Are you safer from fire than 5 years ago? Yes. Are "cuts" beginning to bite? Possibly.
In this post I look at the last 5 years of the Fire Service in England, the impact of #Austerity and "cuts", and the claims of the Labour Party and the Fire Brigade Union about these cuts.
- You are far less likely to die or be injured from fire than 5 years ago, despite significant cuts to the fire service
- Further cuts may result in a risk to the delivery of the service
- The potential impact of cuts to public safety has consistently been exaggerated by those opposed to cuts
- Hiring more firefighters is simplistic - post-Grenfell this should be evaluated alongside other preventative options (such as installing sprinklers in high rise buildings)
First, how do you objectively judge a fire service?
Setting a standard
A typical goal of a fire service - other than the obvious one of 'put out fires' - is to "help create safer communities, to rescue people and protect economic, environmental and community interests" (example from Cheshire Fire Service, but this is typical across England's 46 seperate fire & rescue authorities). In order to find out how the fire service is doing it is necessary to set objective standards to judge performance against this goal.
I would suggest the following standards: the number of fire incidents, and the number of fire-related fatalities & non-fatal casualties. All other things being equal, if these are going down, the fire service is doing well. If these are going up it is doing less well.
Of course, other things are important - how many firefighters there are, the response time to incidents, how many homes have a fire inspection, smoke alarms fitted, number of cats rescued etc. But they are largely incidental. You could have more firefighters, but if they were badly trained or inefficient, the number of incidents could also go up (if they did a poor fire inspection which resulted in a fire), or the number of fire-related fatalities could go up (if they handled a fire poorly). Conversely, you could have less firefighters but better ones, with improved equipment, and you might see a more mixed result, or the number of fires could go down as a result of less people smoking in their homes.
Some of these metrics you would expect to find correlation - e.g. if the response times to incidents worsened and fire engines arrived more slowly, you'd expect to see more fatalities/injuries (and nobody wants to wait longer for a fire engine to turn up).
Others may only appear to have a correlation - fatalities may be falling in isolation to the others but this may be due to better building design (e.g. sprinklers being fitted), or improved healthcare adding to better survivability (e.g. improved skin graft/medical treatments).
I say this by way of introduction because too often in this debate people are not precise about their goals or standards, and don't look carefully at the data and evidence. It is quite common to find people vehemently opposed to having "less firefighters", or "cuts" - which makes no sense, there is no magic "natural" number of firefighters we should have. Less than what?
How many we need is the more important question and you can only figure that out by looking carefully at what is happening. It might turn out by doing this it is clear we need more firefighters, but you have to check. And your standards have to be consistent: if the number of fires going up is an argument for more firefighters, the number of fires going down is probably an argument for fewer firefighters.
Okay, how is the fire service in England doing?
- Fire-related fatalities & non-fatal casualties have decreased by 18%
- The number of Fire Incidents have reduced by 18.2%, with 17.5% fewer Firefighters
- The average response time rate to Primary Fires has increased by 6% to 8m 48s
- There are 2.4% less fire stations and 2.2% more fire engines.
All data (unless stated) is from the Home Office, and for England, between 2010/2011 and 2015/2016. This is the same data used by the Fire Brigades Union, though they tend to cherry pick which stats they like to use, in order to make a particular case stronger (for example: deaths in fires rose 2015/2016, this was pointed to by the FBU as a major problem without noting that non-fatal casualties also fell in the same year).
Fire-related fatalities & non-fatal casualties have decreased by 18%.
In the real world this means around 130 less deaths and injuries every month compared to 5 years ago. However the trend is now steady or possibly rising.
The number of Fire Incidents has reduced by 18.2%, and Firefighters by 17.5%.
This is almost 10,000 incidents a month the fire service don't have to deal with.
While you could categorise the reduction in firefighters as "cuts", it is more honest to say they have reduced broadly in line with fire incidents. Less than 2% of these firefighter reductions were achieved by compulsory or voluntary redundancy.
Fire incidents includes all types of incidents, including false alarms and cats up trees etc - the total unplanned demand on the fire service. There can be large peaks above average demand during high intensity incidents - some Fire authorities claim that "while average demand for their services has continued to fall ... they need to be resourced to respond to high risk events" (quoted by National Audit Office, see 1.37). There is also planned demand in other areas: e.g. fire inspections. Firefighters excludes office and support staff and part timers.
The average response time rate to Primary Fires has increased by 6% to 8m 48s.
This means on average it now takes 31 seconds longer to reach a primary fire.
This rise in response times is concerning, you would want this to stay broadly stable. As the Fire Brigades Union says, "every second counts". Though before assuming the cause of this is less firefighters, you'd also need to investigate if this was down to other factors, e.g. poorly handled reorganisations (see "FiReControl" at the end of this post).
There are 2.4% less fire stations and 2.2% more fire engines.
