Everyone engaged in the Fire and Rescue sector will be acutely aware that fundamental changes are already taking place to the UK’s Fire and Rescue Services, prompted largely by the need to deliver a more cost-effective service, reports the Fire Industry Association.
What’s clear is that the Fire and Rescue Services’ collective mode of operation will be very different in just a few years’ time than it is now, and that several key strands of this evolution will be determined by a co-operative partnership between the Fire and Rescue Services and the suppliers to the sector.
Following the publication of Sir Ken Knight’s ‘Facing The Future’ report in 2013, which highlighted a number of options for change, central Government has made clear its support for some strands of the thesis detailed including collaborative procurement, infrastructure sharing, mergers and a greater proportion of on-call fire fighters.
Material support has come from Government in the form of a £75 million ‘transformation fund’ that has been apportioned towards 37 efficiency-generating projects and, within this, £5.5 million to help fund the forthcoming merger of the Wiltshire and Dorset Fire and Rescue Services.
What has been apparent for some time, however, is that change is to be sector-driven and delivered and that this truism will require fire-fighting equipment suppliers to be fully engaged in relevant aspects of the evolution.
A Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and FIRESA Council earlier this year has proven timely. Among the commitments that have already been realised was the convening of a joint seminar that has provided an indispensable focal point for the collaboration of fire and rescue practitioners with their product and service providers.
Taking place at the Fire Service College on 2 December, the seminar allowed delegates to enjoy an informative and thought-provoking agenda that brought the salient issues into focus and will empower both Fire and Rescue Service personnel and industry suppliers to be active participants in the future of our Fire and Rescue Services.
Chaired by CFOA president Peter Dartford, the programme began with a welcome from the host, Fire Service College CEO Jez Smith, who set the background for the day, duly noting the need for avoidance of duplication among the Fire and Rescue Services and the creation of economies of scale wherever possible.
The Fire Service College itself has a vital role to play in partnership with other stakeholders, and Smith called for bold leadership within the Fire and Rescue Services that will challenge existing disparate practices.
New ways of thinking and resourcing
Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt provided the Keynote Address, welcoming the CFOA/FIRESA Council Memorandum of Understanding before stating that the public sector has to exist within its means and that there must be new ways of thinking and resourcing.
Mordaunt is adamant that the need for change is overwhelming and that the pace of change must gather momentum and address issues such as product standardisation, collaborative procurement and equipment testing through the CFOA/FIRESA Council axis.
The MP also touched on Fire and Rescue Service personnel issues such as on-call fire-fighters and volunteers, and also looked to the fire protection industry to continue driving down the number of unwanted automatic fire alarm signals.
CFOA vice-president Paul Hancock encapsulated the theme of the day in his presentation entitled ‘The Importance of Working Together’, voicing strong support not just for Fire and Rescue Service collaboration but also for ‘Blue Light’ cross fertilisation (which we know to be a longer term vision of the present coalition Government).
Hancock suggested that, with less than half of the austerity measures currently implemented, the way ahead will require close working partnerships that promote a clear vision with or without direct Government involvement.
CFOA Board member Ann Millington offered a strident and entertaining view on procurement in the future, conceding that the Fire and Rescue Services need to be better clients and grasp opportunities to work together. The Fire and Rescue Services, said Millington, must achieve reward for collaboration rather than for separatism.
Importantly, Millington welcomed the creation of a ‘national back office’ that presently enjoys representation from 30 Fire and Rescue Services.
Ann Millington is firmly behind product standardisation, greater visibility of equipment innovation requirements and a whole new approach to procurement that begins with agreed specifications and proceeds towards tender with sufficiently flexible contracts via a lead authority for each product type.
In Anne’s words, repetition of these processes over 46 Fire and Rescue Services is immoral. Indeed, Millington was especially scathing of the ever-growing number of contract providers and the duplicate frameworks that emerge which are so costly and time-consuming for suppliers to address.
