Issue 5

ITS BLUE LIGHTS AND PREVENTION

By Professor Richard Kerley

From the 1st April we haven't just had a Scottish Police Force – of which we have heard a lot – but also a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, of which we have heard a little less.

The Chief Officer of the SFRS, Alasdair Hay, recognises the challenge and also has high ambitions for the service, as he discussed with SPN.

“The key for us is that despite all the changes, we maintain the quality and improve the outcomes at the front line. We respond to all emergencies and take steps to drive down risks in homes, workplaces and communities through education and prevention of fire and other such risks.”

The task facing Hay and his team is a challenging one. Bringing together eight brigades, of very different characteristics. Six of the merging brigades are amongst the smallest in the UK; a different six cover some of the largest land mass areas in the UK and 5 of them are amongst the most costly to run amongst the UK brigades. On top of that fire deaths in Scotland, although the level of such tragedies is improving, remain considerably higher than in England and Wales. 

Whatever the actual level of such differential fire deaths – and there is some dispute over the figures – across the population as a whole there is around a 40% greater likelihood of dying in a fire death than in England and Wales.

“The key for us is that despite all the changes, we maintain the quality and improve the outcomes at the front line.”

These  figures  reflect complex underlying reasons, some of which are related to social disadvantages and concentrations of low income households, facilities in some housing and lifestyle choices by families and individuals. The complex reasons underlying  the higher levels of fire deaths in Scotland are one of the key reasons why Alasdair Hay argues for a close partnership relationship with local authorities and other organisations.

“A closer connection with local communities is essential. There’ll be a local senior officer tasked with liaison with each of the 32 councils and a local fire and rescue plan tailored to that area and the people there.“

Hay also argues that the service has got a lot better at assessing risk and trying hard to work with partners to reach households that are at risk - “…prevention is better than dealing with the consequences of an emergency. Our people have to do that a lot and prevention is a far better option if we can achieve that.”

That focus on prevention is getting far wider and more ambitious than used to be the case. It is no longer about just fitting a smoke alarm. There are familiarisation visits by fire and rescue staff to schools and growing numbers of home fire safety visits. As Chief Officer for the whole of Scotland he is – naturally – building on his experience gained in Tayside and the experience of the other fire and rescue services, in developing safety visits into a broader assessment of the risks in the house, particularly driven by the circumstances of the occupants.

Hay makes the point that it is the same fire service personnel who do the blue light call outs who also do home visits and safety assessments and this enhances their capability to do the prevention work successfully. Such assessments can be part of a shared assessment with other public services such as health and social work.

“Does it matter who does the assessment of a property as long as we get the right message across to people? Our fire-fighters are good at engaging with people; they are trusted and can engage with people to put across a message about risks and safety.”

Hay also argues that the service has got a lot better at assessing risk and trying hard to work with partners to reach households that are at risk - “…prevention is better than dealing with the consequences of an emergency."

Interestingly, in saying this, Hay is echoing some of the interesting frontline practice developments that are also going on in English councils, through the re-emergence of public health services as part of the English council portfolio of services.  In Birmingham, for example, fire-fighters are being trained and encouraged to carry out shared assessments with health and social work staff. The logic is powerful; the risks in the home for elderly people are not just confined to fire but include falls and injuries of all kinds that can be tackled through re-design and appropriate aid provision. The pragmatic findings of such developments also suggest that elderly widowed or single females – longer lived than men and therefore more vulnerable to ageing risks – react very positively to younger authoritative and well trained men and women in fire-fighter uniforms.

One of the toughest tasks that Alasdair Hay, his management team and the Fire and Rescue Service Board, chaired by former CoSLA president Pat Watters, have to face is the expectation of budget reductions inherent in the government decisions on fire and police.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has a budget for next year, and an indicative budget for the next two years 2014 and 2015, and all of these currently show expectations that savings will have be made. Alasdair Hay is positive that such budget reductions can be made and that ‘front line outcomes‘ can be preserved, or even improved.

“We’re working on how we can do this and we have made changes and savings already - we’ll standardise where we can, and use the opportunities made available through economies of scale. Bringing 8 forces together enables us to achieve efficiencies right through the organisation, at command levels and elsewhere.”

He references aspects such as procurement, administration issues and the vehicle fleet replacements that are part of the necessary cycle when an organisation runs almost 2000 vehicles in all. Hay is committed to ensuring that the available equipment needed in each area is appropriate and that one of the advantages of a single force is to ensure that appropriate specialist equipment and expertise is available right across the country.

He also recognises the increased demands placed on fire fighters in a changing technical and economic environment. Increased numbers of critical road accidents; terrorism threats; water rescue; chemical spill and other hazards all create demands for training, equipment and process familiarity that go way beyond the traditional image of ‘the fire brigade’.

Other forms of social change pose some complex dilemmas for the fire and rescue services. As the recent Accounts Commission Best Value audit reports, a very substantial number of fire stations are staffed either entirely or at least with a mix of retained fire-fighters, a minority are solely staffed by full time fire-fighters. As working patterns have changed, more people work further away from ‘home’ and their overnight community and longer travel to work patterns make the legacy assumptions of how such retained or mixed stations can best operate. Similar patterns of social change also face voluntary mountain rescue and lifeboat stations so the fire and rescue service is not alone in this situation.

At the heart of Alasdair Hay’s commitment is maintaining not just a seamless changeover of the fire and rescue service since the all-Scotland operation was launched on April 1st but better outcomes for all citizens - “Protecting front line outcomes and wherever you live a more equitable access to fire and rescue services.”

By Professor Richard Kerley

Issue 5

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