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.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Should an already stretched Fire & Rescue Service volunteer to help out an underfunded ambulance service?

Another illustration, on Friday afternoon, of how stretched West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service is, when they were called to a medium sized fire in Hurstpierpoint. Once again, and unlike fire & rescue services across the UK, WSFRS have not revealed which fire engines attended.

They have only said that seven fire engines were required. Unofficial reports indicate that fire engines came from Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Worthing, Billingshurst, Crawley and Littlehampton. A specialist pump was apparently also required and it seems that, instead of the nearest unit from Storrington attending, one had to travel across the County from Midhurst.

The strain on resources, resulting from County Council cuts and a failure to properly crew fire engines in West Sussex, is also reported to have required neighbouring fire & rescue services to provide cover in West Sussex during this fire. This is reported to have involved fire engines from as far away as Haslemere in Surrey.

With continuing crewing problems and increasing failures to meet response times it beggars belief that West Sussex County Council is to now allow the fire service to attend medical emergencies. I can understand that claims that this will save more lives are appealing, but will there actually be a net benefit?

This scheme may, from time to time, save some lives, but it is also likely to put other lives at greater risk. Not all medical responses will turn out to be life threatening, but they will tie up firefighters and reduce the already meagre number of fire engines available. That may well mean people who are trapped by fire, or in a crash, having to wait for fire engines to travel from even further away.

Perhaps acceptable if the firefighters are actually saving a life, but questionable if they are just waiting for an ambulance to transport a patient who is not in danger. Details of how this scheme will operate have not been made public, so the extent of any adverse impact on fire and rescue operations is unclear.

It is well known that SECAmb have been failing to meet response times and that they even tried to fiddle the figures to cover it up. So the benefits to SECAmb of using the fire & rescue service to try and improve their response times are obvious. Yet the reasoning of the County Council, which is already struggling to meet their legal responsibilities for the fire & rescue service, in volunteering to take on an additional workload for which they have no legal responsibility is puzzling.

Astonishingly, I can find no reference to the scheme on the County Council’s website. This raises a number of questions:

Have County Councillors been consulted on the scheme and approved it?

Will fully crewed fire engines be tied up on medical calls?

If lone firefighters are sent in other vehicles, will that leave an insufficient number of firefighters to crew a fire engine, thus rendering it unavailable?

Will, as in some other fire & rescue services, the number of firefighters be increased to ensure that this additional workload does not undermine the service’s primary workload?

What amount of initial and continuation firefighter training has been cut to accommodate the additional co-responder training

What risk assessments have been carried out with regards to the impact on the Council’s statutory duties?

What safeguards are provided to ensure that medical emergencies attended by the fire & rescue service do not result in a delayed response by SECAmb?

Will WSF&RS record and monitor the time it takes SECAmb to arrive at Co-Responder calls?

Will the performance indicators for this scheme include a comparison of survival rates for patients initially attended by the fire & rescue service within NHS target times, and for those attended by the ambulance service alone within NHS target times?

Co-responder schemes began in rural areas that had a part-time fire station, but no ambulance station. Those fire stations did not usually receive many fire service calls, so attending medical emergencies could save lives without undermining the response to fires and rescues. However, the WSF&RS/SECAmb scheme seems to be part of a national push to cover up the failings of the underfunded ambulance service. 

Propping up an inadequately resourced ambulance service with an inadequately resourced fire & rescue service should worry everyone. West Sussex County Council need to publish details of how the scheme will operate, including risk assessments (business and safety), essential safeguards, and the performance indicators to be used to assess the scheme's success or failure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Selsey Fire Update

On Sunday I asked if we would ever get full details of the response to this fire. Well details of the initial response have now been released. 

WSFRS say that the first fire engine from Chichester (9 miles away) arrived 16 minutes after the call was received. The second fire engine from Selsey (around 200 metres away) arrived 17 minutes after the call, and the third from Bognor Regis (11 miles away) arrived 18 minutes after the initial call.

It is good that they have come clean on these times, as they did fail to meet their own generous response standard. For parts of Selsey the response should be one fire engine within 12 minutes and the second within 15 minutes. There is no explanation about the unusually long time it took the Selsey crew to arrive. Although they are Retained Duty System firefighters, they would still normally be on the road within 5 minutes.

Would a quicker response have saved the school? Perhaps not, but we will never know. What is well known though, is that there is a relationship between speed of response and lives and property saved. It must be very concerning for the residents of Selsey to realise that, if it had been a fire in someone's home and they were trapped at that time, help was 16 minutes away

The report tells us that 14 fire engines, 2 Aerial Ladder Platforms and other specialist vehicles were needed to deal with the incident, but not where they all came from. However, we do know that, as a result of cuts, the first aerial appliance had to come from Southsea (Hampshire), instead of Chichester. We also know that 3 of the 14 fire engines that would have been scheduled to attend ten years ago, have also been cut.

With extra distances to travel, more time is lost in assembling adequate resources. Did that result in more damage being caused? Again we don't know, but time is precious when trying to stop fires spreading.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Is "Safer in our hands" just rhetoric?

Over the past week, we have seen a number of fires that have stretched the inadequately resourced fire & rescue service in West Sussex. 

Four fire engines were required in Lancing, and they had to come from Shoreham, Worthing, Storrington and East Sussex.

Six fire engines were needed at a fire in Billingshurst, and they came from Horsham, Worthing, Storrington, Partridge Green, Crawley and Arundel.

Overlapping that call was a fire in Crawley Down, which also needed six fire engines. They came from East Grinstead and Burgess Hill, plus four from Surrey Fire & Rescue Service. 

A vehicle fire in Pulborough was apparently dealt with by a crew from East Wittering, who were at Storrington to cover a shortage of local crews. Firefighters being taken from the communities they joined to protect, to protect others many miles away is sadly now a daily occurrence. 

Today we have a major fire at Selsey requiring at least ten fire engines. We don't yet know where they have come from, but the local grapevine in Selsey is rife with complaints about how long it took for the fire service to arrive. This suggests that the Selsey fire engine did not have a crew, or was otherwise unavailable. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Chichester were the first crew to arrive, that Arundel were the third and that there are four crews there from Hampshire. 

As I say, the Selsey information is as yet unconfirmed, but given West Sussex County Council's neglect of the service I would not be surprised if the information turns out to be correct. Will we ever get full details? Possibly, but there has been an increasing reluctance to give details that may inform the public of the inadequate protection they are getting. 

So what do we get from West Sussex County Council. We get press releases about "Hundreds pledge support to council’s campaign to keep fire service". Sadly ironic when you consider that West Sussex County Council rejected a petition, signed by 'thousands' last year, asking them not to cut the fire & rescue service. 

There is no evidence yet that the service will be safer under the Police & Crime Commissioner's control, but West Sussex County Council's record is far from good. They have closed fire stations, cut a quarter of the County's fire engines, failed to improve crewing of those that remain, and are failing to meet response times for one in four serious incidents. 

Government figures, released this week, also show that the number of people who died in house fires in West Sussex increased last year, as did the total number of incidents attended. 

It does not matter how many people support West Sussex County Council's campaign, as the final decision will be taken by the Home Secretary. Unless Louise Goldsmith drops her meaningless rhetoric about "we know it delivers the very best for our communities", and replaces it with evidence that they can meet the government's objectives, I fear the Police & Crime Commissioner will get her way.