New station, new team, new opportunities and ongoing challenges

You may have seen that I posted a ‘sneak-peek’ photo from our new Dewsbury Fire Station this week, I accompanied it with the caption #InvestingInSafety. This caused a flutter of activity on Twitter, questioning the wisdom, timing and merits of ‘two into one’ station builds, and also suggesting that our Chief Fire Officer should be asking for more money to run the service.

For the record, I welcome people commenting upon and questioning the tweets that I post. Its what social media is about, and as long as the volume is manageable I will always try and reply. On this occasion though, it did cause me to reflect on exactly how clear the message about the future of the service is. I honestly think that most people ‘get it’, but I have a long held belief that the type of change that we are encountering is such that people NEED to understand the context against which it is delivered – and maybe some people still haven’t grasped it?

I’m not so naive as to not understand that political views, social media comments and ideology are something very different from people’s understanding of a situation, I get that. But you do hear the same old rhetoric on occasion, and for me I’m afraid it’s time has been and gone.

Let us be absolutely clear on a few issues:

  • There is, and will continue to be, significantly less money with which to provide a fire and rescue service.
  • West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service, our Chief, and our Chair will continue to highlight the challenge that the current budget presents to us. We do this as a single service, and with other metropolitan fire services. We highlight our issues to anyone who will listen to us, but importantly we highlight it to both CLG and Treasury Ministers.
  • The national, and local trend with regard to fire fatalities is down*, and has been for a while – and yes, I know that West Yorkshire has experienced a significant number of fire fatalities in recent months, more of that later.
  • The total number of fires in England in 2014-15 was the second lowest ever*, this is also consistent with an ongoing downward trend
  • The number of false alarm calls in England in 2014-15 was down 4% on the previous year*
  • The number of non-fire emergency calls in England in 2014-15 was down 5% on the previous year (this figure comprises of 25% RTCs, 13% medical incidents, and 10% floods)*
  • These are trends that we broadly reflect here in West Yorkshire.

*= DCLG Fire Statistics Monitor : England April 2014 to March 2015 (Published this week, and worth a read)

(https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/454811/Fire_Statistics_Monitor_April_2014_to_March_2015.pdf)

This is not the background against which services will do anything other than look to work more efficiently, with less people (people cost lots of money) and to rationalise wherever they can. This is not an issue that just affects the FRS, it affects all of the public sector. Similarly it is not the background against which services should sit, paralysed with indecision, and ‘salami slice’ every year in order to provide a service which can be afforded with that years budget, and worry about next year when it comes. It is a scenario that demands sustainable and long term change, decisions and vision. That is the approach taken by West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service, it has been designed by officers and well supported by elected members as part of the democratic process that steers our service. I do believe that we are seeing an unprecedented ‘once in a career’ level of change.

Without exception, all of our new station builds have provided a better working environment for our staff. They are located in places where we know that they can provide good fire cover to vulnerable people. They are efficient to run and the investment decisions will save money in the long term. They have replaced old and tired facilities that cost a lot of money to run and maintain. They are where we want them to be located in 2015, not where they were needed in the 1960s. They are about the future of this service and not about its past.

They provide us with the opportunity to save money on staffing costs by either requiring less staff, or by being crewed in different ways. There are more of them yet to be built and to ‘go live’.

Replacing old stations with new, on a widespread one for one basis, did not make sense at the early stages of our change programme. This is the time for some fundamental change to our footprint.
In the future we may well replace old stations with new, as we have done in the case of Rothwell. This will be about providing fresh, fit for purpose facilities at locations that are important to us, but doing so in a way that allows us to run and maintain efficient and modern buildings. Our recently completed Asset Review will support these decisions.

The number of calls being responded to by individual stations is getting lower all of the time, any of our staff can tell you that. Some stations that were once busy two pump stations can now barely sustain the level of activity that supports them remaining wholetime crewed.

Attendance times are important, and stations are located so as to provide the fastest response times into our highest risk areas. We can improve attendance times to every incident by looking at call handling in fire control and the length of time that it takes to get a fire engine mobile to, and in attendance at, an incident. All of this matters to us, and should be a source of professional pride in doing these things as quickly as we can. Automatic Vehicle Location (AVLS) will ensure that we always send the fastest fire engine to an incident.

On occasions our fire engines will be some distance from a developing incident because they are doing some other task, or attending another incident, therefore they may take longer than we would wish to get there, this has always been the case, it is nothing new, but we have a better chance of getting it right now with AVLS than we ever have done before.

There are less fire engines, and the number will decline further still. This is commensurate with the call volume, and the activity profile that is predictable and steady. Big fires will occur, and at times the service will be more busy than at other times. Fires will still happen at night, no one ever said that they won’t, but there are less of them. No service which provides value for money should grow as demand shrinks.

We are developing new ways of working, using new technology, and seeking to provide resilience to our response service to accommodate peaks in demand – and we will continue to do so.

We recognise that our staff are getting less experience at incidents and we recognise that we will have to replace this with training and simulation. This will require us to be innovative and to invest money in new facilities.

Unfortunately people will continue to die in fires in the home for as far into the future as I can see. Most of these deaths will be  preventable and the fire and rescue service has a large part to play in making people safer in their homes, but fire deaths are not our ‘fault’. Of course we hope that no one loses their life in a fire ever again, but it will happen. We will stop people dying only if we, and others, can educate them about how fires start and encourage them to either help themselves or allow others to help them – not all people will respond to our efforts. We will continue to work hard to prevent fires and mitigate their impact. We will particularly support vulnerable people who are less able to help themselves, part of this support may involve better use of technology and innovation.

Our successes in prevention are there for all to see – ask the NHS and the Police if you don’t believe me. As the Chief spoke about in his recent letter to all staff, just because we have had a number of tragic fatal fires in the last few months, this does not mean that it has all gone wrong, far from it. We are not complacent, no one should be as long as fires continue to cause death, injury and loss. Our task is a difficult one, and the difficulty will only increase as we seek to reach the most vulnerable and inaccessible. It is a task influenced by issues that are largely out of our direct control such as the effects of old age, mental health and the prevalence of smoking in our society. We will always try and have as much of an effect on these issues, and others, as we can. This will require us to change the way that we work and the people and organisations that we work with. I don’t think we have even begun to experience the true scale of this change.

This is not a ‘race to the bottom’. It is a process of adjusting our service to match a changing demand in a context of austerity. It will be a smaller service that will cost less to run, because it has to be. Decisions will be made on evidence and a degree of professional judgement. The public will be asked what they think both through consultation and ultimately by the democratic process that provides us with a Fire Authority.

It is an often used cliche to say that ‘our staff are our greatest asset’ – THEY ARE! We will work with our staff, on every station and in every department, to find our way through these challenges. It will be difficult but I am convinced that it is achievable if we can all work together. Lines of communication are arguably more open than they have ever been in the past. There are many routes which staff can use to share thoughts and ideas, please use them.

I’m really proud of our new facilities at Dewsbury. I think that our staff will be too. I also think that whilst we are all feeling some of the pains of change we should be tremendously proud of the service that we provide to the people of West Yorkshire. Read some of the social media comments that we get back following incidents like that at the Freeston Academy this week if you need reminding.

I wish everyone who serves at the new station every success. Its a wonderful building and I’m sure that you will become a fantastic team who use it to help to make the local communities safer.

I’m conscious that some may see this blog as me ‘letting off steam’, or having a rant. It very genuinely isn’t. Every now and then I’ve wondered whether or not it needed writing. I think that it does, so here it is. It really is time to move on!

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