Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Say 'NO' to the consultation questions to protect our fire & rescue service

A Life & Death Consultation

West Sussex County Council has launched a consultation on their plans for our fire & rescue service for the next four years. The consultation, available on the Council's website, closes on 28 May 2018. As is all too common, the questions asked seem innocuous and people may be tempted to say yes, but you need to look at the detail behind them.

1. Do you agree with priority one: Reduce the number of emergency incidents and their consequences through the continuous improvement of prevention, protection and response activities.

More dangerous cuts

Hidden in the detail behind this question are proposals to cut the number of firefighters on fire engines from five to four and even to send some fire engines out with less than four firefighters. Both of these proposals will increase the consequences of emergency incidents, not reduce them as claimed, and may well cost lives.

A fire engine crew consists of an officer-in-charge and a driver, who have specific tasks at emergencies, plus two to four firefighters who take the direct action necessary to rescue people or fight the fire. Standard crewing in West Sussex has, for very good reasons, been five for many years, but now, without justification, the County Council want to cut it to four. That means the firefighters who carry out the actions necessary to rescue people or fight the fire are cut by a third.

It also makes no sense when it will mean having to send extra fire engines to incidents to ensure there are enough firefighters to safely protect the public and to take effective action. That will inevitably mean it will take longer to get the required number there and is a waste of limited resources, especially at times when only 10 fire engines have crews.
Crews of less than four are dangerous for the public and for firefighters

This is because they cannot use the main rescue ladder (it takes four to lift it), and they cannot use breathing apparatus. Any such move is not aimed at improving the service, but can only be intended to massage the response times and mislead the public in to believing that they are being met. On paper they may improve, but it won't help the public if a vehicle arrives with an inadequate crew that can do very little until help arrives from the next town.

It also puts an unreasonable pressure on firefighters to ignore safety procedures in order to help the public. Firefighters, with protective clothing and firefighting equipment, will be expected to standby whilst members of the public, without protective clothing and firefighting equipment, may be risking all to carry out a rescue. No self respecting firefighter would do that, but cowardly senior managers, who put the firefighters in that position, will be able to discipline them for ignoring procedures.

Crewing with four, instead of five, is a less safe system of work.

Crewing with less than four is simply dangerous.

Review the emergency response standard

If this review was about improving the standard then I would welcome it, but I feel sure that what lies behind this proposal is an attempt to lower the standard. The service will be allowed to take even longer to reach emergencies, so that they can then say they met their targets. 

The County Council has already given the fire & rescue service generous targets that they should be able to meet nearly 100% of the time. However, the Council has also cut resources and fails to employ enough firefighters, which is why targets are often missed. 

Most of the county has targets of 12 or 14 minutes for the first fire engine to arrive, but in Hampshire it is 8 minutes across the whole county and in Surrey it is 10 minutes. There is no excuse for longer response times in West Sussex, after all, fires don’t burn any slower here and West Sussex lives are just as valuable as those in neighbouring counties.

Waiting  ever longer for help to arrive

Automatic fire alarms are suspected fires and must be attended

West Sussex County Council want to revise the response to automatic fire alarm (AFA) calls to reduce the number of attendances when there is no fire. After years of the eminently safe policy of encouraging people to fit automatic fire alarms, to evacuate when they operate, and to wait for the fire service to arrive, fire & rescue services are increasingly putting the public in danger by expecting them to search to see if there is a fire.

Despite examples of people being killed as a result of such policies, it seems that West Sussex are also considering not attending all AFA calls. So, whilst trained and equipped firefighters stay on their fire stations, untrained members of the public will have to fend for themselves. 

One recent sad example was in Plymouth, where two separate callers reported a fire alarm sounding, but the fire service did not attend. Around 90 minutes after the first call, a third call resulted in fire crews arriving to find a fire in the house next door to the original caller and the occupier dead in her bedroom. Shamefully, Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service put the blame on control staff, even though it was the service's policy that was the root cause of this tragedy. 

Around one in ten calls originating from automatic fire alarms are to fires that need firefighters to deal with them. Many others are to fires that have been put out before firefighters arrive and wrongly get recorded as false alarms. West Sussex must continue to treat automatic fire alarm calls as suspected fires and respond accordingly. To do anything else is inviting more avoidable tragedy.

