Carl Sargeant, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children
The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 requires me to report at least every 2 years on the progress Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) have made in complying with the National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services. The last such report was published in July 2015.
The need for an effective Fire and Rescue Service has never been greater. As the tragedy of Grenfell Tower demonstrated, fire remains a grave and potentially devastating threat. I am proud of the work of our FRAs, both in preventing fires and responding to them when they break out and I am pleased with the progress they have made in delivering the shared agenda set out in the Framework.
The current framework, published in January last year, is radically different from previous frameworks. It set out the need for FRAs to change, so as to deal with fundamental and strategic challenges including austerity, an ageing population and the long-term decline in the incidence of fire. In particular, it called on FRAs to diversify in order to respond to a different set of wider threats to individual and community safety. This is a challenge which will involve making far-reaching changes to FRA resources, capability, training, culture and values and one which will take several years to achieve fully.
For this reason, the latest report can only provide an interim summary of emerging evidence and trends, paving the way for a fuller update in the new year.
The fall in the incidence of fire and fire casualties is a great achievement. It means the business of the Fire and Rescue Service increasingly focuses on prevention – on reducing the risk of fire and, increasingly, on reducing other risks too. The evidence is clear that their core fire safety programmes are working very well and the overall reduction in the number of fires says as much. But specific FRA initiatives have also had a demonstrable effect. For instance, multi-agency work to reduce grass fires has led to a 50% fall over 2 years and intensive interventions with young people at risk of offending consistently achieve exceptional levels of behaviour change and reduced recidivism.
There are, though, many other risks to people’s safety besides fire; and the decline in the incidence of fire means FRAs can play an increasing role in addressing those too. There has already been some good work in this area, but in order to bring greater coherence and ensure Fire and Rescue Service resources are deployed to best effect, the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport and I have agreed some strategic priorities for FRA support to the health and care sector. We believe there is real potential to improve quality of life easily and sustainably, by, for instance, preventing falls at home which all too often lead to a long spell in hospital or in residential care. I hope all organisations involved can work with us to deliver our priorities.
Nonetheless, the core business of the Fire and Rescue Service remains emergency response – to fires, road accidents, floods and a host of other incidents. I am happy to report that the Service consistently responds swiftly and effectively. FRAs have also reviewed, or are in the process of reviewing, their operational capability, aiming to align that to known and predicted levels of risk. In doing so, they need to be sure to address all risks relating to incidents to which the Service may respond – not just fires.
That is particularly so given the long-term aim of diversifying the service, which embraces emergency response as well as prevention and protection. As pledged in the Framework, we have now introduced a statutory duty for FRAs to respond to flooding and water rescue incidents – a move which attracted support from both FRAs and unions, and which drew strong praise from outside Wales too. There has also been some good work in developing FRAs’ capability to support the Ambulance Service by responding to certain types of medical emergencies. However, I recognise that further progress here depends on reaching agreement with firefighters and their unions. While I am clear that a sustainable future for the Fire and Rescue Service depends on just this sort of diversification, we and the FRAs must also recognise and address the legitimate concerns of firefighters in this respect.
Sustainable progress also means having governance arrangements which support and drive strategic change. However, the legal framework setting out the structure and governance of our FRAs dates from the mid-1990s, and no longer seems fit for purpose. It does not generate enough accountability for Fire and Rescue Service policies or performance, nor does it adequately integrate decisions about fire and rescue services with public services more widely. Plainly, none of this reflects any criticism on FRA members or officers themselves, who I believe have done as well as they can within the limitations of the current system. But while the Framework called for change, it is becoming clear that that is not possible within the statutory arrangements we have.
A similar problem exists with FRAs’ funding arrangements. These involve no formal outside approval or challenge at all: FRAs can simply levy contributions on their constituent local authorities as they see fit. While they have generally done so responsibly, this is still not a defensible way of managing public money. It removes a powerful driver to secure savings and efficiencies. For instance, and despite clear commitments in the Framework, I remain concerned that 2 of our FRAs could still do more to reduce their attendance at false alarms. I accept that this needs to be done carefully and on the basis of proper risk assessment, and that the main responsibility for avoiding false alarms lies with building owners, including in the public sector in particular. However, progress has still been too slow. Others have shown that reducing false alarms can free up significant amounts of firefighting resources without imperilling public safety in any way.
Therefore, and as we announced last January in our local government White Paper, I propose to develop and consult on a new approach to FRA governance and finance. That will retain the current pattern of FRAs we have, and will recognise the particular demands of managing and delivering emergency services, but will generate stronger leadership and clearer accountability.
Those changes should also enhance collaboration between FRAs and other agencies, especially at the strategic level. Until now, the evidence suggests that FRAs have done their best to collaborate within the arrangements we have. They appear to work reasonably well together to agree common practices and secure efficiency savings, through their National Issues Committee. Our FRAs have also established some effective connections with other agencies, particularly to support the diversification of the service into matters such as crime prevention and better health; and they are becoming effective and valued partners on public service boards. However, there have also been examples of less good practice, for instance when it comes to other organisations sharing information about people who are at high risk of fire. While those instances seem to have been resolved, we must always ensure that a shared commitment to keep people safe overcomes institutional insularity.
Finally, but no less importantly, the FRAs have clear obligations towards their workforce. Past achievements would not be possible, and future potential will not be realised, without the continuing dedication of our firefighters. I am pleased that our FRAs plainly take these obligations very seriously, and aim to provide careers which are rewarding and fulfilling. I am also pleased that their and our relationships with firefighters’ unions have been amicable and productive.
However, this is no ordinary employment relationship: firefighters are required regularly to deal with the most hazardous situations, and their safety is and must be paramount. I am therefore also publishing today a Thematic Review by my Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser on “Learning Lessons to Avoid Safety Critical Incidents.”
That, again, is particularly important in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower: only by learning from events like that can we and FRAs keep citizens and firefighters safe. The Review highlights that FRAs’ procedures are generally sound, although further improvements could be made to ensure effective communication of risk critical learning to all front line staff. While the review was undertaken before the Grenfell tragedy, the points it makes are even more relevant in light of it. I know that all our FRAs are already taking rapid action to ensure firefighters learn from Grenfell Tower, and I am sure that they will make the wider improvements the Review calls for too.