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.

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