Saturday, 22 July 2017

Cabinet Member plays Russian roulette with public safety

I had thought we could not have a worse Cabinet Member looking after the fire & rescue service than David Barling. After Friday’s County Council meeting, I am not so sure.

High-rise buildings

The new Cabinet Member, Debbie Kennard, appeared at best complacent, at worst inept. She is new in the post, so some nervousness is forgivable, but rejecting serious safety concerns with waffle is not.

Following a written answer, Councillor Michael Jones voiced his concerns that the response to a fire in a high-rise building, when it is detected automatically, is frighteningly inadequate. If a fire is suspected by a person, then around 30 firefighters with six fire engines, an aerial ladder platform and a command vehicle will be sent immediately. Yet, if relatives have sensibly had an automatic alarm installed in a vulnerable person’s flat, and that detects a fire, only one fire engine with four firefighters will be sent. Firefighters will be unable to carry out rescue or firefighting until they call for backup and that help eventually arrives. The Cabinet Member ignored his concerns. 

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is inconceivable that any responsible professional would recommend a policy that puts the public and firefighters in such danger. This can only be the Cabinet Member playing Russian roulette with the lives of the public she claims to protect and the firefighters she claims to support.

"Smoke detectors do detect real fires"

Councillor Jones also voiced concern about the estimated response time for high-rise buildings in West Sussex. The second fire engine won't always meet their generous response standard, and the full response could take more than half an hour to arrive. Response times that are all well over those recommended to the Prime Minister following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Yet the Cabinet Member failed to answer the Councillor's questions. Instead she read out some notes, which must have been prepared for an entirely different question. 

Similarly, when Councillor Kirsty Lord asked about inspections of schools, following the cladding problem at Grenfell Tower, the Cabinet Member decided to talk about the high-rise buildings that had been inspected.

Councillor Jones also questioned the previous lack of fire & rescue service inspections in high-rise buildings. He was told that inspections were risk assessed and priority given to vulnerable people "in buildings that are compliant with fire safety legislation and where staff are trained appropriately”. Councillor Jones pointed out that some people in high-rise buildings are also vulnerable, but there are no trained staff. The Cabinet Member was clearly not concerned with vulnerable people in high-rise buildings (shades of Kensington & Chelsea Council) and passed the buck to borough & district councils and building owners.

Cabinet Member unaware of her responsibilities

Councillor Brenda Smith asked if sprinklers will be included in new buildings built under the PropCo policy, which is where the County Council is the developer. The incredible answer from Councillor Kennard was, “we would love to put sprinklers in to buildings, but obviously we go by the regulations that are given to us by the fire & rescue authority”. 

Someone needs to tell her that the County Council is the fire & rescue authority and that, as Cabinet Member, she is responsible.

Cabinet Member fails to support fire service recommendations for sprinklers

Councillor James Walsh asked the Cabinet Member if she shared his concerns about reports that the Selsey Academy would ignore fire & rescue service advice and not install sprinklers in their new building. This was a golden opportunity for the Cabinet Member to show her support for the fire & rescue service and to promote the need for sprinklers to protect residents and firefighters. Instead, she chose to defend the company running the Academy by saying, “it is their choice”.

Police & Crime Commissioner's takeover threat is still real

Police & Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne, has not abandoned her plans to take over the fire & rescue service, but has postponed the decision for two years. Sadly, the Cabinet Member’s response shows that she has yet to grasp the severity of the threat. Key elements of the Government’s case for change are that fire authorities need to be more accountable and transparent, and those are key weaknesses in West Sussex. Yet the Cabinet Member seemed oblivious and failed to respond positively, even to questions from Conservative Councillors.

Councillor Michael Jones threw the Cabinet Member a helpful lifeline by suggesting a cross-party group to work on dismantling the PCC’s report and strengthening the County Council’s case. He voiced concern that the Strategic Reference Group, which is there to guide the PCC’s review, only has Conservative politicians on it. Yet the Cabinet Member ignored the very important accountability and transparency issues that Councillor Jones was raising and rejected his suggestion.

County Councillors from all parties praised fire & rescue service personnel, which is great, but they are not the issue. The Government will eventually decide this issue on how well the County Council is running the service, not on how well staff are doing their jobs. The Cabinet Member kept referring to briefing notes sent to County Councillors, but clearly failed to grasp that is not providing proper accountability and transparency. Denying Councillors, from all political parties, the opportunity to discuss the issues and not making information available to the public, will simply strengthen Katy Bourne's hand.

Unless the Cabinet Member takes her head out of the sand, and recognises that it is her performance and the Council’s accountability and transparency that will be judged, then I fear for the future of our fire & rescue service.

Sean Ruth farce

Councillor James Walsh rightly criticised a written answer he was given on the dodgy deal that was done to enable Sean Ruth to ‘retire’ and keep his job. He pointed out that claiming the Executive Director post was not a Fire & Rescue Service post, when 90% of the Director’s budget is for the fire & rescue service, was less than honest. The answer also dishonestly claimed that there were no extra costs involved in splitting Sean Ruth’s post in two, and paying him a pension as well as his salary.

Council Chairman Lionel Barnard’s laughable defence of this farce began with him claiming that it was a “totally different post Mr Ruth was after”. Then, like a petulant teenager who doesn’t want to discuss their bad behaviour, Mr Barnard said, “he has decided not to take it up, so it is null and void.”

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Why do decision makers never learn?

Friday was a depressing day for anyone concerned with fire safety and the fire & rescue service.

