Preparing for terrorist events

Up until very recently I wouldn’t have been able to write this blog posting. The topic has been subject to a degree of protective security since its inception, and is only just moving out into ‘the daylight’ from the shadows of the cloak of secrecy. The subject is the Fire & Rescue Service role in the management of a Marauding Terrorist Firearms Attack (MTFA). If you are reading this from GCHQ then have no fear I’m not about to go public on tactics and detail, but I would like to write about the value that the FRS can add to a multi-agency response. Nothing that you are about to read has not been published in the national newspapers, or cannot be found by using Google. 

Following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015 the Home Secretary talked about the role of the FRS, and paramedics, in such a scenario. It was reported in many newspapers, including the DAILY TELEGRAPH and has been discussed in a number of open forums since. I’m not going to suggest for one minute that the Telegraph article is anywhere near completely accurate, far from it, but the essential point is true – and has been for some while. In the STATEMENT (Column 870) which the Home Secretary made to the Commons following the events in Paris she discusses the existence of the capability and gives a general overview of the threat environment in which we are operating.  Members of the Fire Brigades Union will also be aware that the current and ongoing requirements of ‘Action Short of Strike’ are such that they are instructed not to participate in ‘duties associated with MTFA incidents’. Whilst I have a view on that position, this is neither the time nor the place to debate that view. But the very fact that it’s part of publicly declared ASOS means that it’s a fair assumption that people know what we are doing.

So what am I going to write about MTFA, given the list of things that I’m NOT going to write about? I want to discuss the fundamental point of whether I think the FRS should have a role in MTFA response or not. I’m NOT going to to attempt to tackle the issues that I know are at the heart of the FBU position, again there’s a time and a place, and this is not it. 

You may be aware that there have been a series of discussions ongoing at the National Joint Council (Fire) and one of the work streams in these discussions has been MTFA. A joint CIRCULAR has recently been published outlining the current joint position.

I have a role which I undertake for the Chief Fire Officers Association as the lead officer for MTFA. (I’ll also clarify for those that may wonder, that we don’t get paid anything extra for our CFOA work, we do it because it’s important and because we care about the future of our service, we are grateful that our Authorities allow us to lead and influence). As part of my role I recently spoke at a conference in London about our MTFA role, and followed an officer from the National Ambulance Resilience Unit (NARU) who gave his perspective on the same issue. In speaking with other delegates – it was a Counter Terrorism/Resilience ‘trade show’ – it was very apparent that many people who previously hadn’t considered the issue thought that it was a fantastic role for the FRS to undertake as we seek, to some extent, to redefine our role in society.

I’ve written in previous blogs about the need to consider how we are profiled in the future and what we do to protect the public. The number of fires is on the decline generally speaking, and despite all of the trust that we put in the public valuing their FRS, there are inevitable questions to be asked, and they will be. We can either answer the question when someone poses it to us or we can recognise that it’s coming and get the answer ready now. I will be the first to admit that there is probably not a firefighter on the books of any FRS that joined the service to wear balistic protective personal equipment, nor to operate in such a potentially hostile environment. But we are adaptable and flexible, aren’t we…..?

It will be lost on no one, and can be read in every newspaper, that we live in a world where the threat from terrorism is severe, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future – at least a generation some would argue. Our service responded magnificently to the post 9/11 new world order. New Dimension (latterly changed to National Resilience) assets were integrated into our response capability in very short order in the grand scheme of things, to the point where I would now argue that they are now part of ‘new normal’. Our ability to respond to terrorist related incidents has moved on hugely, as has our ability to deal with a range of other non-terrorist incidents as a consequence of the investment in equipment and training.

I describe our ability to deal with MTFA incidents as ‘work in progress’, as do most other, if not all, emergency service partners. We have spent some time getting a basic, safe, offering up and running. Now is the time, now is the threat climate, to develop and progress the capability so that it becomes an integral part of our national security infrastructure. This will require time, effort, funds and support from the whole range of FRS stakeholders – it’s too good an opportunity to miss.

A load of rubbish?

Firstly, thanks for the feedback on last weeks blog posting about the newspaper article suggesting that the Police and Fire & Rescue Services were on the brink of some sort of a merger. My blog stats show that it was one of the most well read to date, and that helps when I’m thinking of subjects to blog about. I do try and keep as topical as possible, and to choose subjects that are relevant to our service and hopefully which prompt some lively debate. The whole subject got a lot of air time this week, both in the office and at a meeting with the West Yorkshire Police & Crime Commissioner that I attended. Its fair to say that the article was getting ahead of itself somewhat though we will all watch with interest as new legislation is shaped up over the course of the next year, I’m sure that its going to come up again sooner or later. Nothing quite as contentious for this blog, but a serious issue none the less.

We’ve had a few incidents over the last week or so, one in HALIFAX, one in HORBURY, and one in BRADFORD,  all of which involved materials which were part of the ever growing waste recycling trade. Two of them were visible for miles around due to the size of their thick, black smoke plumes, and all of them required the commitment of a substantial amount of West Yorkshire FRS crews and resources for very extended periods of time. Whilst I’m all in favour of protecting and reusing the precious resources that we have available to us there is a downside when sites that store materials in the process are not well managed, or when fire breaks out.

I’m not going to write about the specific incidents referred to above because I haven’t been to any of them. I do know though that there are common trends that run through all of these fires, and are such that the Chief Fire Officers Association has being working hard with the Environment Agency, industry operators and the insurance trade to try and impact on the number and severity of such incidents. We held a forum a while ago when we all came together to discuss the issue, a report is available HERE if you want to know more about it.