Creation and development of strategic partnerships
Pivotal to the proceedings was the presentation from the suppliers’ perspective given by FIRESA Council’s chairman Derek Gotts and vice-chairman Ian Callaghan. Following an introduction to the composition and work of Council, Gotts noted its primary objectives which focus on strategic partnerships with CFOA and the Fire and Rescue Services, the Fire Sector Federation, the Fire Service College, central and local Government in addition to a range of event organisers.
Gotts then moved on to the suppliers’ experience of the market over the last ten years which has seen the ultimately failing National Procurement Strategy (introduced by the then ODPM in 2005), through the austerity measures since 2010 and via Sir Ken Knight’s report to the present time of tangible moves to make substantive changes that must preserve Fire and Rescue Service capabilities with less financial resource in play.
The National Procurement Strategy brought uncertainty and a hiatus in orders and, contrary to its intentions, led to a market that sees a growing profusion of frameworks and tenders, mini competitions and framework call-offs that are as onerous as new tenders. What remains is a disjointed approach comprising elements of regional and local procurement. There’s clear evidence of duplication in many aspects of the Fire and Rescue Service/supplier interface and unnecessary waste in terms of both personnel and financial resource that must be rectified.
Ian Callaghan went on to detail the FIRESA Council/CFOA Memorandum of Understanding and some specific issues that Council wishes to address, among them support for product innovation, collaborative procurement (including visibility of medium-to-long term requirements), equipment specification and standardisation and remaining influential in coalition and opposition fire safety policy stretching to proposals for joint ‘Blue Light’ operations.
In particular, Callaghan emphasised the equipment evaluation scheme which seeks to eliminate what is a frankly ludicrous situation, and a prime example of duplication whereby each Fire and Rescue Service carries out its own independent assessments. Backed by output-based national specifications, suppliers envisage an open and transparent model that’s divorced from any specific procurement processes and, importantly, is dynamic, in turn enabling modified and new equipment to be evaluated as required.
Perhaps headed by a Technical Committee and with work carried out by product type by appropriate lead organisations, the aim is to establish a library of rigorous test reports that, rather than promoting a ‘winner takes all’ link to procurement, enables each Fire and Rescue Service to reach its own judgement on its preferred product from a technical and users’ standpoint.
Perspective from local Government
An Open Forum following the morning session proved lively and impassioned. While it’s not possible to recount the discussions in detail here, what became evident to all in attendance is that if, being in the real world, there will be significant challenges in getting to that better place we anticipate, there’s both the will and the vision to lead us there.
The agenda for the afternoon began with Councillor Mark Healey of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee offering a local Government perspective and a fascinating view on the realities of what the Authorities have to do in response to funding cuts. He suggested that a lack of central Government direction has created a policy vacuum that’s being filled with individual solutions.
Healey’s Devon and Somerset Fire Authority enjoys a good relationship with its Fire and Rescue Service and has already made a number of changes, including moving towards more on-call fire fighters, investing in light rescue pumps and, following the merger, making long term revenue-generating use of its unoccupied sites.
Given the likelihood of further Fire and Rescue Service mergers in the future, the address from ACO Robert Scott of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service proved an invaluable insight into the amalgamation of the previously separate services north of the border.
While its capital budget has grown from £15 million to over £22 million (although VAT can no longer be reclaimed), there were significant criteria attached to the merger including no front line redundancies or station closures, no alterations to personnel Terms and Conditions and no carry-over of financial reserves.
Scott was able to report, however, that many duplications have been eliminated and that the combined Fire and Rescue Service is proceeding with future business planning and restructuring that will achieve further efficiencies. His message to the audience was that, while the positions of the English and Welsh Fire and Rescue Services were their own to evaluate and respond to as they see fit, they would do well to shape their own futures before Government imposes its will upon them.
David Matthews, a renowned expert in the field of global standards in fire and rescue, offered an appraisal of the current position and called vehemently for greater Fire and Rescue Service involvement in the various Standards Committees.
The formal programme was completed by CFO Paul Fuller who spoke of the work of the Fire Sector Federation (which is achieving notable outputs through its various work streams).