Despite over-hyped talk about "axing fire stations" and "slashing budgets" (an example of this here), the number of fire stations is only down 2.4%, whilst the number of "operational appliances" is up 2.2% (essentially fire engines, but includes other equipment like hydraulic platforms). So in terms of firefighting infrastructure and equipment, broadly stable.
Closing 35 fire stations sounds bad until you realise there are 1,400 of them, and these closures took place over 5 years.
On the face of it, this data doesn't seem to be any cause for hysteria or alarm - we're much safer from fires and there are less of them.
But the rise in response times and uptick in fire incidents in 2015/2016 is a change in the downward trend and should be closely monitored. It may be that fire service authorities need some additional resources to get response times back closer to 8 mins than 9 mins.
The counterargument: #austerity and "cuts" is "putting lives at risk"
Government "cuts" in context.
Yes, the government has significantly reduced funding for fire services over the last 5 years - between around 26% and 37% depending on the fire authority. The government also intends to further cut funding by another 21% between 2016 and 2020 (according to the Fire Brigades Union).
This is in the context (given above) of falling fire numbers, fatalities and injuries - this is best shown in a report from the independent National Audit Office:
The summary accompanying the report, from the well respected head of the NAO, Sir Amyas Morse (who has harshly criticised the government in many other reports):
In a surprising finding I haven't seen reported anywhere: "time spent on [preventative fire safety] checks at properties where the householder is disabled increased by 29.7%".*
The NAO did provide some cautions in the full report, and also stated that some authorities have now began to draw down on their financial reserves.
- "underlying these high-level indicators there are some potential signs of stress"
- "some fire authorities have indicated that their capacity to respond to major incidents might be compromised by further funding reductions"
- "some, but not all, authorities had reduced their prevention and protection work in response to funding reductions"
*Presumably this is a surprise to those visiting The Guardian, e.g, a typical up-voted comment: "The Tories have treated disabled people little better than foxes to be ripped apart by toffs on horses".
Labour's 2017 General Election Manifesto
Labour opposed cuts to the fire service in their manifesto. The Conservative Manifesto didn't contain a single word about the fire service (though this is not that unusual, neither did Labour at the 2015 or 2010 elections):
Labour should be praised for having a position on such an important service for the public, but there are some problems with how this is presented:
- Firefighter jobs - The net reduction in firefighters is 5,092, not "10,000". That figure includes counting every role in the fire and rescue authorities as "firefighter jobs", including all support staff (and even then the FTE equivalent figure is 9,305)
- Fire stations - Dozens of fire stations is a misleading way of wording the fact that Fire Stations reduced from 1435 to 1400 (only a 2.4% reduction). "Dozens" sounds more scary if you don't know how many fire stations there are (and this isn't provided)
- Fire engines - There are more fire engines/operational appliances in 2015/2016 than there were in 2010 (this is unmentioned)
- Responses times - this is accurate but not quantified
- "Lives have been put at risk" - deaths and injuries have fallen by 18% in the same period as the cuts. Not mentioning this does not provide the proper context for this statement
However, that said, adding 3,000 firefighters could be reasonable as this would simply return the service to 2012/2013 levels. This is not obviously wrong given rising response times and the uptick in fire incidents in 2015/2016. But I can't help asking: if 3,000 extra really is the right answer, why make that case out of proper context and in such hysterical terms?
Also the cost of adding 3,000 extra firefighters should be evaluated alongside what else we could get for the same money - especially in the wake of the Grenfell incident. While the 3,000 increase isn't individually costed in the Labour manifesto (it is combined with hiring more border guards and other items), I'd estimate the full cost (including salaries, overtime, pensions, equipment) to be around £150- £210 million per annum, or close to £1 billion over 5 years.
For around half the cost of 3,000 firefighters, sprinkler systems could be installed and maintained in every local authority high rise building in England - all 3,778 of them.* This preventative measure would be more efficient, save lives, and react faster than firefighters in the event of a fire.
*The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) says there are 3,778 high rise blocks owned or managed by local authorities in England, encompassing 213,199 individual dwellings. It estimates £1,150 per flat to install a modern sprinkler system and £250 per flat per annum for maintenance. On this basis, the sprinkler installation cost would be £245 million (one off) with £266.5 million maintenance costs over 5 years. Source: Business Case for Sprinkers, CFOA.
Claims made by the Fire Brigade Union (FBU).
It might seem obvious to state, but the Fire Brigade Union isn't an unbiased source as they are going to advocate for their members. Rather they are an expert source. They can also be wrong - they have made dire warnings of thing that didn't happen - which they don't mention when making more dire warnings.
Then: Opposition to cuts in 2011
The FBU were vehemently opposed to "savage" "cuts" in 2011, claiming a "bonfire of the fire service". What actually happened after these 2011 warnings? Fire-related fatalities and injuries across England then had their steepest fall in decades between 2011 & 2014.
