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Audit Commission - Fire services plan well for short-term loss of staff, but longer disruptions may risk public safety

How would your local fire and rescue service cope with a disruption caused by bad weather, staff illness, industrial action, communication problems or power failure? Has it planned for all types of emergency? Can it call on specialist equipment, and what scale of event could put public safety at risk?

Earlier this year the government asked the Audit Commission to answer questions like these by reporting on fire service resilience - how well firefighters plan and practise to make sure their lifesaving work can continue whatever happens.

England's 46 fire and rescue authorities must have the necessary plans, vehicles, equipment, training and support to deal with any emergency. The big change is that they no longer have military backup as a safety net. The familiar old green goddess fire engines are no longer available.

The Commission's research, Business Continuity Management in the Fire and Rescue Service found that most fire and rescue services have satisfactory flexible plans in place to cover short-term disruptions, such as those caused by transport problems or adverse weather. Parts of the country that have already faced such problems have used their experience to refine these plans. There are good preparations to deal with longer-term disruptions, such as a flu pandemic, where the build-up would be gradual enough to give time to adapt.

The greatest public risk, the report says, would be caused by any major disruption which affected several fire service areas, or the whole of England, especially if this continued over a long time. Such disruption would severely test continuity plans in making both staff and equipment available.

In particular, when services are seriously disrupted, most fire and rescue services would not be able to deploy sophisticated equipment for responding to major incidents including natural disasters or terrorist incidents. This equipment, used in urban search and rescue, when buildings collapse, for chemical decontamination etc, is necessary for ensuring national security and public safety in these sort of extreme circumstances. Less than a third of fire and rescue services could guarantee the availability of so-called 'New Dimension' assets at all times.

Chairman of the Audit Commission, Michael O'Higgins, says: 'It is reassuring to find that most areas have robust plans in place to cope with loss of staff. Of concern, though, is that public safety may be at risk if major disruption occurs across several fire and rescue authorities and lasts for a long time. In these circumstances we also discovered that specialist equipment designed to deal with the aftermath of terror attacks or major natural disasters is less likely to be deployable because of demands on firefighter resources.'

Fire and rescue services are a major part of national security and safety. As well as tackling fires and rescuing people from car crashes or collapsed buildings, they work to prevent deaths, injuries and property damage caused by fire. Fire and rescue teams are in the front line of responding to weather emergencies and flooding, and the results of terrorism such as the 2005 7/7 London bombings.

The Commission's work looked at every fire and rescue service in England, from the smallest on the Isles of Scilly employing just 39 staff, to the 7,000-strong London Fire Brigade.

The duty to be able to provide services in any circumstances is embodied in legislation, including the Fire and Rescue Service Act 2004, Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the Fire and Rescue Service National Framework 2008.

The report found various ways of being prepared for staff shortages. Some areas have 'resilience contracts' with certain employees who agree to always make themselves available. Others, including London, have arrangements with private contractors to provide external staff in an emergency. Retained, or part-time, firefighters would stand in for whole-time crews in some parts of the country, and other services rely on suitably trained senior managers or support staff to crew fire engines in an emergency.

Michael O'Higgins adds: 'Our overriding finding was that England's fire services are becoming more resilient, and have satisfactory business continuity plans in place. But we do make suggestions about improving engagement with local communities, partners and staff, and protecting the vulnerable. We say plans should be tested, special equipment made available, and control rooms made more resilient in emergencies. There are lessons to be learnt from fire and rescue colleagues, and from other organisations. Our work on this report should help focus greater attention on mitigating risks.'
Business Continuity Management in the Fire and Rescue Service contains case studies, questions that councillors on fire authorities could ask, and an individual report on business continuity for each of the 46 fire services in England.

Notes to editors

Fire prevention teams carried out two million home fire safety checks since 2004 and fitted 2.5 million smoke alarms. Fire teams also work to make our communities safer, for example on schemes to lessen anti-social behaviour.

The study concludes that fire and rescue services are planning satisfactorily but could further improve business continuity. Not all services:

  • engage enough with local people to agree what is an appropriate level of service
  • fully consider the effects of a disruption to services on people living in vulnerable circumstances
  • test their plans to see if there is enough capacity and skills
  • do enough to make partners and staff aware of business continuity plans
  • make specialist equipment or specialist staff available at all times
  • do enough to improve the resilience of control rooms to deal with emergencies
  • learn from other fire and rescue services and from other organisations outside the service

The Audit Commission is an independent watchdog, driving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in local public services to deliver better outcomes for everyone. Our work across local government, health, housing, community safety and fire and rescue services means that we have a unique perspective. We promote value for money for taxpayers.

On 13 August 2010 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that he plans to disband the Audit Commission. His intention is to have new arrangements in place for auditing England's public bodies by 2012/13.

For further information please contact:
Mark Nicholson,
Media Relations Manager, Audit Commission
Millbank Tower, London SW1P 4HQ

Direct line: 0844 798 2135 / 0207 166 2135
24hr Press line: 0844 798 2128 Mobile 07813 038132


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