Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grenfell Tower Tragedy

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has stunned us all. It may not have happened in West Sussex, but many of the issues and concerns are equally valid across the UK.

Those of us who are, or were, firefighters can only admire the London firefighters who took such risks and punishment to try and rescue people. I am sure we can also relate to the extreme frustration and despair that they must have felt when they were unable to help more people. Especially when they could see and hear victims, but could not reach them.

It is quite right that there will be a public inquiry and it must cover everything, from when the building was planned, right through to all aspects of the response. Every organisation, body and individual who may have taken, or failed to take, action that contributed to the tragic outcome and post incident inadequacies must be investigated. They must examine what influenced decisions and then assess each one to see if it was right or wrong to take that decision at the time it was taken.

I know many people want an organisation or individual to blame, but I doubt there will be a clear cut ‘x’ knew doing ‘y’ was extremely dangerous, but did it anyway. Disasters usually result from a series of failures and, had any one of them not happened, then disaster would have been avoided. If there is a significant individual failing, that must be dealt with, but that must not allow other contributing failings to be swept under the carpet. If failings justify prosecution then so be it, but the most important thing is to act to prevent all the failings, large and small, from being repeated. There is already strong evidence that lessons learnt previously were not acted upon, and that must not happen again.

We will have to wait for the full facts to emerge, but I would not be surprised if several of the following issues did not play a part:

This is what can happen when politicians:
  • dismiss the professional concerns of firefighters as scaremongering
  • reject genuine public concern as politically motivated
  • remove the inspectorate that monitored fire & rescue services
  • replaced regular fire safety inspections by experienced and trained firefighters with tick box inspections by people with limited training and little or no experience
  • handed fire risk assessments over to the private sector, without any monitoring of their standards, abilities and effectiveness
  • falsely claim that fewer emergency calls justifies fewer fire crews
  • use the fire & rescue service as a political football
  • legislate, but don’t provide funding and fail to monitor those given duties by that legislation
  • fail to understand that Police & Crime Commissioner control of the fire & rescue service will devalue and degrade the service
  • cut local authority funding and deprive them of the money to improve fire safety in their own properties, and to provide an effective planning and building control service to monitor safety in other buildings

This is what can happen when Architects/Developers/Local Authorities:
  • design buildings that can make escape impossible when just two doors fail to close
  • fail to ensure access for fire appliances
  • put lower costs before public safety
  • only install one staircase in buildings that are higher than firefighters’ ladders
  • ignore fire service recommendations and advice
  • don’t have safety at the top of their priorities

 This is what can happen when Chief Fire Officers: 
  • pander to politicians, instead of protecting the public and defending their service
  • support politically motivated lies that cuts will not have serious consequences
  • become complacent about inadequate fire safety standards
  • fail to ensure the service has a strong voice speaking out on safety
  • put more emphasis on likelihood than on risk to life when assessing risk
  • gamble with lives by reducing the resources available
  • increase the risk to firefighters by cutting crewing levels
  • fail to learn the lessons from incidents occurring elsewhere in the World

I also wanted to mention the response. The emergency services seemed to have acquitted themselves superbly, but the local authority and government have not. Having spent some of my fire service career, and all of my local government career planning for emergencies, I am well aware of what should have happened.

Having worked with the current and previous emergency planning leads at Kensington & Chelsea Council, I am puzzled as to why things were not more effective. Now it might be that the media have not covered it, but I would have expected to see their Chief Executive at press conferences alongside the emergency services from at least the afternoon of the day it happened. I would also have expected lots of information on their website and paper copies handed out to survivors.

It may well be that cuts have undermined their planning and training to deal with emergencies. I know that when budgets are under pressure, day to day mandatory duties tend to take priority. They do also have a legal duty in relation to emergencies, but the Government have done nothing to ensure local authorities are meeting those obligations.

It may also be that the Chief Executive and department heads are part of the problem. I have experienced Chief Executives and department heads who refuse to participate in training for major incidents, whilst others have understood that they must be prepared and have contributed effectively. When major emergencies occur, I have known Chief Executives and department heads who have been quite useless in a crisis, whilst there have been others who have stepped up, taken charge and shown the necessary leadership.