We’ve had a focus on this type of incident for last 2 or 3 years, both here in West Yorkshire and nationally. The specific waste recycling industry is relatively new as research seeks to find ways to turn our waste into something usable, instead of just burying it in huge holes in the ground. Much of the UK’s waste is exported to Scandinavian countries for processing and conversion into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), and this often takes place from the East Coast ports. There is also the growing business of creating biomass pellets from waste and this sees organic waste converted into a usable fuel. It is safe to say that we are going to see more and more waste being stored, transported and processed in the years to come. The waste industry seems to be inextricably linked to the economy, so as the economy grows so will the risk.

The common perception that fires occur mainly in the unlicensed part of the industry doesn’t necessarily hold true, nor is it true that they are increasing in number. The numbers are holding pretty steady, it seems that media reporting and public interest is growing though.

Our primary concern as Fire & Rescue Services is the level of risk presented by such sites. As the industry grows, so do the number of sites, and many of them are now developing in urban areas. This means that if fires occur the effects are magnified, as we’ve seen locally over the last week or so, in that proximity to residents and housing adds substantially to the issues faced by services when dealing with incidents. The large amounts of smoke, the often large amounts of fire water run off, and the number of fire engines in attendance have a magnified effect when they directly affect people in their homes. The choices faced by the Incident Commander often involve a choice between a significant fire attack, or a controlled burn, the resource and environmental implications of both are very different, and the implied pressure to put the fire out can become overwhelming, though it often may not be the best use of resources to do so. There is much work to do on the pros and cons of the two approaches, and we will hopefully move to a position where a calculated and evidence based decision can be taken on the chosen tactic.

There is nothing different from other incidents in that prevention is always better than cure. Our strategic and local relationships with the Environment Agency are so important to us in this respect. We will strive to ever more effectively share intelligence about risk sites to allow us to provide prevention advice, and plan for the consequences of an incident should one happen. In West Yorkshire we are working hard to develop this relationship and we have involved other members of the Local Resilience Forum in our thinking and planning over the last 12 months or so.

I hope that the recent 3 incidents are nothing more than a blip in activity, these often happen for no discernible reason. The level of social media and main stream media activity that has surrounded them shows that they are of a key concern to the community that we serve. We have lots to do in keeping on top of this problem and hopefully, in the fullness of time, coming up with different ways to deal with them. Our evidence suggests that nothing has greater effect than a protracted response which takes the burning refuse pile apart bit by bit and extinguishes pockets of fire systematically. This ties up resources for extended periods of time, and takes crews away from valuable training and prevention/protection work. As our service changes this time is precious to us, and whilst fires will always occur and will remain at the heart of what we do, we will need to be able to deal with these incidents more effectively to protect our response resources.

My thanks to Graham Tyler for allowing me to use one of his images on this blog.

The ‘barmy’ Sunday Express article

At risk of being bombarded by naysayers who are apoplectic at today’s Sunday Express headline regarding the ‘barmy’ plan to ‘merge emergency services’ I wanted to take the timely opportunity to blog about the issue.

If you haven’t seen the article yet HERE it is. It’s worth a read before you carry on reading this blog – apologies for all of the other stories that will flash before your eyes in doing so!

Firstly, let’s try and take the politics out of it and look objectively at the article. Let’s (for one moment) ignore the outdated reference to ‘fireMEN’, lets ignore the sensationalist headline that talks about a bill that no one has even seen yet, and let’s pick out the strand of possible truth in that it has been hinted that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) may, in time, in some areas, and without being forced to by central government assume some sort of political control over the Fire & Rescue Service, if it suits the local agenda. As I blogged about earlier this week the new ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ may be seen as moving some way toward enabling such a position.

Looking at the current model, Chief Constables remain operationally responsible for their force areas, and are accountable to the PCC for delivering the Police and Crime plan. The PCC, in turn, is scrutinised by a local Police and Crime Panel. PCCs also swear an oath of impartiality in respect of how they discharge their duties, in recognition of the fact that whilst standing for election as members of political parties they are required to represent all of the people once elected.

Fire & Rescue Services have a range of governance models, in the case of West Yorkshire we have a Fire & Rescue Authority (FRA), 22 elected councillors from the 5 constituent authorities who hold a range of legislative responsibilities and who employ a Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive to lead and manage the operational service whilst remaining accountable to the FRA.

At the time of writing I genuinely have no idea about what may be in the forthcoming Policing and Criminal Justice Bill, and I’m no cheerleader for any particular political direction, but I do think that it’s important that we have the debate. That’s what our democracy is about, and there are clearly a range of conflicting views in existence.

Let’s be honest and admit that there is a lot of synergy in what the 3 principal emergency services do, let’s also be clear on the fact that there are a lot of differences.

For the purposes of this blog I’m going to rule the Ambulance service out of this discussion as they are (currently) an inseparable part of the NHS, and deliver critical care responses as part of the wider NHS model. Sure there are all of the discussions about co-responding and all of that, but I’ve blogged about those in the past and I’m sure that I will again. I don’t believe that it’s a likely outcome of the issue that the Sunday Express article is referring to. Not never, but very certainly not now.

If we confine our definition of the fire service to being a service that rushes from fire to fire, all day and all night, and if we confine our definition of the Police to ‘Sweeney’ car chases and public order incidents then we are a long way apart in what we do. If, however, we recognise that we are both in the business of making the communities that we serve safer, and that we do this for the vast majority of our time, then we have a lot in common.

We both serve the same communities, have very similar operational and administrative boundaries, have statutory powers and duties in respect of community safety, already sit around the same tables and attend the same neighbourhood meetings and we both face the challenge of austerity. We also both have HQ functions delivering HR, Finance, Estates Procurement, Media, Vehicle workshops, training and development teams etc. We both have local district structures and buildings that often work together on issues that involve the same vulnerable people. We also both have 999 call handling, despatch and incident management centres. A simplistic overview, but you get my point.

