,000





Separate posts 2017




Executive Director
140,000
18,000
35,000
193,000
Director & CFO
130,000
17,000
32,000
179,000
Total
270,000
35,000
67,000
372,000

Difference: £372,000 – £353,000 = £19,000

The figures for the separate posts that should have been shown:





Separate posts 2017
Pay
NI
Pension
Total
Executive Director
140,000
18,000
35,000
193,000
Director & CFO (new post)
130,000
17,000
32,000
179,000
Director & Deputy Chief
116,000
15,000
29,000
160,000
Total
386,000
50,000
96,000
532,000

Difference: £532,000 - £353,000 = £179,000
(not including Sean Ruth’s pension, and vehicle, accommodation & support staff costs for the new CFO post)


Saturday, 22 July 2017

Cabinet Member plays Russian roulette with public safety

I had thought we could not have a worse Cabinet Member looking after the fire & rescue service than David Barling. After Friday’s County Council meeting, I am not so sure.

High-rise buildings

The new Cabinet Member, Debbie Kennard, appeared at best complacent, at worst inept. She is new in the post, so some nervousness is forgivable, but rejecting serious safety concerns with waffle is not.

Following a written answer, Councillor Michael Jones voiced his concerns that the response to a fire in a high-rise building, when it is detected automatically, is frighteningly inadequate. If a fire is suspected by a person, then around 30 firefighters with six fire engines, an aerial ladder platform and a command vehicle will be sent immediately. Yet, if relatives have sensibly had an automatic alarm installed in a vulnerable person’s flat, and that detects a fire, only one fire engine with four firefighters will be sent. Firefighters will be unable to carry out rescue or firefighting until they call for backup and that help eventually arrives. The Cabinet Member ignored his concerns. 

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is inconceivable that any responsible professional would recommend a policy that puts the public and firefighters in such danger. This can only be the Cabinet Member playing Russian roulette with the lives of the public she claims to protect and the firefighters she claims to support.

"Smoke detectors do detect real fires"

Councillor Jones also voiced concern about the estimated response time for high-rise buildings in West Sussex. The second fire engine won't always meet their generous response standard, and the full response could take more than half an hour to arrive. Response times that are all well over those recommended to the Prime Minister following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Yet the Cabinet Member failed to answer the Councillor's questions. Instead she read out some notes, which must have been prepared for an entirely different question. 

Similarly, when Councillor Kirsty Lord asked about inspections of schools, following the cladding problem at Grenfell Tower, the Cabinet Member decided to talk about the high-rise buildings that had been inspected.

Councillor Jones also questioned the previous lack of fire & rescue service inspections in high-rise buildings. He was told that inspections were risk assessed and priority given to vulnerable people "in buildings that are compliant with fire safety legislation and where staff are trained appropriately”. Councillor Jones pointed out that some people in high-rise buildings are also vulnerable, but there are no trained staff. The Cabinet Member was clearly not concerned with vulnerable people in high-rise buildings (shades of Kensington & Chelsea Council) and passed the buck to borough & district councils and building owners.

Cabinet Member unaware of her responsibilities

Councillor Brenda Smith asked if sprinklers will be included in new buildings built under the PropCo policy, which is where the County Council is the developer. The incredible answer from Councillor Kennard was, “we would love to put sprinklers in to buildings, but obviously we go by the regulations that are given to us by the fire & rescue authority”. 

Someone needs to tell her that the County Council is the fire & rescue authority and that, as Cabinet Member, she is responsible.

Cabinet Member fails to support fire service recommendations for sprinklers

Councillor James Walsh asked the Cabinet Member if she shared his concerns about reports that the Selsey Academy would ignore fire & rescue service advice and not install sprinklers in their new building. This was a golden opportunity for the Cabinet Member to show her support for the fire & rescue service and to promote the need for sprinklers to protect residents and firefighters. Instead, she chose to defend the company running the Academy by saying, “it is their choice”.

Police & Crime Commissioner's takeover threat is still real

Police & Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne, has not abandoned her plans to take over the fire & rescue service, but has postponed the decision for two years. Sadly, the Cabinet Member’s response shows that she has yet to grasp the severity of the threat. Key elements of the Government’s case for change are that fire authorities need to be more accountable and transparent, and those are key weaknesses in West Sussex. Yet the Cabinet Member seemed oblivious and failed to respond positively, even to questions from Conservative Councillors.

