Friday, 30 January 2015

West Sussex County Council cuts to the Fire & Rescue Service are unjustified and dangerous

Just a reminder about why the online petition is so important. 

Please also note that the Council say only signatures from people living, working or studying in West Sussex and showing a valid West Sussex post code will be counted. If you live outside the County please use your West Sussex work or study address and postcode. After signing, you have to confirm the link sent to you by email, so if you do not receive that email, please check your spam folder.

West Sussex County Council cuts to the Fire & Rescue Service are unjustified and dangerous

Relative changes since 1978, using the official figures for each year shown

This chart illustrates that, whilst fire deaths and incidents fluctuated, the number of fire engines to protect residents never fell below 45 until 2011. That is because 45 fire engines were the minimum necessary to reach any location quickly, as well as providing enough to deal with simultaneous incidents and with those requiring several fire engines.

Every Chief Fire Officer since 1948, when control of the fire service passed to West Sussex County Council, has considered that to be an absolute minimum. Every Chair and the Members of the relevant County Council committee have supported that from 1948 until 2010.

Political interests have now replaced proper risk assessment. Since 2010 three fire stations have been closed and six fire engines and their crews cut. Response times and fire deaths are increasing. In 2013/14 the availability of retained (part time) firefighters was 16% below standard, with some fire engines not crewed more often than they were crewed.

The professional case for those cuts was weak, and the professional case for a further cut of firefighters and another five fire engines is non-existent. The number of incidents is still well above 1970s and early 1980s figures, yet further cuts of fire engines and firefighters are planned.

Their claims that 'prevention is at the heart of everything we do', is just hot air designed to deflect attention from the frontline service cuts. Over 12,000 inspections in 1989, yet by 2012/13 that was down to just 1,400. With 34% of those inspections finding premises that were unsatisfactory, you have to wonder how many premises that were not inspected are also unsatisfactory.

There is no doubt that further cuts will increase response times, and that will result in more deaths, more injuries, and more property damage. That is not acceptable.

The following charts show the actual numbers for each of those years.

Petition: Stop fire engine and firefighter cuts in West Sussex

The County Council continues to ignore the dangers of their planned cuts to the fire and rescue service. After discussions with other interested parties, it has been decided to launch an online petition calling for the cuts to be stopped.

Please note that the Council say only signatures from people living, working or studying in West Sussex and showing a valid West Sussex post code will be counted. If you live outside the County please use your West Sussex work or study address and postcode instead.

Your signature will not be included until you have confirmed the link sent to you by email. If you do not receive this email, please check your spam folder.

Please share this petition and encourage people to sign. If at least 3,000 signatures are received from West Sussex residents, workers, or students the County Council will have to debate it.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Secrecy Farce Continues

On the 8th January I reported that West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service were concealing information and had refused details to a member of the public. Well he complained and is so disgusted with the reply that he sent it to me. Instead of apologising and providing the information requested, he received a verbose list of excuses, but no information.

To help understand the key points in the letter, I have provided an interpretation below:

What they said
What they meant
“There was a misinterpretation of your initial request”
We don’t want you to know about our poor crewing performance and increased response times.
“The service no longer provides such information as it can prove misleading to the public”
We are worried that the public may understand this information too well and start asking awkward questions.
“It is important to ensure we provide this comprehensive and consistent level of detail and context regarding the information we provide”
We are making the information less comprehensive and consistent in the hope that people will not know that we failed to ensure adequate crewing at their local fire station.
“Our operational resources may be mobilised from any location in the County”
They always have been, but we are struggling to find an excuse for the cover up.
“Such data has been misinterpreted or used out of context, in the public domain”
We don’t like anyone telling the media and the public what is really going on.
“Giving data based upon home station references, may not provide accurate information regarding our mobilising and response standards”
Saying which station the fire engines were sent from may reveal our appalling crewing shortages and longer response times. All set to get worse after the next round of cuts.
“The investigation identified that this level of information to an individual who has some degree of understanding of ‘Emergency Service Operations’, could conceivably be construed as ‘patronising’”
We are happy to patronise people and to insult the public’s intelligence, if it will help cover up our failings.
We will “consider ascertaining the level of detail required by the requestor and their level of knowledge and intended use of this information, before responding”
We are still going to look at ways of withholding the information for as long as possible, even though it is contrary to WSCC policy on being ‘totally transparent’.
“The investigation also determined that such a request for detailed information would be more consistently and comprehensively handled via a ‘freedom of information’ (FOI) request.”
We want to make this as difficult as possible for the media and public to get the information.
If you are unhappy ….. please ask the Customer Relations Team to arrange a Chief Executive’s review, after which the Chief Executive will send a final response to your complaint.
We did not know that West Sussex County Council does not have a Chief Executive, after the post was made redundant a year ago.