Yet despite all of this we are also both very different in purpose, and in the way that we are perceived by the public. The Police have a very definite role in enforcing the law. Many will argue that it is this single issue that means we should forever remain as two distinct and separate services. It’s also worth remembering that the FRS have such responsibilities too, though not in the same types of law I grant you.  There is no suggestion by the way, unless something comes from entirely left field, that the Governement is about to create a combined fire and police service.

I don’t believe for one minute that a step such as the one alluded to by the article should be taken solely because it is cheaper in these austere times, that would be wrong. If, however, we were to take an objective look at how the safety of the communities that we serve could be best delivered, and if we thought that the synergies could provide a better and more effective service, that also happened to be cheaper, then surely it’s worth the debate?

I don’t believe that the current models of delivering either policing or fire and rescue services are fundamentally broken, but I think that if we had the debate, without forcing it down one line or another, we could all come up with improvements to both services. I don’t believe that this debate is about police officers turning up to fight fires, and I don’t believe that it’s about firefighters arresting people. I think that the skill sets of professional officers in both services (and the Ambulance for that matter) are extensive, and I don’t for one minute think that one person can be fully competent in every aspect of all of the individual roles. People will undoubtedly raise the CORNWALL issue with me where one guy has a tri-service role, read carefully because it’s nothing like this article is alluding to. I do believe that it’s about providing a better service for the people that we serve.

We’ll probably see a nudge towards closer working, perhaps even under a PCC/mayor.  I hope that it will only be the case when local communities want it, that’s what democracy is about. The bottom line is though, that it’s a trashy, sensationalist article. It has however, prompted me to blog about it, it’s caused a ripple on social media, and I’m sure that it’s been the basis of many a debate between fire, police, and ambulance officers. It may even have got some members of the communities that we all serve to have a think about what THEY want – and I can live with that!

I haven’t made my own mind up, nor will I, until I see what (if anything) is proposed when a new bill is tabled. If it’s anything like the Sunday Express article alludes to then we need a sensible, mature and well informed debate. Only then can we get a true sense of the future for the future of emergency services in our country, they’ve changed before and they’ll change again.

Fire in the Northern Powerhouse!

I hope that I’m not the only one who has yet to figure out exactly what the Northern Powerhouse is? I’m pretty clear that I can’t go to it and pay a visit or take a photo of it, but beyond that its difficult to be more certain about what it actually is. It is of course a political term in the first instance, and there are pages and pages of speeches about it, both pre and post General Election. However on Wednesday this week Her Majesty the Queen referred to it in her speech at the state opening of Parliament so it must exist – mustn’t it? So, what do we know for sure?

  • It has a Minister – James Wharton MP
  • Its not just about Manchester
  • Its boundaries are (approximately) Liverpool to Hull going West to East, and Sheffield to Newcastle upon Tyne going South to North
  • West Yorkshire is definitely a major part of it
  • Approximtely 15 million people live and work in it
  • There is going to be a new Government bill – the ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ to help to make it a reality

The whole concept of devolution to cities and regions is the one that interests me most as the powerhouse rises from its newly laid foundations, and I do wonder what the implications are for the Fire & Rescue Service. The suggestion is that by creating regional/local hubs of devolved power and influence then these areas will coalesce to form this huge economic engine that will help to balance the power and prosperity of the country between the south east and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. There can of course be other devolutionary arrangements in other areas but none are promised a powerhouse in return. Sounds good so far? There is a catch (there are probably quite a few that I haven’t even thought of) in that the Chancellor has made it very clear that in order to take on the powers and responsibilities that devolution brings there will have to be a Mayor (a ‘metro mayor’ no less). – “I will not impose a mayor on anyone but nor will I settle for less. My door is open to any other major city (other than Manchester) who wants to take this bold step into the future.” In West Yorkshire we already have the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) comprising Calderdale, Kirklees, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield and the City of York. Its current role is about driving economic growth across the region. The WYCA, whilst previously not convinced of the merits of the mayoral model, now accepts that in order to secure the newly promised freedoms they may have to reconsider this position and accept a ‘metro mayor’ (ARTICLE Yorkshire Evening Post) The new bill is interesting in that it passes all functions of the current Police & Crime Commissioner to the Mayor and it also removes current restrictions on what may come ‘in scope’ for a combined authority. Currently the WYCA has responsibility for economic development, regeneration and transport. With the move of policing into the mix it is not difficult to forsee a similar move for the Fire & Rescue Service too. Though not explicit in anything that I’ve read there is mention of ‘community safety activity’ being in scope. So what could be the benefits?

  • In these austere times anything that promotes, incentivises or otherwise enables improved collaboration and sharing between the many different facets of local governement can only be a good thing. Removing the often artificial barriers that exist will surely provide for more effective and more efficient delivery of our services to the communities which we serve.
  • Providing a coherent direction best suited to local needs, accountable to local people, and free of conflicting agendas must also be a good thing.
  • Sharing common boundaries, sharing data and intelligence, and working even more closely together can only lead to improved services.
  • We all know that the most vulnerable in our society are generally known to one or more agencies in the public sector. Newly empowered combined authorities would be able to improve the focus on these individuals and families.
  • Opportunities for improved joint procurement and use of the public estate would benefit all

Interestingly the Home Secretary made mention in her speech to the Police Federation only last week of the new Policing & Criminal Justice Bill, in particular that she would “enable the fire and rescue services to engage in much closer joint working with the Police”. Having had a look at the scope of the bill published on Wednesday there seems to be no reference to the FRS. I personally expected some announcement regarding PCCs and the Fire & Rescue Service given the Home Secretary’s previous suggestion that there was scope for greater integration. Perhaps this is for a later date? I am of course looking at this through the lens of a public sector organisation, there are many benefits to other sectors in terms of growth and prosperity. That said, any improvement to the local economy when budgets are so tight would be welcomed by all. A single pot of public money will present new challenges in deciding priorities and in forming partnerships in the wider public interest. There must be some downsides too, not least of which would be the size and complexity of some of these proposed governance arrangements. It will also be interesting to see whether devolution can be delivered without adding extra governance and burden to already slimmed down and lean organisations. There seems to be a fair degree of cross party consensus on the idea, though as ever the devil will be in the detail. It does seem, however, that we are inching towards a new model of governance for our area and we should embrace it to help us to deliver an even more excellent service.