Councillor Michael Jones threw the Cabinet Member a helpful lifeline by suggesting a cross-party group to work on dismantling the PCC’s report and strengthening the County Council’s case. He voiced concern that the Strategic Reference Group, which is there to guide the PCC’s review, only has Conservative politicians on it. Yet the Cabinet Member ignored the very important accountability and transparency issues that Councillor Jones was raising and rejected his suggestion.

County Councillors from all parties praised fire & rescue service personnel, which is great, but they are not the issue. The Government will eventually decide this issue on how well the County Council is running the service, not on how well staff are doing their jobs. The Cabinet Member kept referring to briefing notes sent to County Councillors, but clearly failed to grasp that is not providing proper accountability and transparency. Denying Councillors, from all political parties, the opportunity to discuss the issues and not making information available to the public, will simply strengthen Katy Bourne's hand.

Unless the Cabinet Member takes her head out of the sand, and recognises that it is her performance and the Council’s accountability and transparency that will be judged, then I fear for the future of our fire & rescue service.

Sean Ruth farce

Councillor James Walsh rightly criticised a written answer he was given on the dodgy deal that was done to enable Sean Ruth to ‘retire’ and keep his job. He pointed out that claiming the Executive Director post was not a Fire & Rescue Service post, when 90% of the Director’s budget is for the fire & rescue service, was less than honest. The answer also dishonestly claimed that there were no extra costs involved in splitting Sean Ruth’s post in two, and paying him a pension as well as his salary.


Council Chairman Lionel Barnard’s laughable defence of this farce began with him claiming that it was a “totally different post Mr Ruth was after”. Then, like a petulant teenager who doesn’t want to discuss their bad behaviour, Mr Barnard said, “he has decided not to take it up, so it is null and void.”


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Why do decision makers never learn?

Friday was a depressing day for anyone concerned with fire safety and the fire & rescue service.


First, we learnt from local news that, following last year’s fire, the Trust running the Selsey Academy does not intend to fit sprinklers when they rebuild the school. Professional advice and common sense say that sprinklers should be fitted, but TKAT (The Kemnal Academies Trust) say they won’t, because they are “not a requirement”. Well, it is not a requirement to look for traffic before crossing the road, it is just a recommendation, but only a fool does not do so.

TKAT claim, “Our pupils are at the heart of everything we do”, but this shows that they are not. They may believe their procedures will protect the lives of pupils, but major school fires have many other consequences. Studies have shown that they have a detrimental effect on pupils’ education, which leads to lower than expected achievement. They cause emotional distress for staff, pupils and the wider community. They also have a negative impact on the school’s social life, and an economic impact on the school, local authority, parents, staff and community groups.

Not forgetting of course, that such fires pose a danger to firefighters and to nearby property. All these negative effects and risks can easily be avoided by fitting sprinklers, which is comparatively cheap in a new building. This selfish and short-sighted decision begs the question, what other recommendations and good practice do TKAT ignore, simply because they are “not a requirement”? TKAT, who run a dozen schools in West Sussex, must reconsider and do the right thing for pupils, staff, local residents and firefighters.


The second shock was the revelation, on BBC Newsnight, that firefighters might have saved everyone in Grenfell Tower, if senior managers had made different decisions before the incident.

Crucial amongst them was the policy decision to no longer automatically send an aerial appliance to high-rise building fires. Firefighters had to request one, which meant it arrived over half an hour after the first call. I believe that there was every possibility that the external fire spread could have been stopped, if the aerial appliance had arrived in 11 minutes (time it took to arrive after being requested), instead of taking 32 minutes to get there.

The other fundamental issue, which the presenter easily recognised, but ex-Chief Fire Officer Ronnie King failed to recognise, was the absence of a plan B. We know that fires in this sort of building are supposed to stay in the flat of origin, but we also know that things can sometimes go wrong. Yet, it seems fire service planning, procedures and equipment only ever allowed for plan A. If everything and everyone does what is expected, then that is fine, but if not you need a plan B. I have to say that Ronnie King’s comments were very disappointing and illustrated by his comment, “I wouldn’t want to criticise any policy of London Fire Brigade”.