First, we learnt from local news that, following last year’s fire, the Trust running the Selsey Academy does not intend to fit sprinklers when they rebuild the school. Professional advice and common sense say that sprinklers should be fitted, but TKAT (The Kemnal Academies Trust) say they won’t, because they are “not a requirement”. Well, it is not a requirement to look for traffic before crossing the road, it is just a recommendation, but only a fool does not do so.

TKAT claim, “Our pupils are at the heart of everything we do”, but this shows that they are not. They may believe their procedures will protect the lives of pupils, but major school fires have many other consequences. Studies have shown that they have a detrimental effect on pupils’ education, which leads to lower than expected achievement. They cause emotional distress for staff, pupils and the wider community. They also have a negative impact on the school’s social life, and an economic impact on the school, local authority, parents, staff and community groups.

Not forgetting of course, that such fires pose a danger to firefighters and to nearby property. All these negative effects and risks can easily be avoided by fitting sprinklers, which is comparatively cheap in a new building. This selfish and short-sighted decision begs the question, what other recommendations and good practice do TKAT ignore, simply because they are “not a requirement”? TKAT, who run a dozen schools in West Sussex, must reconsider and do the right thing for pupils, staff, local residents and firefighters.

The second shock was the revelation, on BBC Newsnight, that firefighters might have saved everyone in Grenfell Tower, if senior managers had made different decisions before the incident.

Crucial amongst them was the policy decision to no longer automatically send an aerial appliance to high-rise building fires. Firefighters had to request one, which meant it arrived over half an hour after the first call. I believe that there was every possibility that the external fire spread could have been stopped, if the aerial appliance had arrived in 11 minutes (time it took to arrive after being requested), instead of taking 32 minutes to get there.

The other fundamental issue, which the presenter easily recognised, but ex-Chief Fire Officer Ronnie King failed to recognise, was the absence of a plan B. We know that fires in this sort of building are supposed to stay in the flat of origin, but we also know that things can sometimes go wrong. Yet, it seems fire service planning, procedures and equipment only ever allowed for plan A. If everything and everyone does what is expected, then that is fine, but if not you need a plan B. I have to say that Ronnie King’s comments were very disappointing and illustrated by his comment, “I wouldn’t want to criticise any policy of London Fire Brigade”.

This fire appears to have spread beyond the flat of origin because of alterations, but there are many other situations where plan A will not work and a plan B becomes essential. For example, explosions that damage the structure. These can result from gas leaks, gas cylinders, illegal drug labs or bomb making. They can range from something as simple as fire doors not being shut, or fire spreading via open windows, to damage caused by a light aircraft hitting the building.

Cuts made in 2014 inevitably slowed the response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Six central London fire stations were closed and other fire stations lost their second fire engine, so reinforcing fire crews had to travel further and took longer to arrive. There was also a delay in getting extended duration breathing apparatus to the incident. With a high probability of it being needed in a high-rise building fire, why was it not on the initial response?

Both the aerial appliance and extended duration breathing apparatus issues suggest a worrying complacency amongst senior fire service managers, or a lack of experience, or inadequate risk assessment, or a blinkered mindset, or all of those.

The communication problems resulted from both equipment and procedural limitations, but these are not new. So why has nothing been done to overcome them? As for water supplies, I am not surprised that Thames Water claim there was no problem. It would not be the first time they denied responsibility and then later, when that did not work, claimed it was someone else’s fault. However, unlike other countries, there are no legal requirements for water companies to provide a specific quantity and pressure of water for firefighting in the UK. This was not such an issue when water supply was in public ownership, but things seem to have deteriorated with privatisation. Perhaps another issue in need of reform.

So, how would West Sussex cope with such a fire? Well, I understand that WSFRS do send an aerial appliance as part of the initial response to a high-rise building fire. A positive, but tempered by the fact that, for many parts of the County, the response time could be over 30 minutes and in worst cases over an hour. With greater distances, fire station closures and the removal of a quarter of frontline crews in West Sussex, standard fire engines would also take much longer to arrive than they did in London.

I am not aware of WSFRS having any extended duration breathing apparatus, or where the nearest would be. Water supplies and communications are unlikely to be any better and could well be worse than in London. If anyone can clarify these points, I would like to hear from you.

As for plan B, I don’t have confidence that this has been considered in West Sussex. Risk assessment seems to have been focused on finding excuses to cut resources, rather than reasons to ensure that the public and firefighters are properly protected. When you realise that someone in WSFRS looked at the problems posed by larger aircraft, with more passengers and fuel, and then decided to reduce the service’s response to aircraft emergencies, it is difficult to have confidence in plan A, let alone plan B!

I believe one of the significant problems in relation to both stories is applying business planning methods to the public sector. In the business world, if it will cost more to produce something than you will get back in sales, then you don’t do it. If you are already doing it, then you stop doing it. In the public sector there are no sales, so in the cost/benefit analysis the costs are easily worked out, but the benefits are less tangible.

So, for the Selsey Academy, did they include in the benefits column not damaging pupils’ education, not causing emotional distress to staff, pupils and the wider community, not harming the school’s social life, avoiding an economic impact on the school, local authority, parents, staff and community groups, not putting neighbouring properties at risk, and not endangering the lives of firefighters? I suspect not.

In the case of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, were assessments prepared regarding the decision to no longer send aerial appliances to high-rise buildings, and before cutting the number of aerial appliances in LFB? If they were, I am sure that the benefits column did not include avoiding dozens of fire deaths. It is also telling that in every city in the rest of Europe and in North America, one or more aerial appliances would have been sent immediately to a fire in a building like Grenfell Tower.

It is simply not good enough for anyone, be they property owners, fire service managers or politicians, to increase the risk to the public and firefighters. Lessons must be properly learnt, acted on, and never forgotten.