Saturday, 30 July 2016

Your Fire and Rescue Service Safer in our hands

First of all a reminder that you only have until Friday next week (5 August) to comment on the West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service consultation. Despite the misleading title of 'Community Risk Management Plan', it is actually their overdue Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP). Although, as I mentioned in my previous post, it really is a wholly inadequate IRMP.

Anyone reading the local press, or following events on the internet, will be aware of the County Council's campaign to stop the Fire & Rescue Service falling into the hands of the Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner. 

I firmly believe that political oversight of the fire & rescue service ought to rest with elected Councillors, but let us look a bit closer at the County Council's handling of this issue and at some of the Councillors' comments. 

"Safer in our hands". Well we don't know if it will, or will not, be safe in the PCC's hands, but we do know how WSCC has treated the service in recent years. Over the last six years they have:
  • Closed four fire stations (they will say three, but Horley is no longer a proper fire station)
  • Removed 11 operational fire engines, leaving just 35
  • Failed to deliver the promised "new and creative options" to improve the retained service, with average availability for retained fire engines falling from 87% to 59%
  • Failed to get both fire engines to critical incidents within the response standard for one in every four calls

"Cheaper in our hands" might be a more accurate slogan. West Sussex County Council only consider it worth spending £33.68 per year to protect each resident. Will the PCC spend more or less, well we clearly don't know, but the WSCC case has been weakened by their front-line service cuts. 

Worryingly, Councillor Michael Brown's comments suggest he would be happy to see the PCC take over if that paltry figure could be cut even more. Other Conservative Councillors seemed more concerned with their friendship with the PCC, than with the safety of their residents.
Another Councillor argued against moving political oversight to the PCC, because it would be a 'one person fire authority'. Yet that is effectively what West Sussex has now. Councillors can ask questions and make comments, but Cabinet Member David Barling is the person who makes the decisions. 

That also leaves the WSCC case very weak when compared to other fire authorities. In Hampshire Councillors vote on decisions and the public can see or hear them question the Chief Officer, and watch, or listen to, the discussion via their websites. It is that sort of transparency and accountability the government want, not the inadequate oversight provided by WSCC. 

So WSCC fail the government's first objective, what of the other primary objective - closer working of the emergency services. Well they first walked away from setting up a Sussex Fire & Rescue Service that would have saved money and avoided the last round of front-line service cuts. More recently they pulled out of a joint vehicle procurement and maintenance project for the emergency services in the south-east. Supposedly that was to focus on integrating WSFRS with other council services. An integration that seems little more than putting the Chief Fire Officer in charge of some other small departments.

Astonishingly, Council Leader Louise Goldsmith makes the spurious suggestion that "prevention work could be lost if the service is taken over by the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office". There is no evidence to support her claim, so it sounds like her version of 'project fear'. The fire & rescue service already works closely with many more agencies outside the Council, than they do departments within. A change in management of the service will not prejudice co-operation and prevention work. Agencies can co-operate quite effectively without being joined at the hip.

Councillors must remove their rose tinted spectacles and replace spin and slogans with a solid case to demonstrate that the fire & rescue service is ‘safer in their hands’, and that they can meet the government's objectives

As for their petition, well I would encourage people to sign it, although I cannot help but see the irony in it. WSCC wanting residents to sign a petition about management of the fire & rescue service, just months after Cabinet Member David Barling angrily dismissed a petition from residents wanting to stop cuts to the fire & rescue service. We will have to hope that the PCC shows more respect for petitioners than David Barling!


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A genuine consultation or more smoke and mirrors?

You may well see the latest West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service consultation as insincere and only intended to tick the ‘have you consulted’ box. You may also feel that commenting on it is a waste of time, because they will ignore responses.

You may well be right, but I would encourage people to respond to the consultation and to voice concerns about it being a sham, about the Community Risk Management Plan not meeting the requirements of an Integrated Risk Management Plan, about the so called 'plan' failing to give any real performance information, and about the suspicious selection of statistics that appear intended to deceive.

An IRMP should provide up to date risk information and a proper evaluation of previous service delivery. It should also show how they will mitigate the impact of risk on communities. This document does none of that. It simply describes the current fire & rescue service, with no indication of how they have performed or how they are going to address problems. In other words, it is a PR document, not a plan!

In the plan for 2010-15 they said they would reduce fire deaths, but fire deaths actually increased during the IRMP period.

To try and disguise this, they illogically decided to show figures for eleven previous years. A cynic might say they included 2004/05, as it was particularly high and would make later figures look better. It was not indicative and was actually higher than the four previous years. A cynic might also wonder why the 2015/16 figures were not shown. No doubt it was because there were accidental dwelling fire fatalities in 2015/16, which would not look as good as ending that part of the table with a ‘0’ figure for 2014/15.

They also said they would report on the cost of incidents to our community annually, and on the consequences of fire incident outcomes (types of fires and numbers of people injured), and response standards achieved quarterly, but they did not. They have also failed to report on these factors in this ‘plan’.

They said in 2010 that they would look at "new and creative options to maintain cover and continue to attract new retained recruits". They have failed miserably and things have got worse, as these official availability figures show:

Fire Engine
East Preston
East Wittering

In fact, every retained crewed fire engine, except one, has seen availability get worse during the period of the last IRMP. In the worst cases, even despite the new Crewing Optimisation Group, some fire engines are unavailable for periods equal to more than eight months of the year.

Remember also that the fire engines that were removed just over a year ago, were available between 75% and 100% of the time in 2009/10. So the wonderful table showing Fire Appliance and Specialist Vehicle Locations is itself misleading. It gives the impression that they are available resources, when often they are not.

They say “Our change in operating model has not altered the emergency response standards we agreed with you in 2009”. Yet they don’t confess that they fail to meet them more often as a result of the cuts, or as they like to spin them – “change in operating model”. More people in West Sussex are waiting longer for help to arrive and all the County Council does is try to hide the truth.

If this was commercial advertising it would be facing criticism and possibly action from Trading Standards, but of course with the Chief Fire Officer now in charge of Trading Standards that would never happen.

There is a section called "Progress since the last Risk Management Plan", yet very little of it relates to the previous IRMP. They claim "a considerable reduction in the number of ‘Very High’ Critical Fire risk areas", but offer no evidence to support that. Given their previous misuse of the term 'risk', when they actually mean frequency of calls, it may simply be a small drop in calls in those areas. The public not only remain at risk of death, injury or loss of property in those areas, but the increase in response times has increased that risk.

Finally, the nonsense about calling the IRMP a Community Risk Management Plan. This is supposedly because they created the Communities and Public Protection Directorate to also bring “Trading Standards, Community Professionals and Resilience and Emergencies colleagues” under the control of the Chief Fire Officer.

Yes, they tinkered with management structures and gave the Chief Fire Officer a fancy new title, presumably with extra pay, as part of council cuts (or as they spin it - reorganisation), but there has been no real change. The fire & rescue service has always worked closely with other council services and partners. The sham title is actually well exposed by the content of this ‘Community Risk Management Plan’, with virtually no mention of Trading Standards, Community Professionals and Resilience and Emergencies staff, or their work. 

Not only is this an inadequate plan and consultation, but it will yet again strengthen the Police and Crime Commissioner's case to take over the running of the Fire & Rescue Service. I don't want to see that happen, so it is frustrating to see West Sussex County Council and West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service again playing in to her hands.

The consultation is open until 5 August 2016, so please have your say.