This fire appears to have spread beyond the flat of origin because of alterations, but there are many other situations where plan A will not work and a plan B becomes essential. For example, explosions that damage the structure. These can result from gas leaks, gas cylinders, illegal drug labs or bomb making. They can range from something as simple as fire doors not being shut, or fire spreading via open windows, to damage caused by a light aircraft hitting the building.


Cuts made in 2014 inevitably slowed the response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Six central London fire stations were closed and other fire stations lost their second fire engine, so reinforcing fire crews had to travel further and took longer to arrive. There was also a delay in getting extended duration breathing apparatus to the incident. With a high probability of it being needed in a high-rise building fire, why was it not on the initial response?

Both the aerial appliance and extended duration breathing apparatus issues suggest a worrying complacency amongst senior fire service managers, or a lack of experience, or inadequate risk assessment, or a blinkered mindset, or all of those.


The communication problems resulted from both equipment and procedural limitations, but these are not new. So why has nothing been done to overcome them? As for water supplies, I am not surprised that Thames Water claim there was no problem. It would not be the first time they denied responsibility and then later, when that did not work, claimed it was someone else’s fault. However, unlike other countries, there are no legal requirements for water companies to provide a specific quantity and pressure of water for firefighting in the UK. This was not such an issue when water supply was in public ownership, but things seem to have deteriorated with privatisation. Perhaps another issue in need of reform.


So, how would West Sussex cope with such a fire? Well, I understand that WSFRS do send an aerial appliance as part of the initial response to a high-rise building fire. A positive, but tempered by the fact that, for many parts of the County, the response time could be over 30 minutes and in worst cases over an hour. With greater distances, fire station closures and the removal of a quarter of frontline crews in West Sussex, standard fire engines would also take much longer to arrive than they did in London.

I am not aware of WSFRS having any extended duration breathing apparatus, or where the nearest would be. Water supplies and communications are unlikely to be any better and could well be worse than in London. If anyone can clarify these points, I would like to hear from you.

As for plan B, I don’t have confidence that this has been considered in West Sussex. Risk assessment seems to have been focused on finding excuses to cut resources, rather than reasons to ensure that the public and firefighters are properly protected. When you realise that someone in WSFRS looked at the problems posed by larger aircraft, with more passengers and fuel, and then decided to reduce the service’s response to aircraft emergencies, it is difficult to have confidence in plan A, let alone plan B!

I believe one of the significant problems in relation to both stories is applying business planning methods to the public sector. In the business world, if it will cost more to produce something than you will get back in sales, then you don’t do it. If you are already doing it, then you stop doing it. In the public sector there are no sales, so in the cost/benefit analysis the costs are easily worked out, but the benefits are less tangible.

So, for the Selsey Academy, did they include in the benefits column not damaging pupils’ education, not causing emotional distress to staff, pupils and the wider community, not harming the school’s social life, avoiding an economic impact on the school, local authority, parents, staff and community groups, not putting neighbouring properties at risk, and not endangering the lives of firefighters? I suspect not.

In the case of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, were assessments prepared regarding the decision to no longer send aerial appliances to high-rise buildings, and before cutting the number of aerial appliances in LFB? If they were, I am sure that the benefits column did not include avoiding dozens of fire deaths. It is also telling that in every city in the rest of Europe and in North America, one or more aerial appliances would have been sent immediately to a fire in a building like Grenfell Tower.

It is simply not good enough for anyone, be they property owners, fire service managers or politicians, to increase the risk to the public and firefighters. Lessons must be properly learnt, acted on, and never forgotten.


Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Update - Louise Goldsmith and the Grenfell Tower Tragedy

Well the Council Leader did reply to my comment on her Blog.

Pulling together in a time of emergency


To save readers the time of switching to her Blog, here is her reply:

Fire services across the county have had to make savings and in West Sussex we haven't been immune to that. However we made sure where savings are made they are about increasing how efficient the service is. We are confident that our fire and rescue service is equipped to keep residents safe in their homes and on the roads. We have plans for investment in our fire service for the future to make sure they continue to be a modern fire service able to respond to the needs of the community.
Louise.


I have replied as follows:

Well I am grateful for your response, but sadly not at all reassured. Your confidence is quite surprising, as all the evidence following the cuts indicates that the fire and rescue service is now less able to keep residents safe.

Whilst it is true that County Council funding has been cut by a Government unconcerned with the effect that will have, WSCC still had choices. For political reasons, in previous years, you chose not to raise council tax to protect the fire & rescue service. As Council Leader you cannot pass the buck entirely to the Government.

