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.