Living safely with dementia

I thought that I would take the opportunity this week to write about dementia, and to dedicate this blog posting to raising awareness of this debilitating illness.

This last week has been the 2015 Dementia Awareness Week, and it has been really pleasing to see the commitment to raising awareness both by our own staff here in West Yorkshire, and in society as a whole.

The numbers that sit behind the campaign are shocking. There are currently 700,000 people in the UK who suffer with dementia and it currently costs the country £17 billon per year. In the next 30 years the number of sufferers will double, and the costs will treble. It’s therefore important that we as a society adapt and learn to support those who suffer from it. Currently only 44% of sufferers are diagnosed as such.

There are, of course, many angles that I could take in writing about dementia. Unsurprisingly maybe I’m focussing on the effect of the illness on peoples fire safety around the home. One of the most simple things that anyone can do is to take a few minutes to help a neighbour or affected relative to look at the way that they live and look for ways to make it safer. 

Our service has recently had its dementia strategy approved by the Authority, and we are working to support the Governments ‘Living Well with Dementia’ national strategy. Its a fact that the large majority of our fire related deaths occur in the older end of our population. Obviously not every one of those individuals will be a dementia sufferer, but the challenges that growing older presents are something that are common, and something that we can help with.

Many may question why the FRS is getting involved in something which is on the face of it a health and social care issue. I take the view that we all, as individuals and organisations, have a role to play in supporting the older generation. In their day to day work operational crews, control staff and prevention workers will come across people living with dementia. By taking some time to undertake a little training, and developing some awareness, we can all make the lives of sufferers easier and safer.

As dementia progresses sufferers can begin to behave differently and become forgetful. Confusion and forgetfulness can lead to new and unpredictable hazards in the home, and fires can occur.

I’m not going to write a list of fire safety messages here, but I know that every Fire & Rescue Service wherever you may be reading this blog, will be more than willing to help provide that advice if either you, or someone that you care for suffers from the disease.

We are an ageing population, and the demographic is shifting as we all live longer. Unless a cure or treatement is found then its here to stay and we need to deal with it.

If you are reading this then you’ve obviously got internet access, and there is loads of information out there to help you develop your understanding.

One of the best, and most effective, things that you can do is to become a DEMENTIA FRIEND. This is free, simple and gives you a really basic understanding of the disease and how best you can help.

As a service we are in the business of managing risk, with response to emergencies becoming the last on our hierarchical series of control measures, often when we do respond it’s already too late. As we look and plan ahead, the demographic of our ageing population gives us all the evidence that we need to dedicate time and resources to implementing our DEMENTIA STRATEGY.  As reported in the MEDIA this week, the evidence is clear in that the elderly are more vulnerable when it comes to fire in the home. There is much that we can do ranging from the most basic of conversations and interventions through to new technology such as automatic cooker shut offs which intervene if food is left unattended to the point where it is about to catch fire.

My own awareness has been raised a lot over the last 12 months or so, and certainly during the last week. I’m fortunate that there is no one close to me that is currently suffering, though my family has experienced it in the past. There are many people all over the country for whom this is part of their daily lives and if we can do our bit by making those lives safer then I think that we’ve made a valuable contribution. 

Pride in our emergency services – despite the challenges!

As the dust settles on the General Election we see a newly emboldened majority Conservative government and an opposition that, for the time being at least, is engaged in the process of selecting a new leader, arguably at the expense of being a true opposition to the majority government – I’m sure that there’s time for that later though! On this basis we must expect many, if not all, of the manifesto commitments to become the focus of new legislation and budgetary planning. Unusually, we will see a second budget of the year as the Chancellor sets out new spending plans on 8 July 2015, it will be interesting to see if there is any new direction on public sector spending. As things stand we expect that government spending will be reduced for the first 2 full years of this parliament with an expectation (hope?) that  spending will start to grow in 2018-19. I’m sure that no-one is naive enough to expect any sort of cash bonanza but stability and an end to the reductions will certainly assist and make for better and more reliable long term planning. Currently the forecast is that we will have a budget shortfall of circa £15.5m in 2019/20, our current budget being just over £80m. Plans are in hand to deal with some of this shortfall, but not all, more of that later.

The new Minister with responsibility for Fire is Mark Francois MP, and I am sure that we will, in time, get a clearer idea of the thinking that both he and the government have for the next 5 years.

So, what does this mean for the FRS, and in particular West Yorkshire? As I’ve blogged about before (‘Change in West Yorkshire FRS’ and ‘Riding 4s’), we have set out our thinking in our Community Risk Management Strategy which we consulted upon, and had approved by the Fire & Rescue Authority earlier this year.

We will spend the remainder of this calendar year exploring options, assessing evidence, developing ideas and listening to people about a whole range of issues. Parallel to this we will be completing a number of the station builds/openings and other actions approved in IRMP 1 & 2. Towards the end of the year a number of firmer options will be shaping up to help us to balance the budget in the years to come.

It’s an important year for the service and we will see significant changes at Management Board level, and a new Fire Authority will be in place following the AGM on 26 June 2015.