2. Do you agree with priority two: As part of West Sussex County Council, the fire service must work with local communities, districts and boroughs to keep West Sussex safe?

The details in the plan may well lead to fire service resources being diverted to help other departments and organisations meet their obligations, whilst undermining effective response to emergencies and effective enforcement of fire safety legislation. We have already seen the Crewing Optimisation Group, which is supposed to be there to increase the number of fire engines available each day, being diverted on to community work. There is little evidence that such work has positive benefits, but there is clear evidence that inadequate crewing of fire engines results in longer response times and more deaths and property damage. West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service must focus on fully meeting their statutory responsibilities before considering taking on non-statutory work.

3. Do you agree with priority three: Collaborate with emergency services and other local and national partners to improve the service to the public.

As with question 2, this may well lead to fire service resources being diverted to help other organisations meet their obligations, whilst undermining effective response to emergencies and effective enforcement of fire safety legislation. Priority must be given to properly meeting the statutory requirements of the Fire & Rescue Services Act and the Civil Contingencies Act, before volunteering to take on the responsibilities of other services, such as those of the National Health Service. This also hides the potential for cuts and more expensive collaboration failures, such as the joint mobilising system with East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service. The system is several years overdue and must have cost a significant amount of money. Exactly how much is not known, as they have refused to disclose details, by hiding behind the legal proceedings exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.

4. Do you agree with priority four: Develop and maintain a workforce that is professional, resilient, skilled, flexible and diverse.

Once again we have statements about what will be done to develop staff and to improve diversity and inclusion. Similar statements have been made previously, but the Council is still failing to provide sufficient numbers of properly rewarded staff to ensure a quick and effective response to emergencies and to carry out an adequate number of fire safety inspections.

In particular, Retained (Part-time) Firefighters are being neglected and the Council is failing to attract and retain enough of them. They frequently use the excuse that it is a national problem and that social and economic changes have made things worse. Yet, if that is true, then why are things worse in West Sussex than in neighbouring fire & rescue services and worse than the average in England? 

And why has East Sussex manged to increase their Retained Firefighters by 14%, since 2009, whilst in West Sussex Retained Firefighters have decreased by 31%?

Source: Home Office Fire Statistics Table - Staff in post (Full time equivalent)

Retained Firefighters - Just 52 Pence Per Hour

Of course, one of the contributing factors may well be that they are only paid 52 pence an hour for providing, on average, 4,500 hours of cover over and above the time they spend on their full-time job. There are many other factors and it is high time that West Sussex County Council set about identifying all of them and then started fixing them.

5. Do you agree with priority five: Provide customer-focused value for money services.

West Sussex County Council has not been providing a value for money fire & rescue service, it has been providing a slightly cheaper, but much less effective service. For over 60 years the County Council, the Home Office and several Chief Fire Officers agreed that at least 46 fire engines were needed to protect the area that is now West Sussex. 

Despite more emergencies, more complexity and more responsibilities, the Council has cut that to just 35, which is inadequate. The failure, on occasions, to crew more than two thirds of those fire engines is nothing less than irresponsible neglect of duty on the part of the County Council. This plan will make a poor service even worse. 

People don’t want value when it comes to life saving services. 
They want a quality service that responds quickly and effectively when they are in trouble. 
The County Council is failing residents.

6. Are there any other comments you would like us to consider relating to the Integrated Risk Management Plan 2018-22?

The priorities should be:

No more fire engine of firefighter cuts.

Fire engines to normally be crewed by five firefighters, with an absolute minimum of four.

At least 30 fire engines available around the clock.

No reduction in response standards.

Fire alarm calls to be attended and treated as potential fires.

Monday, 19 March 2018


My lack of recent blog updates is, sadly, not because things have improved, but because I have been rather busy. The threat to our fire & rescue service has not gone away, so I watched last Friday’s Environment, Communities and Fire Select Committee with interest. They were discussing a report from the Chief Fire Officer on the draft version of the 2018-22 Integrated Risk Management Plan.


