Hannah Blythyn MS, Deputy Minister for Social Partnership
Last December, I made a statement to the Senedd about our aim of broadening the role of the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) to support the NHS, and about a detailed review which our Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor (CFRA), Dan Stephens, had conducted on the capacity and readiness of the Service to undertake such a role. In outline, the CFRA concluded that the capacity to take on a broader role did exist, and that realising it called for changes in FRS working practices. Indeed, the report found that such changes were likely necessary in any event, as there was some evidence that current working practices did not allow firefighters enough time to train, or to carry out vital work to reduce the likelihood and severity of fire.
Today I am publishing a follow-up to that review that the CFRA has conducted on the specific issue of training within the FRS, which is available at Fire and rescue service operational training: thematic review | GOV.WALES. This is, of course, vitally important to both our Firefighters who carry out a dangerous and highly complex job, and to the public. Firefighters continually need to acquire, develop and sustain a wide range of skills covering numerous processes, tactics, pieces of equipment and approaches to decision-making. They then need to be able to apply these skills both collectively and individually in the highly dynamic and very challenging environment of real incidents. It’s imperative therefore that firefighters are properly and thoroughly trained and this should, as I know it is, be among the main priorities for the Service.
Furthermore, that need has increased in recent times. As we have seen the success of the long-term decline in the incidence of fire, we now rely on our firefighters to respond to an array of incidents besides fires. They are at the front line of road traffic collisions, floods and chemical spills. Technological advancement, and improvements in the underpinning science, has placed many more tools and techniques at their disposal, and has increased the need to master them. Changes in the design, construction and contents of buildings have created a built environment which is in many ways more complex and hazardous in the event of fire.
Given the gravity of the work our fire service carries out, there are some concerns in the CFRA’s report that must be addressed. The CFRA’s latest review uncovers several serious weaknesses in how training is currently planned, managed and delivered. It finds that while good practice exists, too much is left to the discretion of junior officers, based at individual fire stations, who are not always fully supported to ensure consistent standards are at a sufficiently high level, across the Service. Training facilities at many fire stations are limited, with opportunities to use more comprehensive and more realistic facilities being constrained by the need to travel whilst maintaining operational cover. There is evidence also of certain firefighting tactics still being taught despite their safety and effectiveness having been called into question by extensive research, and examples of their use at incidents around the world where they may well have contributed to firefighter fatalities. I know that each and every one of us would want to do all that is possible to protect those who serve our communities.
The review has not been able to establish conclusively whether firefighters have enough time to train, but that is largely because only one of the Services has yet responded to an interim recommendation that the CFRA made in March. However, from the CFRA’s work it appears very likely that this time is inadequate. That is particularly so for retained or “on-call” firefighters, who are expected to master the full range of firefighting skills in a small fraction of the time available to their wholetime colleagues. Even for wholetime firefighters, the time available for training remains limited by a working pattern which devotes around half of a night shift to rest periods and private study, provided there are no emergency incidents during that time. That practice is unchanged since the 1970s when the role of a firefighter was much narrower and more straightforward. The need for training has undoubtedly increased since then, and if it is not being met – this creates clear risks for firefighters that none of those involved would want to see. More generally, devoting so much time to allowing firefighters to rest while on duty does not maximise their value to the safety of people and communities in Wales and it certainly impacts on the potential for firefighters undertaking a broader role.
It is crucial that our three Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) consider and respond to the CFRA’s findings fully and promptly. The same applies to the findings in the CFRA’s earlier review, which highlighted potentially serious risks of fatigue under current working arrangements. Doing so may mean making fundamental and possibly difficult choices, in discussion between employers and representative bodies – but the safety of our firefighters and those they protect must always be paramount.
Until that happens it is clearly not possible to move forward with a broader role for the Service. While the potential for the FRS to make a real difference to health outcomes is clear, we cannot sensibly ask firefighters to take on a wider range of tasks without full assurance that they are able to discharge their current statutory duties safely and effectively.
I have asked the FRAs to respond to me by 11 November with their plans for addressing these issues and I will make a further statement to the Senedd shortly after that. I know that like each of us, their primary concern is with safety and service of the public and those who provide this service. I am certain also that we will be able to continue to work in partnership to deliver the safest and most sustainable service possible that we all want to see.