"Increased risk to lives and homes, businesses and workplaces ... These cuts risk tipping us over the edge and that will have a very serious impact on the public" - FBU Blog, Nov 2011, Safety concerns as West Yorkshire builds a bonfire of the fire service
"Cutting the number of fire stations and firefighters means it takes longer to answer emergency calls and that puts lives at risk. In firefighting, seconds can be the difference between life and death" - FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack, quoted by The Independent, Mar 2011, in Firefighters say 'savage' budget cuts could put lives in danger
The FBU have also affiliated directly with Jeremy Corbyn, their leadership says "never trust a Tory" (FBU Chair Andrew Scattergood), still uses militant union terms like "scabs" (FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack, paid ~£130,000, more than the Prime Minister), and says ministers and senior civil servants are "marauding around Whitehall, looking for opportunities to attack us" (FBU President Alan McLean).
That doesn't mean it isn't important to listen to them - as experts out there in the field - but you can't simply take their word as gospel truth, particularly their predictions about the future.
Now: Opposition to cuts in 2017
Prior to the 2017 General Election, Andrew Scattergood made what looks like a plausible case for reversing fire cuts in The Independent: "As a fire-fighter, I've seen first-hand the effect of seven years of government cuts on the fire service". The same argument was also recycled after the Grenfell fire incident in The Guardian.
Despite being passionate, eloquent and having reference to government statistics, in my opinion Mr Scattergood's case is undermined by being selective with data and not giving the full context. Some examples:
"Response times have risen by 31 seconds ... A few seconds can be the difference between saving a life or not" - whilst this is true, this is in the context of falling deaths and injuries during that rise in response times, which took place over 5 years. The overall 18% reduction in fatalities and injuries in that same period is not mentioned at all in the piece.
"The Government’s own statistics show that 303 people died in fires during 2015/2016. This is an unacceptable rise of 15 per cent on the previous year." - this is being disingenuous. To make the case for rising response times, the FBU use the 5 years between 2010-2016 as the time period. To make the case for "rising deaths", they use a single year. But - 303 deaths in 2015/2016 is actually 9% less than the 334 who died in 2010/11! Linking these two closely together in the piece leaves the reader with the impression that "response times are rising" and this is leading to a 15% increase in deaths. Actually there are less deaths when compared like-for-like over the same period. And the increase from 264 deaths to 303 deaths can't be attributed to rising response times - they only went up by three seconds in that period.
"It is true that the numbers of fires are down, but this is largely down to firefighters working with local communities to increase awareness and advise them on fire safety. Reduce firefighters, this work is carried out less, fires will then increase. It is obvious to everyone but those in charge" - This sounds plausible - as preventative community fire work and fire inspections have fallen - but no evidence is presented to show this will result in fires increasing. The number of fires fell in line with firefighters for 4 years. Why did cutting firefighters in 2010 not lead to an increase in fires in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014? And perhaps "those in charge" don't listen to the FBU because it was wrong about such warnings in the past, and claims those in charge are "marauding" against them and should never be trusted on the basis of their political affiliation alone.
"In the short-term the reduction in the number of fires is irrelevant ... how many resources we have at our disposal can be the difference between a life and death" - Clearly the number of fires is relevant to staffing levels. And despite having "less resources", deaths have fallen, so hasn't made the difference being claimed.
"With response times increasing, you would expect the Conservative manifesto to address this. Their manifesto mentions nothing on these points" - Correct, the Conservative Manifesto should have addressed rising response times and the uptick in fire incidents.
Always: Reflexive opposition
Based on the recent record, even with falling fire numbers, or better building safety, it is unlikely the FBU would ever support a reduction in firefighters, or even any budget cuts (Matt Wrack has said the FBU should "[fight] every cut"). The FBU would rationalise this position by saying they need standby capacity for high risk incidents, or need to carry out other workloads not shown in the statistics, or something else.
This isn't really surprising, it is unlikely any union would be able to do this. What is surprising is that many politicians and media act as though we don't need to check and investigate the FBU's claims against clear goals and standards, data and evidence, and evaluate them in light of the full context of their past claims.
Addendum: The FiReControl project
FiReControl was a project aimed to "improve the resilience, efficiency and technology of the Fire and Rescue Service by replacing 46 local control rooms with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system to handle calls, mobilise equipment and manage incidents".
FiReControl was announced in 2003 under the Labour government* led by Tony Blair. After failing to deliver much of anything (mostly expensive, empty buidings, some with leases up to 2035 with no prospect of use), it was cancelled in Dec 2010 by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government after a review found it had spectacularly failed to achieve its stated aims, and was hugely over-budget.
The National Audit Office issued a scathing report into FiReControl - the project wasted at least £469m and possibly up to £649m. That's about half of all government funding for the entire fire service in a single year, "up in smoke". The lower end of this estimate would pay for around 1,000 - 1,500 additional full time firefighters over 5 years, or increase by X6 the £75 million fund for transforming the fire service.
*To be fair to the current Labour leadership, the now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was at least opposed to the centralisation plans without an independent review being carried out first (as quoted here in the FBU's Aug 05 newsletter).