I also have concerns about the casualty bureau process which, although a police responsibility, should also have input from the local authority. One of its fundamental tasks is to provide accurate information to relatives and friends, but four days on and some were still saying they have been told nothing. That is unacceptable. I know they cannot confirm all the deaths, but they should have been able to confirm survivors and to confirm, to family at least, if relatives are listed as missing.

I have met survivors and bereaved relatives from previous tragedies who have worked tirelessly to ensure that others don’t suffer from failures in future incidents. I have worked with people at national and local level trying to improve procedures for survivors and bereaved relatives. I can only imagine their frustration as they see lessons learnt, once again, apparently being forgotten.

One final point, if this had happened in any other European capital city, the emergency services would have quickly received substantial support from trained volunteers in their civil defence organisation. This country foolishly abandoned our very effective civil defence organisations back in 1968. As we saw at Grenfell Tower, willing but untrained volunteers were left to do the best they could. Their efforts should be applauded, but in a country rated by some as the fifth richest in the World, that should not have been necessary.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Conservative Deception on Fire Cuts



Another example of deception from West Sussex County Council under Conservative control. They produced a Modelling and Analysis Technical Report on the likely effect of the 2014 cuts. They summarised the effects as “slightly more cost in terms of life and property damage (i.e. 3 extra dwelling fire fatalities in 100 years, £80,000 extra property damage for other building fires).”

The true results, hidden in complex tables, were a total of 55 extra fatalities in 100 years, made up of 3 extra dwelling fire fatalities, 6 extra fire fatalities in other buildings, and 46 extra fatalities at special service calls (e.g. road traffic collisions). Extra fire fatalities, not in buildings, were not shown.

The actual extra cost of property damage for other building fires in 100 years is £8,011,100. The extra property damage for dwelling fires (people’s homes) was not shown.

Increases all resulting from longer response times, which we are already seeing. The modelling does not take account of the worsening availability of fire engines, which further increases response times, so the modelling may well be an under-estimate.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Our Fire & Rescue Service is not safe in Conservative hands

There was a time when politicians, even Conservative ones, felt obliged to maintain an effective fire service. From 1948, for around 60 years, Conservative Councillors on West Sussex County Council did just that. Chief Fire Officers had to fight for the service, but well evidenced business cases usually secured the necessary resources. Never excessive, but always adequate.

However, the last eight years has seen a fundamental change, where the Conservative Government and Conservative County Council have failed residents and firefighters. The safety of citizens should always be a government's first duty, but our Conservative politicians are failing in that duty. Unprecedented cuts have been made to the service and they have used false promises and deceit to try to justify their actions.

I hope that people will remember this betrayal when they come to vote.

Note: The above figures include Horley fire station, which was located in West Sussex after the 1974 boundary changes, but continued to be operated by Surrey County Council for a few years until West Sussex County Council took full control. It provided first response to parts of Crawley from 1974 until it ceased to be an operational fire station after the last round of West Sussex County Council cuts.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

April 2017 Update

Covered in this update:

Chief Fire Officer financial scandal
Conservatives say cuts are dangerous
Cabinet Member obstructs scrutiny
Fake claims (fire deaths and fire engine availability)
Crawley residents hit by worst cuts
More incidents - Less fire engines
Meaningless promises on our fire & rescue service
More response time misinformation
Conservative Councillor lives in a different World



Monday, 3 April 2017

Damaging consequences of "Chief Fire Officer to retire" fiasco

There is another aspect of this ‘Chief Fire Officer to retire’ story.  What Council services will have to be cut to pay for two Chief Fire Officer pensions, in addition to the salaries of an existing and a new post?

Deputy Lee Neale, who retired recently, was doing Sean Ruth’s job, whilst he was off doing something else. Lee Neale would have been paid as Chief Fire Officer, so he is now presumably getting a Chief Fire Officer’s pension, instead of a lower Deputy’s pension. If Sean Ruth gets his way, that will be another Chief Fire Officer’s pension, presumably with a lump sum payment out of the budget, plus his continuing salary. Not forgetting of course, the new Chief Fire Officer’s salary.

