Hannah Blythyn AM, Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government
Last July I updated Members on the extent to which Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) have acted in accordance with our National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services. I committed to making a further and more detailed report, once data for 2018-19 were available. I am now happy to do so, and am publishing my full report today: National framework for fire and rescue services: progress report 2019.
I am very pleased to say that the report confirms the overall messages that I provided last summer. Detailed analysis of data for Wales, England and Scotland show that, overall, our Fire and Rescue Services continue to succeed in reducing both the incidence and severity of fire as far as they can.
There has been particular success regarding dwelling fires. These account for only a small minority of all fires, but the great majority of casualties. They disproportionately affect people who are old, frail, disabled or otherwise vulnerable, and even if there are no casualties, the damage to property and the disruption to people’s everyday lives can be devastating.
It is therefore gratifying to report that dwelling fires in Wales are now at an all-time low, and they have fallen further and faster than in England or Scotland. Furthermore, fires caused by unsafe domestic electrical supplies – which appeared to be a serious problem until recently – have fallen sharply since we drew the issue to FRAs’ attention.
I have little doubt that this success is partly due to the great emphasis that the Service places on preventing fire and improving awareness of fire risks. As my report shows, we have comfortably the most extensive programme of home fire safety visits in Great Britain and one which focuses effectively on people most at risk of fire. Additional Welsh Government funding ensures that these visits, and the safety devices which are supplied as part of them, are completely free to householders.
Last year saw a significant increase in deliberately-set grassland fires during the exceptionally hot summer. That was plainly beyond the FRAs’ control; we will never eradicate this completely, and climate change may well increase the risks in the longer term. However I am content that the FRAs are working well with partner agencies to deter people from fire-setting, and to respond effectively when incidents occur.
The report does, though, reveal some concerns. A relatively high number of dwelling fires spread beyond the room in which they originate, and the ratio of casualties to dwelling fires has not changed in recent years – meaning that if a fire does break out, people are just as likely to be injured as they used to be. These are complex issues. They do not necessarily mean FRAs are performing badly; but they are concerning, and merit further scrutiny.
I am concerned about some of the corporate issues revealed in the report. Our fire and rescue services cost around 29% more per head per year than their counterparts in England, despite doing a similar job to broadly similar standards. This is quite probably a reflection of cuts imposed by the UK Government, which many in the Service believe have gone too far.
The Service also continues to attend a high number of false alarms. These outnumber actual fires, accounting for around 40% of all incidents the Service attends, and consume significant resources for no benefit at all. Building owners and occupiers should do more to prevent this, but there are simple, safe and proven steps that FRAs can and should take too. On an all-Wales basis, progress in reducing false alarm attendance has been much slower than in England.
I am keen to work with FRAs to ensure that they are operating as efficiently and effectively as they can.
Overall, though, the report shows that the Service is performing well in its core role. Indeed, it risks becoming a victim of its own success. The incidence of fire is now so low that the Service is increasingly under-occupied in many parts of Wales. As I said in July, many rural fire stations now respond to only a handful of fires a month, if that. This is making it difficult to recruit and retain the on-call firefighters on which most of Wales relies, and risks jeopardising the sustainability of the Service in rural areas. The decline in workload also appears to be associated with a concerning rise in sickness absence among firefighters. In these times of severe and continuing austerity, we need to be absolutely sure we are making the best use of all our public service resources.
The possibility of broadening the role of the Service in light of these trends has long been acknowledged. Firefighters are highly trained to deal with a wide range of incidents besides fires, and have the expertise and respect to raise awareness of and prevent non-fire threats too. There is clear potential for the Service to make a real contribution to supporting the NHS in particular, whether in terms of responding to medical emergencies or helping to prevent accidents like falls at home; and clear evidence that this can secure better outcomes and significant savings. There are many impressive examples of this happening, but they are often small-scale and piecemeal.
I believe we need to go further, and to do so more consistently and strategically. I want to see a Fire and Rescue Service which deals with a range of threats to people’s health and safety, both in terms of prevention and emergency response, complementing not duplicating the work of other professionals. Only by doing so can we maximise the Service’s public value and secure a sustainable future for it.
Achieving that will be complex and time-consuming. Firstly and most obviously, we need an agreement on firefighters’ pay and conditions which fairly reflects a broader role. Bilateral UK-level negotiations on this have been very slow. While I have no wish to step outside the current negotiating machinery, I believe setting out a clearer and more tightly-defined set of requirements for Wales could give the negotiations the impetus they need. I am happy to reiterate our commitment to consider providing financial support to a pay deal that meets the needs of Wales and Welsh firefighters.
Secondly, we need a robust and strategic agreement between the Fire Service, the NHS and other partners, so that the former’s resources can be deployed where they are most needed. There are already constructive discussions on this at senior management level.
Finally, we need to ensure that FRAs have the necessary funding and governance mechanisms to support this broader role going forward and I will discuss this further with the FRAs and others.
This is an ambitious, valuable and necessary programme. It extends well beyond my portfolio into many other areas of public service, and I will be discussing the detail further with my Cabinet colleagues. But there is real potential here to capitalise on the success the Service has already achieved and to maximise its value to the people of Wales. I will make a further announcement in due course.