Having just viewed the recording of the latest West Sussex County Council meeting, I am again dismayed by Cabinet Member David Barling’s performance. I am left wondering, does he not listen to what he is told or asked, does he not understand, does he lack the time to do the job properly, or is he just badly briefed? You may wonder why his performance is so important.
Well the County Council claim that the fire & rescue service is “safer in our hands”, but unfortunately, it is not in their hands. It is in Councillor Barling’s hands. In West Sussex, Cabinet Members make all the decisions and rarely take notice of concerns or views expressed by other Councillors. There is no effective scrutiny and accountability, so when Cabinet Members dodge, bypass or mock serious questions from fellow Councillors, it seriously undermines their already weak case to retain control of the fire & rescue service.
Councillor Gordon McAra (Midhurst) voiced concerns about ambulance and police cuts in his area and asked about providing space for those services at Midhurst fire station. Councillor Barling happily claimed to have already “done it”, but then proceeded to say, “we are already in discussions with the police about co-responding”. So, either he has completely failed to understand what co-responding is, or Midhurst firefighters should be worried that they are now going to be dealing with break-ins, shoplifting and assaults!
Someone needs to tell Councillor Barling what co-responding is, because if he doesn’t understand, then he has no hope of making any correct decisions. Co-responding is when the fire & rescue service voluntarily attends medical emergencies for the ambulance service, to satisfy ambulance service response times and to carry out the ambulance service’s legal responsibility until they arrive. It has nothing to do with the police! He should also be aware that it is being pushed by the Government to cover up their under-funding of the emergency services.
Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Crawley Central) told the meeting that there are reports from other co-responding schemes of firefighters having to wait a long time for the ambulance service to arrive. He said this is because ambulance services often divert the resource, initially allocated to co-responder calls, to meet their response targets for a subsequent call. He quite reasonably asked what guarantee the Cabinet Member had that this would not happen in West Sussex.
Mr Barling said he could not give any guarantee and, if they had to wait, they would wait. He then rambled on about AVLS enabling Control to know where fire engines are, despite the fact that Control would obviously know where they had sent the crew! Worryingly, he suggested that if a critical fire & rescue call was received, then firefighters would abandon their patient. Councillor Jones said that they surely could not abandon a patient. Mr Barling’s lame response was, “we will have to wait and see”.
The Cabinet Members' Reports mentioned that the Crewing Optimisation Group (COG) was part of the co-responding trial and Councillor James Walsh (Littlehampton East) referred to the Cabinet Member’s previous statements about COG making more fire engines available. He made the perfectly logical point that they “can’t be in two places at once”, and went on to say, “this must reduce the availability for them to meet their target, which they are already failing to do, this can only make it worse.” Councillor Walsh also voiced concern about the co-responder training being carried out in secret and without consultation with the public or with County Councillors. He added that this “lack of transparency will play in to the hands of Katy Bourne” (the Police & Crime Commissioner).
Councillor Barling dismissed these concerns by saying, “both of those points are fundamentally wrong”. His failure to grasp these simple and fundamental points should worry everyone. If a COG firefighter is sent to ensure a fire engine is available, but is then sent on a co-responding call, that fire engine will again be unavailable. Response times will therefore increase for any fire or rescue call, as another fire engine must travel from further away.
Improved accountability and transparency are core Government objectives in their plans for Police & Crime Commissioners to take over fire & rescue services. Councillor Walsh’s insight, that this further example of the Cabinet Member’s inadequate accountability and transparency will “play in to the hands of Katy Bourne”, is very significant. By contrast, Mr Barling’s failure to grasp this key weakness in the Council’s case to retain control of the fire & rescue service is deeply troubling.
Councillor Bernard Smith (Selsey) rightly voiced concerns about the failure to meet response times for the Selsey Academy fire. He also questioned the classification of the Academy as ‘low risk’. Mr Barling admitted that the Selsey fire station was not on the run, but then falsely tried to say it was because of recruiting problems. There were clearly enough firefighters in Selsey at the time, as evidenced by their ability to respond after a few phone calls. The real problem was inept management changes.
Previously, Retained (part-time) firefighters would notify Control when they were not available. In addition, most of them would co-ordinate their time off to ensure maximum availability of their fire engine. Now, unfortunately, they are required to give notice, several weeks in advance, of when they will definitely be available. It is that inflexible and bureaucratic procedure that resulted in firefighters, who were physically available to respond that morning, being shown as not available in the Sussex Control.
Mr Barling also implied that “Saturday night” was the reason that sufficient firefighters at Selsey “hadn’t volunteered to be available” on Sunday morning, which was quite uncalled for. He later talked about evidence being important, well if he has evidence to support that slur he should produce it. If he can’t, then he should apologise to Selsey’s firefighters.
In response to Councillor Smith’s concerns about risk classification, Mr Barling embarked on nonsense about Selsey being a ‘low risk’ area. The actual risk to people’s lives, when their home catches fire or they are in a road crash, or of a building being destroyed is no lower in Selsey than it is in Worthing or Crawley. So, he was in fact saying that, because they have fewer calls in the area, he considers it acceptable for fire crews to take longer to attend emergencies in Selsey. It is clearly not about the risk to people or buildings, but about the frequency of calls to the fire & rescue service.
He also made the astonishing claim that “lots of other engines all turned up within a few minutes of each other”. Reinforcements actually took much longer to arrive than they should have done, because of County Council cuts and crewing shortages. The idea that several fire engines, from different stations up to around 30 miles away, all arrived within a few minutes of each other is pure fantasy. Conveniently, apart from the times of the first three fire engines to arrive, the response times for the other crews that attended have not been published.
Councillor Smith also asked if the delayed response had resulted in more damage to the Academy. Now common sense will tell most people that the longer it takes to start firefighting, then the further the fire will spread and the more damage will be caused. In this case firefighters could have been at the school within six minutes, but the first crew took nearly three times longer to arrive. Yet Mr Barling claimed that fire officers had assured him that “this was pure conjecture”. Well if any fire officers did tell him that, then he needs to find some better trained and more experienced fire officers. There is a wealth of evidence, test results and professional experience to confirm that delayed responses result in more damage and can sometimes result in loss of life.
I want the fire & rescue service to be controlled by elected Councillors, but with such a disappointing performance from the Cabinet Member, I must agree with Councillor Walsh - David Barling is making it far too easy for Katy Bourne to make a solid case to take over West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service.