Friday, 23 January 2015

A Conservative who cares about the public

It seems that not all Conservatives are hell bent on cuts that will put the public at risk - "Two thirds support policing precept increase" in Sussex.

I am not a great fan of Police & Crime Commissioners, but it seems they are prepared to give the public the choice of paying a little more to protect their services. 

Unlike West Sussex Conservatives, who are happy to sacrifice the lives of some residents, just so they can say 'we have not increased Council Tax'. We knew the WSCC consultation on the fire cuts was a sham when residents were denied the option to pay a little more to avoid cutting fire engines and firefighters. Had the public been given that option I am sure there would have been as much, if not more, support for their fire and rescue service. 

It also seems that the police in Surrey and Hampshire will be protected from extra cuts. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Cynical "Fire chief's pledge"

Well we can all forget the appalling 72% retained availability (target 88%), the 33% increase in response times (since the 1990s), the increase in fire deaths and even how much worse it will be after the planned cuts. We are saved - the DCFO has made a pledge! They really do take the public for fools.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Press cover WSFRS secrecy

For those that have not seen this in the Crawley News

It is interesting that the spokesman mentions 'conspiracy theories', as I had not considered there may be an organised conspiracy. I had just thought the changes were poor decision making by one or more people in the service. Now you have to wonder if their actions are more sinister and co-ordinated!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Gatwick Airport – a critical consideration

West Sussex County Council will be debating expansion at Gatwick Airport next week. The content of a letter sent to all County Councillors is shown below:

"There appears to have been an important omission in the debate regarding a possible second runway at Gatwick Airport. That omission concerns consideration of the ability of hospitals, the emergency services, local authorities etc. to cope with an aircraft accident, or other major incident at the Airport.

I believe that the Council should insist on a second runway only being permitted if additional funding is given to those services that have to respond to major incidents at the airport. This is just as important as the infrastructure to support the airport. That funding could come from the airport operator or the Government, but to proceed without it would be reckless. 

It is quite clear that the ambulance service and hospitals are struggling to cope with winter pressures, so their potential to also cope with hundreds of casualties from an air crash must be in serious doubt. The Police have also suffered staffing cuts that affect their ability to deal with major emergencies. The ability of WSCC Social Care to provide support to uninjured survivors and relatives of the injured or deceased is another vital service that has been affected by budget cuts. 

The latest aircraft using Gatwick include the Airbus A380, versions of which carry over 550 passengers, with versions carrying 900 passengers being developed. When you consider that the aircraft involved in the Kegworth air crash in 1989 was only carrying 118 passengers, you get an idea of the significantly greater demand on local services if a larger aircraft crashes at Gatwick. At Kegworth 82 people were seriously injured and it took over seven hours to free them all from the wreckage. The local authority fire service needed 22 fire engines and over 100 firefighters at the incident.

It should also be borne in mind that the Civil Aviation Authority say that planning should consider more than one aircraft being involved in an accident, and the surroundings of the Airport should also be taken in to account. With a busy commuter line at the end of the runway, an aircraft collision with a crowded commuter train must also be considered. Casualties could run in to the thousands.

More specifically for West Sussex County Council, cuts and crewing difficulties have made the fire and rescue service much less able to cope than in previous years. The emergency landing at Gatwick Airport at the end of December showed that, instead of resources increasing to cope with increased risk, they have actually been reduced. The time taken to get resources to the airport has increased significantly, as they have to be sent from stations much further away. The proposed 2015-16 cuts will make this even worse.

When aircraft carried fewer passengers, WSFRS were able to get the full response to the airport by sending fire engines from stations no further away than Horsham. However, at the December incident fewer fire engines had to come from as far away as Bognor Regis, Shoreham and Worthing, with some taking well over an hour to arrive. With the potential for several hundred trapped and injured casualties, that is just not acceptable.

It should also be of concern to Councillors that the pre-planned response has been reduced. A public inquiry would not accept that an emergency service, given notice of a potential crash, did not use the time to assemble sufficient resources to deal with a crash. The current response would have been inadequate for smaller aircraft, so it is wholly inadequate for today’s aircraft.

Please note that the Airport Fire Service depend heavily on support from West Sussex and Surrey Fire & Rescue Services. The Airport Fire Service is only required to provide a full response to crashed aircraft within the airport boundary, and a reduced response to crashed aircraft very near to the airport. They have no responsibility for building fires, chemical incidents, road or rail crashes on or near the airport. They, and the rescue work at an air crash, are a statutory duty of West Sussex County Council.

I would urge you and your colleagues to properly consider this aspect before deciding on your recommendation regarding expansion at the Airport.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Fire & Rescue Service or Secret Service in West Sussex - part 2

Having circulated a press release to the media on this, I have had a number of calls from them today. Interestingly some of them told me that they were suspicious when WSFRS stopped saying where appliances were sent from. Surprise, surprise, some also suspected a connection between this change and the cuts, and they have certainly not been impressed with the official excuse.