I would like to start on a positive note, as a key procedural change is that debates on fire & rescue service matters can now be viewed online, both live and via recordings on the County Council website. The level of scrutiny and transparency seems to be improving and, as that was a weakness when fighting off the Police & Crime Commissioner’s takeover bid, it must be welcomed. However, as Councillor Michael Jones questioned at the meeting, it is not yet clear if the improvement will be sufficient, but it is clearly a step in the right direction.

There are also signs that improved openness and genuine consultation may replace the secrecy and sham consultations we have seen in the past. Readers may recall concerns being voiced about times when more fire engines were unavailable than were actually crewed. The response from senior officers and councillors at the time was denial and attacks on those who revealed the information. The information originated from concerned firefighters and WSCC then took action to restrict firefighter access to the crewing information and they also threatened disciplinary action.


On Friday, new Chief Fire Officer Gavin Watts showed the meeting this slide, which shows that the availability of fire engines is even worse than we believed. I welcome such honest transparency, as Councillors cannot begin to fix anything if the extent of the problem is hidden from them, but the situation is shocking. Previously, when the number of fire engines was cut from 46 to 40 and then to 35, we were told that the changes would help ensure that at least 30 fire engines would always be available. Now we see that as few as 10 can be available, which is bad enough, but coinciding with times of greater demand should alarm everyone.

Deputy Chief Officer Neil Stocker told Councillors that there is a national problem of attracting and keeping Retained Firefighters. There is, but that must not stop efforts to find  local solutions. He also said that people not working in the communities where they live is a major factor undermining good daytime cover. Yet the chart shows that daytime cover is worse on Saturdays and Sundays, so there must be other significant factors affecting availability. Perhaps things such as revised contracts and other management decisions that have previously been criticised by Retained Firefighters. 


Neil also highlighted how Retained Firefighters give an average of 4,500 hours of cover on top of their day job, and earn just 52 pence an hour for providing that cover. Relying on some people volunteering to serve the community for such little reward is not good enough, and it was therefore pleasing to hear some Councillors support that view. Among them Councillor Heidi Brunsdon, who said that more must be done to provide tangible incentives such as tax breaks, family breaks etc.

I have spoken about the crewing crisis in the past and sadly this chart confirms that West Sussex County Council is not meeting their legal obligation to provide an efficient service. The legislation does not say fire authorities only have to provide an efficient service when they have enough Retained Firefighters, it is a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year requirement.

It is ludicrous that a service, which several Chief Officers, Councillors and Government Inspectors have previously agreed needed 46 front-line crews to protect the people of West Sussex, can now be left with just 10 to protect more people and to deal with more incidents. When asked if the service was adequate, the Chief Officer spoke about resources being moved around to maintain cover. That is true, but it is patently not adequate or effective cover.

This situation has deteriorated over several years, yet Government and Fire Authorities have failed to take meaningful action. Lives and property are at increasing risk and concerted action must be taken locally and nationally.


The draft Integrated Risk Management Plan will be out for public consultation in May and it is important that people read and comment on it. Whilst I don’t question the sincerity behind the strategic priorities, I see little hope of them being delivered, especially with regard to emergency response. Sadly, we have seen in the past how so called 'improvements' are actually cuts that lead to a slower and less effective response.

Councillor Daniel Purchese said of the IRMP, "there is potential for some serious cuts that the public might easily miss". I have to agree and concerns include:

Standard crewing cut from five to four – not an improvement and it will not, as claimed, reduce the consequences of emergency incidents. When you realise that the driver and officer-in-charge have specific functions at incidents and that it is the rest of the crew that undertake the critical sharp end stuff, such as attacking the fire, it amounts to cutting that capability by a third on every incident. It is also not an efficient use of resources, as more fire engines have to be used to get a safe number of firefighters to incidents, which leaves less available for other emergencies.

Looking at crewing fire engines with fewer than four firefighters ‘when necessary’ – this is simply unsafe for firefighters and the public. Other fire authorities have been pontificating about how they can use technology to safely crew with less, but there is no evidence that this can be achieved. No technology is a proper substitute for a trained firefighter. There have already been incidents, where this concept has been experimented with, and the result has been small fires developing in to serious ones as a direct result of inadequate crewing.

