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

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