The message is about change, and redesigning the service to reflect the reduced budget, the reduced call demand and the need to continue to work toward making West Yorkshire safer. Change will bring with it opportunity to do things differently. It will, by neccessity, challenge conventional thinking, and it will require a resetting of expectations about what we can achieve with a shrinking workforce and a shrinking budget. I don’t for one minute suggest that the process of ‘resetting’ means that we just resign ourselves to being able to do less, it means that we have to come up with new ways of doing things, and a focus on outcomes and doing the right things right.

Everything points to us being an excellent service that performs well across a range of activity. I’m completely aware, and mindful of, the context of the last few years with operational staff being affected by the ongoing dispute, and our support staff dealing with the consequences of the fundamental review. I wish that I could say that the next few years look rosy, but they don’t. Inevitably change will challenge people and comfort zones will be disturbed, it’s also clear that not as many people will be working for WYFRS in 2020 as there are now. How we get there is something for us all to consider. I’m sure that we will be an excellent, but different service, by the time that we get there.

It will come as no surprise to you that I see communication as being a major part of this process. I will continue to blog and keep readers of the blog updated. We will, of course, communicate internally too. This blog is just the one strand, please use it to prompt discussions or to share your thoughts.

On Friday evening last week I had the enormous privilege of representing WYFRS at the West Yorkshire Police 2015 Achievement Awards at their new Carr Gate complex. The awards were all sponsored to minimise the costs to WYP of putting on such an event, this being an important consideration in the current economic climate, and of course it’s a reflection of where we are that a celebratory event such as this has the potential to be the subject of close scrutiny. Putting this aside though, the event demonstrated that the public sector (in this case a fellow emergency service) is continuing to have a massive effect on the day to day lives of the community. It is doing this despite austerity, and because of the dedication, innovation, professionalism and often bravery of its staff and volunteers. I think that it speaks volumes about the type of people who choose a role in public service that stories such as those which emerged on Friday night can be told. The stories behind the award nominations, which were not just about operational response, had the context of much the same impact on Police budgets as I have described above, yet the success and sense of pride was palpable. I know that similar stories exist in our own service, and I know that people are  working so hard to deliver on our behalf. 

I feel the same sense of pride about our service as was evident from Police colleagues in the room at Carr Gate on Friday. I attended the Young Firefighters Graduation Ceremony at HQ last Wednesday and you could sense the pride, and see the sense of achievement, in each and every person stood on the drill square after the finale drill, students and instructors alike. Our provision for young people is being reviewed by our new Youth Services manager,  Jo Hull, and we will shortly see some new approaches and opportunities to spread the good in our organisation and positively influence the young people of the future. 

Challenging times, but a week that reminds me that we have all of the right people, skills and knowledge to get us through the next few years, and to come out the other side better and stronger.

 

Practical exams – back in the day!

My intention when setting up this blog was to blog about current and future issues, on this occasion though I’d like to reminisce a little and revisit the days of LFs and SubOs practical exams which took place as part of the old Fire Services Examination Board regime. I’ve had the opportunity to be a ‘drilling crew’, a candidate and an examiner in my time so my perspective is from all sides.

I apologise in advance to those who have never had to endure this process, it’s one of those where you kind of had to be there. Bear with me, and share in the pain. 

Perhaps the easiest job of all was to be the crew that the potential junior officer was tasked with drilling. The range of drills upon which the candidate could be examined was relatively limited, but there were those that were easier than others. Little was at stake for the crew other than being under the eye of a senior officer if everything went wrong – all of the pressure was on the candidate. Of course, on occasion the candidate may have been someone that the crew liked and respected, on other occasions the opposite may be true, and the opportunity for ‘sport’ arose. The nomination of crews came around annually, and if you were on days the chances were you would get nominated for a half day session of drill. I don’t know anyone that particularly enjoyed doing it, but there was also the chance for someone to have a bit of ‘fun’ with a candidate who, for whatever reason, just didn’t have the presence that they needed. The thing is, it was almost as much of a problem for the candidate if the drill went perfectly as it was if things went wrong. An ideal drill (for the candidate) gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to impose control and to demonstrate their knowledge of the drill or scenario in doing so, a few errors were therefore welcomed. A perfect drill left little option but to congratulate the crew on a job well done, a drill that went to bits left the candidate with a nightmare as they couldn’t leave the yard until it was sorted out and the crew were aware of the error of their ways.

Being the candidate was, of course, the worse role on the day. If you had done your preparation properly you had been drilling your own watch (or a collection of other candidates) for some time, and the prospect of putting them (and yourself) through the same again next year was not one to relish. All of the examinable drills required committing to memory, you had to have your ‘spiel’ practised and rehearsed, and your kit needed to be perfect. Throw in a healthy dose of nerves, a seemingly mile long walk across the yard to meet the examiner (no tick tocking) and the first view of the crew that you needed to drill and it’s a wonder that anyone CHOSE to do these exams, but needs must so we got on with it. That moment when you got the card telling you what drill you were required to supervise was either a complete surprise or a predictable and reassuring moment depending upon whether you had the chance to see others drilling at the same drill station, and/or how bored the examiners were and how much they wanted to see something new. 

“My name is Fireman Walton (I was back then) I am here today to take the second part of my Leading Firemans Examination. You are here to take part in drill. The purpose of drill is to ensure familiarity…..there are 4 words of command ‘rest’, ‘still’, ‘stand from under’ and ‘head to building’….does anyone have any questions?”  Everyone had a variant on the standard ‘spiel’ but no one chose to stray too far away from the tried and tested routine, innovation was largely frowned upon, this was a performance and most people knew, and got marked against, the script. Numbering off the crew came next, usually a process of grown adults counting from 1 up to 4, and then turning to their right. Achieved by most, failed by a few, and often the first chance for the candidate to assert their faux authority by making them do it again if neither fast enough or loud enough. A calculated gamble that probably tested command skills more than intended in choosing which crew to tear into, and which one to humour in case things got worse – a real lesson in personnel management! Then the fateful ‘get to work’ , at which point the (so far) carefully controlled crew would bomb burst to their various tasks, and the candidate had to be right on their mettle. Where to stand was all important, the ideal vantage point allowed you to see everyone without moving and was out of the way of water, ladders and hose. Dilemmas such as whether to always shout your commands, whether to close up for tasks such as the tying of knots, whether to offer words of encouragement and the gamble of whether a tactfully deployed ‘rest’ would impress the examiners were all to be decided on the day. Assuming no disasters, a few words of thanks, some observations which would ‘help them to be better next time’, and the candidate was hurtling towards the ‘fall out’ for the crew. All that was left was to report back to the examiners (remembering to go to the ‘lead’ one of the two), report a successful completion, and hand the drill card back and not walk off with it. Then a march back to area designated for candidates to assemble and the first part of the exam was over. 

