A different kind of fire and rescue service

Peter Dartford


Peter Dartford, President of the Chief Fire Officers Association

The fire and rescue service is not what it once was. We no longer simply fight fires and cut people out of cars, although that remains an important aspect of our work. Firefighters now are expected to perform a much wider range of educational, technical and regulatory roles than before. More than that, fire and rescue services now employ people in a wide range of different specialist roles, from education professionals to data analysts. As a result, senior managers within the fire service need a broader range of skills and expertise than ever before.

The change has been enormously successful; we’ve succeeded in reducing fires by nearly two thirds and cutting fire deaths by two fifths in the past 10 years, reduced false alarms and helped drive down the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. More than that, the fire and rescue service is having a much greater impact on wider social outcomes, such as anti-social behaviour, health and wellbeing and community cohesion. Building upon our popularity with the public and particularly young people, we’ve been able to help partners in meeting their aims which also results in us achieving our own.

Of course that has left our frontline staff with less operational work to do and there is a pressure therefore to reduce the number of staff that we employ. This doesn’t take account of the fact that our services are resourced to risk, not demand, or the fact that firefighters are our primary means of delivering community safety interventions. Nevertheless the pressure is there.

Now you can add into the mix severe budget cuts, with fire services seeing a cuts of around 25% to funding since 2010 and fully expecting at least the same again in 2016-2020. So far, individual Fire and Rescue Services have largely been able to meet these cuts through clever efficiencies with minimal reductions in frontline services. However, it has now become apparent that more fundamental structural change and service redesign is going to be needed if we are to keep producing positive outcomes and ensuring a high standard of emergency response.

Senior Fire Officers therefore need to be multi-skilled, transformational thinkers and inspirational, collaborative leaders. There are examples of this emerging all across the UK, many more than I could name here, but to draw on a few choice examples:

  • Alasdair Hay, the Chief Fire Officer in Scotland, has handled the merger of eight fire and rescue services into one, which in one stroke created the second largest fire and rescue service in the country and one of the largest geographically anywhere in the world. All this was achieved with very little time to prepare, a target of producing significant efficiency savings, and strict instructions not to close fire stations or make a single member of frontline staff redundant.
  • In England, Ann Millington, Chief Executive of Kent FRS and a CFOA Director, is leading on the creation of a central procurement hub for UK fire and rescue services which currently involves some 30 services. It has the potential to save millions for both the fire and rescue service and suppliers, and to ensure that we can continue to access cutting edge technology.
  • Fire Services in Northampton, Derbyshire, Merseyside and throughout the UK are pursuing closer collaboration with blue light colleagues and partners in the wider public sector. Strategies include co-locating, merging community safety teams and working to maximise the impact of every intervention with the public.

The list, as they say, goes on. The fire and rescue service has changed in many ways beyond recognition, and it has changed very much for the better. However, it has even further to go. Whether we will be able to say the same after the next round of change remains very much in our hands.

Peter Dartford is President of the Chief Fire Officers Association and Chief Fire Officer of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

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