One of the things I was involved with, during my time with WSCC, was training for responder organisations in Sussex about information provision to the media and the public. I have also attended events with national and international speakers on the subject. Time and again speakers have said that the reputation of organisations depends on information being timely, accurate and honest.

WSFRS media professionals have attended some of this training, so I feel sure they would have advised against these changes. As for information requests, I cannot believe that any media professional would refuse it, unless there are specific legal reasons, or unless instructed to do so by senior officers.

More information is emerging about things that can be hidden by this new policy, which I see seems to have started just before Christmas. It appears that when there was a serious house fire in Crawley on the 30th December, the first pump to arrive was Horsham and the response time was some 15 minutes.

This was apparently because two Crawley pumps and the Reigate pump, out posted to Horley, were at other incidents. I don’t know if it was the same incident, as details have come from various sources. Crawley’s 3rd was not available. Crawley’s two then became available and were sent on the ‘make pumps four’ request. Turners Hill (only available 72% of the time in 2013-14) and Horsham’s 3rd (only available 52% of the time) were luckily available this time and responded to the ‘make pumps 6’ request.

If West Sussex County Council wants to avoid further reputational damage, they need to quickly reverse the decision to withhold station details on incident information. If they really want to avoid accusations of cover up, they should start including the response times. Now that really would be honest.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Fire & Rescue Service or Secret Service

Details of the response to fire & rescue service incidents has always been readily available in West Sussex, until now that is. Now it seems they want to keep this information secret.

Information about which fire stations sent fire engines to incidents has been of general interest to the press and public for over 200 years. It has also been of specific interest to fire service professionals, enthusiasts, and especially those monitoring the performance of our fire services.

Concerns about increasing secrecy have been growing alongside plans for cuts to the fire & rescue service, and as more questions have been asked about the service's deteriorating performance. 

As with any secret service they have cover stories ready. When they stopped showing the station name on the side of new fire engines they said it was to save money. Funny though that it coincided with growing concern about nearby fire engines not being crewed, and others having to be sent from stations further away.

Now they have stopped including details about where the fire engines attending incidents have come from on their incident newsletter. They have also now refused to answer a direct request from a member of the public. The reply with their 'cover story' is reproduced below.

It is clearly not, as Mr Towson asserts, to avoid misleading the public. It is another move to try and deceive the press and public in a futile attempt to avoid awkward questions. Not surprising when it appears that to get just 8 standard fire engines at the recent emergency landing at Gatwick Airport they had to attend from as far away as Worthing! Fire cover in West Sussex must have been dire on that day.

It is disgraceful that WSFRS is abandoning the principles of openness and honesty that are fundamental to the Freedom of Information Act. They need to be reminded that "Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state", and that "Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making". 

I am not surprised that County Council Cabinet Members are happy to treat the Freedom of Information Act and the public with contempt, but it is deeply disturbing to learn that the Chief Fire Officer is doing the same. Responsible County Councillors and the media should be objecting strongly to this new secrecy.

The letter:

Dear Mr Allison,
We have stopped routinely providing this level of detail after reviewing our media and communication priorities.
The focus for fire & rescue services is to improve public safety and reduce risk through our protection and prevention activities, supported by a professional response capability. All WSFRS resources and activities work to achieve this objective, including the role of our media & communications team.
We welcome interest in the operational role of the fire and rescue service and we will continue to provide basic incident information, particularly where this can be used to highlight public safety messages. However, to allow our small media team to focus on our wider priorities we are changing the way incident news is reported. We no longer include ‘low level’ incidents like bin fires, for example, or details like the home station of every fire appliance that attended.
To provide home station information does not always accurately reflect the FRS attendance. Our firefighters and fire engines are county-wide assets and we have always moved them around the county to match risk and demand, and provide the best strategic cover. ‘Pumps’ can be moved for a number of reasons, including incidents in progress or a pre-arranged swap to cover training or large exercises. If a pump from one station is on standby at a different station and subsequently attends a fire there, this does not mean the ‘home’ station was the nearest available and it can mislead the public if it is reported so. In another example, a fire engine from one station can be mobilised as the support crew to a nearer ‘special’ appliance from another station. The ‘support crew’ is more about our operating practices than an indication of the size of the incident, and the type of vehicle used (a 4x4 for example) is often just the mode of transport used for getting firefighters to the scene. Again, this can be misleading if appliances are simply listed.
As I have already stated the reason for recent changes to our bulletins is to support our wider comms objectives and improve public safety, and brings WSFRS more in-line with the working practices of other FRS comms teams. My colleague Sarah has already provided you with the numbers of appliances attending the incidents you mentioned, and I hope this further explanation helps to why we no do not routinely provide the additional information you asked for.
Gary Towson