The second part of the exam tested the instructional ability of the candidate either in terms of describing a piece of equipment and it’s uses and limitations, or in the latter iterations of the Sub Os examinations to describe a risk site and devise an operational plan. I’ll describe this part of the exam from the perspective of the examiner. As a candidate though the task was simple enough once the items of equipment had been announced prior to the exam season. Find someone else who had given the same lecture, change the presentation to give it your own spin, and practice your timing so as not to to run out of time, or lose marks for finishing early. Again, sticking to the script was the order of the day.

So, what of the examiners, what was it like from their end? In the West Midlands we became the regional examining centre, and a week of practical exams was needed to meet the demand. Whilst some choice was available as to what you did, influence over the senior examiner was usually only achieved by the long serving examiners, the rest of us generally had a morning inside doing instructional technique and an afternoon on the yard, or vice versa. If it was raining (or snowing) then us newer examiners generally copped for more yard than inside. Your partner for the day was important – who was to be the lead, were you marking as you went or at the end, and which of the drills available for your drill station would you give to the candidate? First task was to wrap up warm for a cold day, the wind could whistle across the yard and there was nowhere to shelter once the drills were underway. Next identify the crew who would work with you during the session. The best approach involved a touch of humour, a request for them to take it seriously, and an unsaid understanding that failure would follow them back to their station and their Station Commander. Regardless of the age or experience of the candidate the crew always had the upper hand from the outset. The role of the examiner was to ensure that each and every candidate got a fair crack of the whip. Experience generally bought with it an ability to spot developing problems long before the candidate, who was of course pumped full of adrenalin and nerves. Watching the inevitable unfold was often painful, sometimes funny, and almost always spotted before the candidate. The need for an examiner to intervene was fatal for the candidate, but an important safety role was held by the examiners and only deployed in extreme circumstances.

As the candidate marched out the chosen examiner would meet them and take a salute. How up close and personal would the candidate get before they barked out their name? Early signs of nerves could often be calmed with a few reassuring words, and the candidate who was ‘winging it’ could be spotted a mile off. Read the card out to them, check that they understood it, ask if they had any questions and off they went – all on their own! At the time of being an examiner I was also the head of the recruit training team and spent many days examining the practical abilities of a succession of recruits, those were the days of 3 overlapping courses with 30 people on each. My eye was fairly well tuned to the intricacies of basic drills, my boredom threshold was quite high (it came with the job) and it was often the case that you would end up shaking your head at the inability of an (apparently) experienced crew to carry out some of the most basic of tasks. 

I think everyone has their funny stories about these drill scenarios, I’d love to hear some of them. I often had to laugh at the complete inability of the operational crew to count, number off and turn the correct way. Not an important skill once you were riding a fire engine for real, but the fact that everyone had a vague idea and an imperfect recollection of how to do it made for a few funny moments.

The whole boredom threshold challenge was taken to a new level as we moved to the classroom for the instructional ability element of the exam. I make no apology for saying that it was boring, it was boring to examine and it was difficult as a candidate to talk in any inspiring way about a lowering line for 20 minutes. Part of the challenge was to try and spot the difference between the various presentations that appeared in front of you. Everyone accepted that there was only so much information that existed about some of the items of equipment, and of course it was shared around, but the least a candidate could do was to make an original presentation out of the information that they had. The evolution of the SubOs examination which introduced the risk information and operational plan element was a godsend, new presentations and a real relevance to the role had an important value, unfortunately they came too close to the end of the lifespan of the exams.

Looking back the exams had their critics, and they were flawed, but they were not wrong in my mind. The abilities  and skills that the candidate was required to demonstrate in a pressurised environment was a useful test of ability. The knowledge of basic drill and equipment handling underpins all practical work in our service, and is as important now as it was then. Where the practical exams failed was their detachment from reality. Take the same principle and put it into a simulated operational environment (as was the case to some extent with the SubOs) , and I think that there is role going forward as we seek to test command skills and assure ourselves of an individual’s competence to command. Being able to impart information to others is also a key skill of our managers and commanders, maybe ‘sit and listen to me’ lectures are not the way to do this, but I would love to see how innovative and creative individuals could harness new  technology to deliver information to others. 

For the avoidance of any doubt, practical exams are not about to be reintroduced, but there was an element of us as a sector throwing out a baby with the bath water. The challenge of replacing reduced incident activity and reduced on the job experience and learning, with something meaningful and suitably challenging, yet simulated,  is one of the key tasks for the coming years. Our ability to prepare commanders to lead with competence in what will be increasingly rare critical incidents is something that we need to get right, really right, and it’s not an easy thing to do.

Physical attacks on firefighters and Arson

My blog this week is about two essentially different, but intrinsically linked issues. The evidence and facts behind the blog are West Yorkshire FRS based, but the story translates to pretty much any FRS in the country.