At a time of austerity, when jobs and services have been cut, that is contemptible. Cabinet Member David Barling claimed last month that the Council could not afford to review the service’s increasing failures to meet response times. Something that would have cost significantly less than this travesty and something that would have benefited West Sussex residents.

There is also the damage this will do to firefighter morale. Many serving firefighters, who risk their lives instead of driving desks, are facing increased payments for a less beneficial pension and will have to work to the age of 60 to collect it. Now they see their chief officer trying to get his hands on his very much better pension, at the age of 50, and wanting to stay in his very well paid job.

So much for us all being in this together, all having to tighten our belts, etc, etc. If County Council Leader Louise Goldsmith has any credibility, then she ought to consider if this inept move has brought the County Council in to disrepute, and who should be held to account for that. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Fake Chief Fire Officer Retirement


This is a story of greed, arrogance and contempt. 

The Chief Fire Officer and Executive Director for Communities & Public Protection jobs were combined, just three years ago, to “bring the fire service, community development and regulatory services together to help build safer and stronger communities”. There is nothing to stop Sean Ruth staying in this job, so why this plan? It can only be to get his hands on his fire service pension, but his problem is that Police and Fire Minister Brandon Lewis has banned senior fire officers from getting generous retirement pay-outs and then immediately returning to their jobs.

He and the Chief Executive appear to have cooked up this dodgy and very expensive scheme to get around the Minister’s ban. Sean Ruth continues to run the fire & rescue service, but will just be called Executive Director, and the new ‘Chief Fire Officer’ will, in practice, just be a Deputy dancing to Sean Ruth’s tune. As well as having to pay Sean Ruth’s high salary and generous pension, taxpayers will now also have to pay a new Chief Fire Officer.

Louise Goldsmith & Sean Ruth

Council Leader Louise Goldsmith and Cabinet Member David Barling must have approved this devious scheme, and arrogantly think they can ignore the Minister. If they want to reward Sean Ruth for supporting their false claims, that cuts were ‘improvements’, it should not be at taxpayers’ expense. They also arrogantly assume they will be re-elected and able to instruct Conservative Councillors to approve this disgraceful plan.

It shows contempt for firefighters and Council staff, who must do more, thanks to Council cuts. It shows contempt for Councillors, who were not consulted on this reorganisation at the top. Firefighters knew in January that Sean Ruth would retire this year, so there was no legitimate reason for hushing it up until after the last County Council meeting. It shows contempt for the Minister. Above all it shows utter contempt for the public, who will in no way benefit, but will have to fund this travesty. 

“It’s completely unacceptable for fire services to act in this way”.
Brandon Lewis (Minister for Policing and the Fire Service)

Finally, it is completely reckless to upset the Minister who has the final say in whether the Council or Police & Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne will run our fire & rescue service. David Barling repeatedly shows why the service is not safe in his hands, and now this idiotic move. Sadly, Louise Goldsmith and David Barling have now gifted our fire & rescue service to Katy Bourne. They should be ashamed.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Cabinet Member Hides Truth on Fire Response Times

At last week’s West Sussex County Council meeting, the Conservatives disgracefully voted down a proposal to review fire & rescue service response times. Councillor Mike Glennon voiced concern that response times were increasing and asked for an independent review. This was supported by Independent, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP Councillors.

Cabinet Member David Barling angrily suggested this was only proposed because it was election year, but Councillors have been asking for greater transparency for over two years. 


Mr Barling had promised to publish monthly details of response time failures in 2015, but he has failed to do so. It should also be noted that the proposer of the motion, and two Councillors who spoke in support, are not standing in the May elections.

The election is pertinent though, as it is David Barling who does not want the public to learn the true cost of Conservative cuts to the fire & rescue service. We should not be surprised though. When the Council was petitioned not to cut £1.6 million from the fire & rescue service budget, he callously told Councillors to ignore the 55 extra deaths predicted by their computer modelling.

David Barling also tried to suggest that this was just about the Selsey Academy fire and that firefighters had done their best. Yet, this was a blatant attempt to divert attention from the real problem, which is County wide. None of the Councillors criticised firefighters, indeed they all praised them, but Mr Barling tried to use firefighters as a shield for his failings.

County Council figures show the service is increasingly failing to meet response times, with a 7% increase in failures for life threatening fires since the cuts. Yet these averages hide the worst response times experienced in some areas.

