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.