I’m writing about attacks on firefighters, and arson. Both a blight on our society, both unequivocally condemned by the vast majority of decent humans beings, yet both impact on our operational response and the safety of our staff. Staff who turn up for work to protect the community and to make it safer, yet at the same time face targeted hostility and reckless fire setting from a (thankfully) small minority of the community which they are there to protect. I just don’t get it, and I never will. I accept that there are some, a few, that have genuine psychological issues – they need support and treatment. However I’m afraid that the majority of these issues are down to individuals who know full well what they are doing, and for whatever reason are just making an exceptionally poor choice in their behaviours. 

This last week saw the successful prosecution, and imprisonment, of an individual who had recently attacked one of our staff whilst they were tackling a small fire in the open late one night. Prosecutions like these are, unfortunately, rare as they are often difficult to evidence which is why it is so important that we take opportunities like the one that presented this week, and publicise the consequences to anyone else who might think that assaulting our staff is any way acceptable, fun or something that we will accept as ‘part of the job’. The sentencing COMMENTS passed by the judge are welcomed by our service and assure us that we have the support of the law in pursuing the offenders. The problem of attacks on firefighters is not a new one. I remember it from my days as a firefighter in Birmingham, and can vividly remember the moment a half paving slab was thrown through the windscreen of a fire engine that I was driving. These things are difficult to forget. I’m not sure whether there are more attacks now than there were then, we didn’t count them in those days. What I do know is that attacks on our own staff are now averaging over 1 per week, and range from verbal assaults to physical attack. We are a service that has invested heavily in Silent Witness, an in cab CCTV provision, and have extensive footage of some of these attacks in progress. We use the footage for prosecutions, awareness and publicity. We firmly believe that publicising these attacks is part of the process of stopping them, awareness will lead in time to reduction as the consequences are shared more widely. Measures to reduce such attacks are in place and range from investment in equipment and training, to engagement with those most likely to be the perpetrators. It’s really pleasing that our partners in the Police are so supportive, and I’ve spoken with the officers responsible for this weeks prosecution to thank them for supporting us, and it’s important that members of our Fire & Rescue Authority (FRA) support the measures that we take in both their FRA role and their local council and ward based work.  The FBU have previously developed A REPORT looking at the issue, and we agree with many of their findings, their involvement in tackling this issue on behalf of their members is vital. One potential solution that interests me is the use of body worn/helmet mounted cameras. The cost of technology is continually reducing, and the benefits beyond this issue are far reaching, including firefighter safety, learning and debrief, and publicising our role. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police recently commented when providing his staff with body worn CCTV, that in incidents that were filmed by many members of the public on smart phones and the like, the only people who don’t have their own video record were his staff. I believe that it is now time for us to take similar steps.

Arson comes in many guises from the deliberate ignition of a waste bin to the planned and structured burning of an industrial premises, and of course the mercifully few occasions when it is used as a weapon of murder or harm. Our crews and prevention staff in West Yorkshire have made tremendous inroads into this problem. By every measure it is a downward trend that we are seeing, but it is not a  problem that is solved by any means.

These are our statistics for the most recently available, and checked, end of year performance. We know that the 2014/15 year has seen exceptionally good performance (down 23.5% against the demanding target) across all of our districts once again. Arson is designed to be concealed, and it is notoriously difficult to detect. We’ll be using this weeks Arson Prevention week to highlight the problems that we face and how we are tackling them. We’ll also highlight the work of our fire investigators, a vital team in the fight against arson. Our Public Information team have written a great ARTICLE about the role of a Fire Investigation Officer which is part of our Arson Awareness campaign. 

Firefighters risk their lives to save people and property, that’s what we do. It’s one thing doing that when the cause is accidental, but when someone has deliberately created the conditions that can cause so much harm then that is unacceptable. The fight against physical attacks on firefighters and arson is an important one that is here to stay.

Weaponising the Fire & Rescue Service..

…is not something that has happened during the 2015 General Election campaign so far. In fact, if anything, our service has not really been anywhere near the political party manifestos. With only just over a week to go before polling day itself it would seem that interest lies elsewhere and once again we are reminded of the relative insignificance of our service in the grand scheme of the national political agenda. My blog this week is more of a reflection on where we are than an attempt to make a particular point. Indeed, as an officer who is employed in a politically restricted post, it is well outside of my remit to make any political observations other than those which are devoid of my own personal opinion.

As an arm of local government we in the FRS are subject to the control of both nationally and locally elected politicians. Different FRSs have different bodies to which they are accountable, for example the metropolitan FRSs who (like West Yorkshire) are governed by a Fire & Rescue Authority appointed by the districts which make up the metropolitan area. There are also County FRSs, who are run as a ‘department’ of the council, and of course the Combined Authorities where a number of district areas combine, ordinarily along county boundary lines to form a fire authority body. It is at this local level that, it would seem, the governance of the FRS will remain for the foreseeable future.

In terms of national politics, which is grabbing most of the headlines at the moment, there is a particular article that I saw in a book which really set in my mind where the FRS figures in the grand scheme of high profile issues (and lets not forget we are always but one national disaster away from moving up the agenda). The article is in a book called ‘Facts are Sacred’, and its written by a guy named Simon Rogers (@smfrogers). At the time of him writing it, Simon was Data Editor at the Guardian newspaper, though he has now moved to be data editor for Google (via Twitter along the way). The book uses ‘infographics’ to represent complex factual information in a more digestible way for the average reader. The particular infographic in question was entitled ‘Public spending by UK central government departments in 2011-12’ – its a bit old, and the world has moved on, but in essence and in terms of budget share its there or thereabouts. The infographic came from a GUARDIAN ARTICLE and shows  the relative significance of each department in terms of the national spend. If you can’t make it out in the graphic or PDF then DCLG Local Government spend is the light green bubble, linked to the darker green bubble at the bottom of the big grey overall pot. I think that it says a lot, and we should all bear it in mind.