Note: the target is 80%


Astonishingly Mr Barling claimed, “financial cutbacks have got absolutely nothing to do with this, even if they did exist”. Only a fool would believe that closing fire stations and cutting a quarter of the County’s frontline fire engines would not increase response times.

video


Councillor Andy Petch, who is not standing in May’s elections, said, “the only thing stretched about the claim that West Sussex response targets are stretch targets is the truth, because for nearly two thirds of the County we’ve got a very generous 14 minute target.” He added that, for up to 20% of calls, the response time could be even longer without missing the target (it only requires 80% success).  

Councillor Michael Jones said, “across Hampshire the target is 8 minutes, across Devon, Somerset, Kent, Norfolk and Surrey the target is 10 minutes, whilst less than 4% of West Sussex is deemed to deserve a 10 minute response or less”.

Sadly, Councillor Barling and his Conservative cronies only rejected the review to hide evidence that their so called fire & rescue service improvements were actually damaging cuts. A case of preferring to keep West Sussex residents in the dark for their own political self-interest.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Cabinet Member "hasn't got a clue"

At last week's West Sussex County Council meeting, Cabinet Member David Barling answered one question by saying, "I haven't got a clue". That seems to sum up his lax approach to questions on our fire & rescue service. He also failed to listen to the question properly, so his snide response was also inept. 

I thought it was about time readers heard how David Barling responds to legitimate questions and concerns from fellow County Councillors, so here is a recording with some photos of the people speaking. The questioner is Bernard Smith, County Councillor for Selsey.

video  

You can watch the whole meeting on the West Sussex County Council website. This item is at 4.25.00 on that recording.

David Barling said, "I know what I am doing about Selsey", but failed to give any detail. Whilst the fire & rescue service has taken some action, there is no evidence that the Cabinet Member has done anything. It is time he told us exactly what personal action he has taken to deal with the part-time firefighter crisis at Selsey and across the County. If not, then he is admitting his abject failure.

You will also notice that, despite responsibility for the fire & rescue service in West Sussex resting with the Cabinet Member, David Barling tries to infer that the questioner has some responsibility. Sadly, that was nothing more than a cheap political trick, designed to deflect attention from his own failures.


Inaccurate and misleading information

In replies to written questions from Councillors, the Cabinet Member again gave inaccurate and misleading information. His reply to Councillor Andy Petch claimed that there were 10 fire engines at the Selsey Academy fire by 08:44, but the incident log shows only 7 had arrived by that time. It was actually 09:36 when the 10th fire engine arrived, some 52 minutes later than claimed. 

He then claims that all 14 fire engines were there by 10:35, but again that is wrong, as the 14th actually arrived at 10:48. The first emergency call was made at 07:52 and the arrival times of all the fire engines, as shown in the official incident log, were as follows:




It really is getting very difficult to believe anything the Cabinet Member says

Councillor James Walsh asked about a previous inaccurate answer from the Cabinet Member. In his reply he said that his answer referred to "responses into Bourne from Emsworth". If that was true, then why did he say, “Hampshire Fire & Rescue don’t actually come a great deal into West Sussex; approximately it’s about 50 times every year”? Perhaps he thinks other County Councillors do have access to a crystal ball, so that they can see what he is thinking whilst he is saying something completely different.

It is also interesting that he claims to have fire & rescue service statistics for a County Council Division, but has previously refused to provide Councillors with that level of detail on the grounds it would take too much officer time to prepare it.


Inferior Response Targets

Another written question from James Walsh asked, "The target response times in West Sussex for the Fire and Rescue Service to arrive at critical fires is set at 8-14 minutes, with a requirement to achieve that in at least 80% of cases. In similar rural counties the following targets are set, which apply to ALL locations in those fire service areas. Hampshire - 8 minutes; Kent, Norfolk, Surrey, Devon and Somerset - 10 minutes; in Suffolk and Oxfordshire - 11 minutes. Is the Cabinet Member happy that we have lower target figures than other similar counties, and that the latest figures show that 25% of incidents wait more than 13 minutes in West Sussex?