I would urge you to reconsider your confidence. The designers of the Titanic were confident it would not sink. The Prime Minister was confident of a massive majority. I also suspect that, if asked a month ago, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea would have said they were confident that the residents of Grenfell Tower were safe in their homes!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Louise Goldsmith and the Grenfell Tower Tragedy

Leader of the County Council, Louise Goldsmith, has commented on the Grenfell Tower tragedy in her blog - 

Pulling together in a time of emergency


I have posted a comment, but that needs to be approved before anyone can see it. Just in case it is censored, my comments are reproduced below:

"You are quite right that our emergency services pull together in a time of emergency. It is just a shame that you and your colleagues have made it harder for them to do that. If County Councillors pulled together to keep us safe, then the number of firefighters, fire engines and fire stations would not have been cut.

With fewer firefighters on each fire engine, they must take more risks, must work even harder, and will inevitably take longer to carry out the rescue, or fight the fire. With a 24% cut in fire crews, fire engines are taking longer to arrive, especially in rural areas and when several crews are needed. It is not good enough to praise them, whilst failing to provide them with the resources they need.

It is reassuring that high-rise buildings are now being inspected, but worrying that cuts have seen fewer regular fire safety inspections, especially where multiple lives may be at risk. If politicians learn anything from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I hope it is that more thought is given when considering what may seem like mundane funding decisions. The wrong decisions made in a safe committee room can later have the most tragic consequences for the very people the politicians should be protecting.   

For the record, it is London Fire Brigade, not London Fire and Rescue Service."

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grenfell Tower Tragedy

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has stunned us all. It may not have happened in West Sussex, but many of the issues and concerns are equally valid across the UK.

Those of us who are, or were, firefighters can only admire the London firefighters who took such risks and punishment to try and rescue people. I am sure we can also relate to the extreme frustration and despair that they must have felt when they were unable to help more people. Especially when they could see and hear victims, but could not reach them.

It is quite right that there will be a public inquiry and it must cover everything, from when the building was planned, right through to all aspects of the response. Every organisation, body and individual who may have taken, or failed to take, action that contributed to the tragic outcome and post incident inadequacies must be investigated. They must examine what influenced decisions and then assess each one to see if it was right or wrong to take that decision at the time it was taken.

I know many people want an organisation or individual to blame, but I doubt there will be a clear cut ‘x’ knew doing ‘y’ was extremely dangerous, but did it anyway. Disasters usually result from a series of failures and, had any one of them not happened, then disaster would have been avoided. If there is a significant individual failing, that must be dealt with, but that must not allow other contributing failings to be swept under the carpet. If failings justify prosecution then so be it, but the most important thing is to act to prevent all the failings, large and small, from being repeated. There is already strong evidence that lessons learnt previously were not acted upon, and that must not happen again.

We will have to wait for the full facts to emerge, but I would not be surprised if several of the following issues did not play a part:

This is what can happen when politicians:
  • dismiss the professional concerns of firefighters as scaremongering
  • reject genuine public concern as politically motivated
  • remove the inspectorate that monitored fire & rescue services
  • replaced regular fire safety inspections by experienced and trained firefighters with tick box inspections by people with limited training and little or no experience
  • handed fire risk assessments over to the private sector, without any monitoring of their standards, abilities and effectiveness
  • falsely claim that fewer emergency calls justifies fewer fire crews
  • use the fire & rescue service as a political football
  • legislate, but don’t provide funding and fail to monitor those given duties by that legislation
  • fail to understand that Police & Crime Commissioner control of the fire & rescue service will devalue and degrade the service
  • cut local authority funding and deprive them of the money to improve fire safety in their own properties, and to provide an effective planning and building control service to monitor safety in other buildings

This is what can happen when Architects/Developers/Local Authorities:
  • design buildings that can make escape impossible when just two doors fail to close
  • fail to ensure access for fire appliances
  • put lower costs before public safety
  • only install one staircase in buildings that are higher than firefighters’ ladders
  • ignore fire service recommendations and advice
  • don’t have safety at the top of their priorities

 This is what can happen when Chief Fire Officers: 
  • pander to politicians, instead of protecting the public and defending their service
  • support politically motivated lies that cuts will not have serious consequences
  • become complacent about inadequate fire safety standards
  • fail to ensure the service has a strong voice speaking out on safety
  • put more emphasis on likelihood than on risk to life when assessing risk
  • gamble with lives by reducing the resources available
  • increase the risk to firefighters by cutting crewing levels
  • fail to learn the lessons from incidents occurring elsewhere in the World

I also wanted to mention the response. The emergency services seemed to have acquitted themselves superbly, but the local authority and government have not. Having spent some of my fire service career, and all of my local government career planning for emergencies, I am well aware of what should have happened.