Looking at the main manifestos that have been published to try and secure our vote on May 7 2015, it should therefore come as little surprise that the FRS has a relatively minor mention, and even then only in a couple of manifestos. An analysis of the main manifestos was completed by Tom Embury (Presidential Policy Advisor at the Chief Fire Officers Association), and he has kindly agreed to let me use some of his analysis in this blog.

The Conservative manifesto makes specific mention of the FRS under their promise to ‘protect you from disruptive and undemocratic strike action’ – they would require any future industrial action to be supported by 40% of all of those entitled to take part in strike ballots, as well as a majority of those who turned out to vote. They also, under the heading of ‘we will finish the job of police reform, backing officers to fight crime unimpeded’ state that they will ‘enable fire and police services to work more closely together and develop the role of our elected and accountable Police and Crime commissioners’.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto mentions the FRS under its section on ‘improving local policing’, they promise, if elected, that they will ‘encourage police forces and other emergency services to work together at a local, regional and national level to reduce back office costs and deliver efficiency savings’.

The other main parties make no specific mention of the FRS as far as I can establish.

I guess that the key argument to watch will be the respective parties commitments towards public sector funding and the differing approaches to managing the UK finances. This, in the absence of any other specific commitment, will be where most impact for our service is signalled.

I’m not intending to blog about local politics other that to recognise that in all authorities the election process will see some familiar faces disappear – either to retirement, lost elections, new directions, and indeed some may move on to be MPs. That will mean an influx of new Councillors, some of whom may have little experience or knowledge of our service. It is important that both they and officers work together to help them understand the context against which some significant decisions about our service will surely have to be made.

Before too long we will also have a new Fire Minister, and though not one of the ‘big’ jobs in Government, their inbox will certainly have within it some big issues for their earliest attention.

As ever it would be interesting to see your comments and thoughts. I’ll say from the outset though that on this occasion its not my intention to pass comment on all of your posts, as I usually try to. For reasons outlined in the first paragraph my role requires me to act in a particular way when talking about political matters.

What’s most important though is that people use their vote. Many people have fought hard, some have laid down their lives, for your right to do so. Please use it!

Riding 4s…….

One of the questions that leaves me wondering with this blog site is exactly who is reading it. As I’ve mentioned before each posting generally gets 200-300 reads per week, I hope that many of these readers are WYFRS staff, but I have no way of telling. This week I’m writing about one of the issues that is part of our Community Risk Management Strategy (CRMS), a document that looks forward 5 years and sets out some of the thinking, and before I get into the meat of the posting, and to avoid setting hares running, the issue that I am writing about is an idea, it’s not a plan, it may happen and it may not, and it certainly needs more work and discussion. On that basis it would be nice to hear YOUR ideas about this issue, or indeed any others, whether you work for WYFRS or not.

The issue of crewing fire appliances, routinely, with 4 riders is one that we have said that we will look at. It’s not a new idea, it’s already common place in many other FRS, but it is pretty much guaranteed to evoke a strong opinion in many people. I’ve talked about it on recent station visits and it always leads to a good discussion. Notably a few other FRS including Leicestershire BBC News Link and Lincolnshire  BBC News Link have recently taken this decision as they manage budget issues, they’re not the first and they won’t be the last.  

I thought it worth looking at some of the pros and cons in advance of us really starting the work to examine it. There are a couple of issues that we have already recorded in the CRMS such as the fact that it has the potential to save approximately £145k per annum for every one whole time pump that we chose to crew with 4 as the standard number of riders, the document also records the fact that should we make such a decision it would have no impact on attendance times as little changes except for the number of people on the appliance.

Riding 5 on first pumps (and 4 on second ones where they exist) was pretty much the norm across the UK FRS up until quite recently, but as I’ve already highlighted some FRSs are moving away from this as a result of looking at the risk assessments for the standard incident scenarios. It’s also worth mentioning that the Fire Brigades Union have done some work on what they term Critical Attendance Standards (CAST) HERE which sets out their thinking on the issue of crewing numbers and ‘lag’ times, which are about the time difference between the first and second pumps in attendance. The source document for CAST is over 10 years old now and we all need to look afresh. Lag times are particularly relevant when you compare a rural response to an urban one.

It’s a fact that a crew of 4 can arrive at a dwelling fire and take effective action, we’ve all done it in the past. It’s equally a fact that the first crew at a number of significant incidents, whether that comprises 4, 5 or even 6 people on occasion, can do little more than prepare for the arrival of subsequent crews.

Clearly firefighter safety must, and will, remain paramount in thinking when looking at this issue. We will talk often of the ‘moral dilemma’ of arriving at an incident and having to do SOMETHING, these sort of dilemmas will always need more people – that’s why they become a dilemma. However, training, procedures and new equipment can be reviewed and adapted to deal with a range of scenarios, all following an informed risk assessment of course.

There is equally a downside in as much as larger and developing incidents invariably need more people rather than more appliances. The appliances just become ‘taxis’ to get the people there, and then they get parked up to await the return of crews. If each appliance was to have 1 fewer crew member then there would be a need for more of them to get the same number of people to the incident. This would have an overall impact on residual fire cover, but these are of course infrequent occasions. 

It’s a tricky issue, it has a significant potential for helping us to redesign our service delivery, but there are clear implications that we need to look at, and decisions that we need to make. I genuinely haven’t made my own mind up as to whether or not I’d prefer more appliances with less people on each of them, or fewer appliances with more people on each of them. I want to look at the evidence, walk through some of the scenarios, and listen to the views of others.

We continually come back to the point that in austere times, where service delivery is being redesigned by necessity, then to do nothing is not an option. If we choose not to ride 4’s as a matter of routine then we have to make another change somewhere else. The context of integrated risk management planning gives us the opportunity and duty to look at what we do, and how we do it. I’m interested in your views…