One of his excuses is that differing geography makes a difference. It is difficult enough to believe that any differing geography between West Sussex and Hampshire would make that much difference, but Devon & Somerset's geography should make it far more difficult for them to achieve their response targets. Yet the West Sussex maximum target response time is 40% longer than in Devon & Somerset.


So it does seem that the Cabinet Member is happy that West Sussex has inferior response targets and is also failing to achieve them.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Selsey Academy fire - more details

After delaying tactics by East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, I have now received the first part of the incident log for this fire. I first submitted a Freedom of Information request in October last year. (Note: East Sussex operate the Sussex Fire Control and carry out call handling and mobilisation for all calls to fire & rescue in both East and West Sussex).


It was previously reported by West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service that the first crew arrived 16 minutes after the first '999' call, but the log shows that it actually took 18 minutes. Response targets vary in West Sussex, based on their own classification of risk, from 8 to 14 minutes for the first fire engine and from 11 to 17 minutes for the second. So the first fire engine to arrive at this fire did not even meet the target for a second fire engine in a lowest risk area. With Selsey having a resident population of over 10,000, plus several thousand more in holiday accommodation at the time of this incident (August), it is difficult to consider it 'low risk'.

It must be remembered that it was only luck that resulted in Selsey's retained (part-time) crew eventually attending the incident. The Sussex Control had them recorded as not available, but as news of a major fire spread around Selsey, their firefighters called the Sussex Control to say they could respond. Had that not happened, it would have taken 31 minutes to get the minimum of 9 firefighters to this fire. That number was agreed, after a review by several fire & rescue services, as the absolute minimum to ensure safe and effective initial firefighting and rescue at any building fire.

The call was received at 07:52. Of the nearest six fire engines, only two were available. They were the wholetime crewed fire engines at Chichester and Bognor Regis, which were both sent with a total crew of eight firefighters. Three minutes later, a retained crew from Arundel was ordered to attend by the Sussex Control. It is not known if this was to provide the mandatory ninth firefighter, or if it was because more '999' calls were being received.

The incident log also reveals that the Emsworth fire engine is listed before Arundel in the attendance priority schedule, and both Havant and Emsworth are shown before Arundel in the dynamic mobilising list. The dynamic mobilising list is supposed to more reliably show which of the available fire engines can arrive the quickest. It is therefore not clear why the Arundel crew was sent at that time.

At a County Council meeting, Cabinet Member David Barling tried to pass the buck for the initial delay and he clumsily insulted Selsey's firefighters in the process. He then claimed that it was OK, as “lots of other engines all turned up within a few minutes of each other”. So, let us look at that in more detail.

We now know that the first fire engine, from Chichester, arrived eighteen minutes after the first ‘999’ call. The Bognor Regis crew arrived one minute later, as did the Selsey crew that had luckily become available. A total of 14 standard fire engine crews were required to contain and attack the fire. It took 31 minutes to get four of them there. After 1 hour and 5 minutes there were just eight. After 1 hour and 44 minutes it was up to ten, and it was just under three hours (2 hours and 56 minutes) before the final fourteenth fire engine arrived.

Not exactly “within a few minutes of each other”. Now I am sure the Cabinet Member will be prompted to say that they were not all requested at the start. True, but nearly three hours to get enough resources there to control the fire, raises serious questions about assessment, decision making, travel distances and resource availability. This is not intended to be critical of the junior and middle ranking officers who attended, but questions need to be asked. Is training adequate? Have cuts reduced resources to the extent that they are consciously, or subconsciously, overcautious about requesting assistance?

Previous reports have suggested that pressure is being applied to officers in charge to keep assistance requests low. Even without that, officers are painfully aware of the inadequate number of pumps often available. If that is discouraging officers from requesting the right number of resources, then that may explain the very long gap between the first call and the final fire engine to arrive. The speed and weight of attack are fundamentals in effective firefighting. Anything that undermines those principles is dangerous for the public and firefighters alike.


As a comparison I took a look at the response to the Chichester Sainsbury’s fire in 1993. There were fourteen fire engines in attendance in just 45 minutes, and all twenty-six arrived in under two hours.

It may not be the only reason, but the County Council's serious cuts in funding and resources must have played a significant part in the stark difference in the responses to these two incidents.