Hannah Blythyn MS, Deputy Minister for Social Partnership
The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 requires me to report at least every two years on the extent to which Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) have acted in accordance with our most recent National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services, which was published in 2016. I last published a progress report in February 2020 on how well the Fire and Rescue Services had acted in accordance with the National Framework. Shortly after the publication of this report, Wales, and indeed the whole world was subjected to the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has clearly dominated and governed the way in which we have all lived over the past two years. It has created significant challenges for everyone, including our public services.
As a result of these exceptional circumstances, I believe we are best placed to focus on how well the FRAs have performed and adapted to the ever-changing challenges of the pandemic.
The FRAs have, throughout the pandemic, continued to react swiftly, effectively and professionally, and have adapted their services well to ensure the safety of their staff and the communities they serve. Front-line emergency response has been maintained at the same high standards that we would normally see. To achieve this, the FRAs prioritised all emergency calls, undertook full Covid risk assessments and provided additional PPE to firefighters to ensure the safety of their workforce and the public.
During the pandemic, although there were regional variations, overall the incidence of dwelling fires reduced significantly to another all-time low, despite home working and the increased time families spent at home during lockdowns. This reflects the investment we and the FRAs have made in domestic fire safety in recent years, although there is plainly no room for complacency on this issue. The number of road traffic collisions also declined, perhaps not surprisingly, as a result of homeworking and travel restrictions. Deliberate fire-setting also fell during the reporting period for which the FRAs deserve credit for their sustained multi-agency approach to preventing deliberate fire-setting via the Dawns Glaw Task Force and through consistent and targeted public safety messaging.
The FRAs have also continued to deliver a wide range of community safety initiatives. Although many face to face initiatives were temporarily suspended, the FRAs adapted well. They prioritised home safety checks for those most vulnerable to dwelling fires, and adopted a triage system on an all Wales basis to assess whether face to face visits were required. They worked with local authorities to enable continued delivery of education via the Hwb and other school platforms. For those at greatest risk, the FRAs conducted the necessary risk assessments and provided full PPE to protect both firefighters and the public. In lower-risk cases, the FRAs provided advice to householders by telephone or online, and supplied free home fire safety equipment by post or delivery direct to the doorstep. Business fire safety inspections were also undertaken remotely where possible and telephone advice provided to high risk establishments such as care homes. By prioritising in this way, the FRAs were able to ensure those at greatest risk within the community continued to be protected, and had specific site visits to ensure safe systems were being maintained. The FRAs have now started to evaluate these approaches to determine how far they can be adopted on a continuing basis. These innovative approaches have helped reduced costs and carbon emissions, which I welcome.
The pandemic has also clearly demonstrated the value and necessity of public services working together. COVID-19 meant that the stations in Mid and West Wales which respond to medical incidents on behalf of the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust (WAST) could no longer do so. However, all three of the FRAs continued to provide support to WAST and the wider NHS. Some 450 firefighters and other staff volunteered to drive ambulances, and transport vulnerable individuals for their Covid vaccinations. In addition, the FRAs utilised several of their mass decontamination units at hospitals, where they served as temporary COVID-19 triage facilities. Though this support was not needed on a large scale, the FRAs demonstrated their commitment to public safety through their willingness to respond swiftly to assist the NHS if and when required.
To achieve all of this, the FRAs clearly had to continue to keep their workforce as safe as possible, through rigorous application of COVID control measures, development of bespoke risk assessments and provision of appropriate PPE. I am pleased to report that they did so successfully. Absence levels within the Service have been largely manageable throughout the pandemic, although there were some acute pressures during the Omicron wave. Indeed, total sick absence among firefighters fell during 2020-21.
The FRAs have also adapted their governance arrangements to reflect the pandemic. Investment in IT systems allowed FRA meetings to be conducted effectively on a remote basis in line with the Local Authorities Regulations 2020. This has also reduced travel costs and carbon emissions. By the nature of their work the majority of staff are still required to be present at their workplace, but for some members of staff remote/agile working offers the prospect of a more efficient and sustainable way of working in the future.
Overall, I am pleased to report that the FRAs have been successful in assisting other partners throughout a global pandemic, whilst also providing a service in line with thepriorities set out in the National Framework, despite the considerable challenges they have faced. I would like to personally thank all staff for their continued dedication to the role in this unprecedented time. The FRAs have continued to provide an efficient service and have demonstrated a high level of resilience to the challenges seen over the past two years. Adapting the response and prioritising emergency activity and protection of the most vulnerable members of society has undoubtedly ensured that our communities have remained safe from the risk of fire and other emergencies.
However, there are significant challenges ahead. What the pandemic has taught is that the value of working together needs to be sustained. The Fire and Rescue Service has the scope and potential to support the NHS. Working together is something that needs to be developed, sustained and embedded on an ongoing basis and we would expect FRAs to continue to work collaboratively with the Welsh Government, firefighters’ unions and other representative bodies to realise this. FRAs should also act on the findings of the review of working patterns which our Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor published in December last year.
Separately, the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, which of course occurred after the current Framework was published, still need to be fully learned and applied; and while I am happy that the FRAs have been fully engaged in this work, profound change is still needed in how we ensure fire safety in large residential buildings. Action is needed also to ensure FRAs attain our ambition of net zero carbon emissions by 2030; again, while some good work has already been done, more is needed, in particular relating to vehicle emissions. We will continue to work with the FRAs and with firefighters’ representative bodies in pursuit of these and other positive outcomes. I will reflect these in the next iteration of the National Framework, which I aim to publish by the end of 2022/23.