Having worked with the current and previous emergency planning leads at Kensington & Chelsea Council, I am puzzled as to why things were not more effective. Now it might be that the media have not covered it, but I would have expected to see their Chief Executive at press conferences alongside the emergency services from at least the afternoon of the day it happened. I would also have expected lots of information on their website and paper copies handed out to survivors.

It may well be that cuts have undermined their planning and training to deal with emergencies. I know that when budgets are under pressure, day to day mandatory duties tend to take priority. They do also have a legal duty in relation to emergencies, but the Government have done nothing to ensure local authorities are meeting those obligations.

It may also be that the Chief Executive and department heads are part of the problem. I have experienced Chief Executives and department heads who refuse to participate in training for major incidents, whilst others have understood that they must be prepared and have contributed effectively. When major emergencies occur, I have known Chief Executives and department heads who have been quite useless in a crisis, whilst there have been others who have stepped up, taken charge and shown the necessary leadership.

I also have concerns about the casualty bureau process which, although a police responsibility, should also have input from the local authority. One of its fundamental tasks is to provide accurate information to relatives and friends, but four days on and some were still saying they have been told nothing. That is unacceptable. I know they cannot confirm all the deaths, but they should have been able to confirm survivors and to confirm, to family at least, if relatives are listed as missing.

I have met survivors and bereaved relatives from previous tragedies who have worked tirelessly to ensure that others don’t suffer from failures in future incidents. I have worked with people at national and local level trying to improve procedures for survivors and bereaved relatives. I can only imagine their frustration as they see lessons learnt, once again, apparently being forgotten.

One final point, if this had happened in any other European capital city, the emergency services would have quickly received substantial support from trained volunteers in their civil defence organisation. This country foolishly abandoned our very effective civil defence organisations back in 1968. As we saw at Grenfell Tower, willing but untrained volunteers were left to do the best they could. Their efforts should be applauded, but in a country rated by some as the fifth richest in the World, that should not have been necessary.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Conservative Deception on Fire Cuts



Another example of deception from West Sussex County Council under Conservative control. They produced a Modelling and Analysis Technical Report on the likely effect of the 2014 cuts. They summarised the effects as “slightly more cost in terms of life and property damage (i.e. 3 extra dwelling fire fatalities in 100 years, £80,000 extra property damage for other building fires).”

The true results, hidden in complex tables, were a total of 55 extra fatalities in 100 years, made up of 3 extra dwelling fire fatalities, 6 extra fire fatalities in other buildings, and 46 extra fatalities at special service calls (e.g. road traffic collisions). Extra fire fatalities, not in buildings, were not shown.

The actual extra cost of property damage for other building fires in 100 years is £8,011,100. The extra property damage for dwelling fires (people’s homes) was not shown.

Increases all resulting from longer response times, which we are already seeing. The modelling does not take account of the worsening availability of fire engines, which further increases response times, so the modelling may well be an under-estimate.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Our Fire & Rescue Service is not safe in Conservative hands

There was a time when politicians, even Conservative ones, felt obliged to maintain an effective fire service. From 1948, for around 60 years, Conservative Councillors on West Sussex County Council did just that. Chief Fire Officers had to fight for the service, but well evidenced business cases usually secured the necessary resources. Never excessive, but always adequate.

However, the last eight years has seen a fundamental change, where the Conservative Government and Conservative County Council have failed residents and firefighters. The safety of citizens should always be a government's first duty, but our Conservative politicians are failing in that duty. Unprecedented cuts have been made to the service and they have used false promises and deceit to try to justify their actions.

I hope that people will remember this betrayal when they come to vote.

Note: The above figures include Horley fire station, which was located in West Sussex after the 1974 boundary changes, but continued to be operated by Surrey County Council for a few years until West Sussex County Council took full control. It provided first response to parts of Crawley from 1974 until it ceased to be an operational fire station after the last round of West Sussex County Council cuts.