A review of response standards – sounds OK, but as the service can’t meet the generous standards now, there is a serious danger that standards will be cut and a proper response will take even longer to arrive. It may then look better on paper, but the reality for the public will be worse.

Review the fleet of special appliances - these have already been cut to the bone and this opens the door to more cuts and reduced effectiveness.

Revise our response to automatic fire alarms – this increases the risk of an inadequate response, or no response, to actual fires. Nationally there have been several examples of serious fires being attended with inadequate resources, because of such policies, and I know of at least one example of a fire death that resulted from not attending an automatic fire alarm call. Not forgetting Grenfell of course, where policies had removed an aerial appliance from the response. Had that been on the initial attendance, more lives could have been saved. There might even have been no deaths, as the aerial appliance might have enabled them to stop the devastating external fire spread.


Of course the underlying problem is inadequate Government funding for the fire & rescue service. You know things are really bad when Louise Goldsmith, WSCC Leader, feels compelled to criticise the Government on their funding of councils. She said in January that “It is wrong for us, and county councils across the country, to continue to have to be reliant on taxing our residents in the current piecemeal way”. For once, I have to agree. 


I mentioned improved openness earlier, so I was rather disappointed to see that the fire death figures quoted in the draft IRMP differ from the national figures.

National figures are usually more accurate, as they check fire & rescue submitted statistics against other sources. It is always worrying when locally published statistics do not reflect official national statistics, so I hope that accurate figures will be published in the consultation copy of the draft IRMP.

Monday, 2 October 2017

An open letter to West Sussex County Council Leader Louise Goldsmith

I know that some hoped that common sense would return to West Sussex County Council after Sean Ruth turned down the expensive job they created for him. Sadly not, they are still planning to have both a Chief Fire Officer and an Executive Director, Communities and Public Protection. I have therefore written an open letter to Council Leader Louise Goldsmith - 

Dear Councillor Goldsmith,

We were told that reduced Government funding had forced the County Council to make significant cuts to the fire & rescue service. This has increased response times, which has put residents and their property at greater risk. Those cuts included the removal of three front-line fire engines at Midhurst, Petworth and Storrington to save just £63,000. 

Yet, despite the shortage of money, the Council has now advertised for an Executive Director, Communities and Public Protection that will cost close to £200,000 a year. For at least three years the previous Chief Fire Officer ran the directorate, apparently to your satisfaction. It is therefore astonishing that the Council now considers it necessary to appoint someone to supervise the new Chief Fire Officer, especially as around 90% of the directorate’s budget is for the fire & rescue service.

Chief Fire Officers in other County Councils also run extra Council departments, but don’t cost their Councils as much as the West Sussex Chief Fire Officer, let alone the ridiculous sum to be paid to the Executive Director. Gloucestershire, for example, has a Chief Fire Officer who is also responsible for road safety, trading standards, information and communication technologies, registration and coroners services, civil protection and community safety, but costs the Council less than £150,000 a year.

The decision to more than double the Directorate's senior management costs, to nearly £400,000, flies in the face of both common sense and prudent financial oversight. I would therefore urge you to immediately stop the unnecessary appointment of an Executive Director, Communities and Public Protection.

I will be grateful if you would also answer the following questions:

1. Why is the new Chief Fire Officer considered incapable of managing the directorate without an expensive supervisor?

2. Why does a directorate that now has fewer employees need additional senior management?

3. Why have County Councillors not been consulted on such a significant and costly change?

4. Is there a business case to support the change (i.e. documentation setting out the justification, rationale and costs) and, if not, why not?

5. If there is a business case, then why has the Council been frustrating a legitimate Freedom of Information Act request to produce it for over six months?

6. Who approved the splitting of the Executive Director/Chief Fire Officer post in to two separate posts at a cost of nearly £400,000?

As this is a matter of significant concern, I have copied other interested parties in to the letter. I will be grateful if you would copy them in to your reply please.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Morris

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
Executive Director and CFO
Director & Deputy Chief

Separate posts 2017

Executive Director
Director & CFO

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

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

Separate posts 2017
Executive Director
Director & CFO (new post)
Director & Deputy Chief

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.