Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1094 - 1099)



  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. I am sorry there was a long delay but I am sure in your profession you have complaints about time slippage. It is not a science on this side of the table as to how long you take. Thank you very much for coming. We have a very full agenda. We have read your various documents and we have looked at the National Audit Office report on Airwave. I will call on my colleague, Frank Roy, to kick off the questioning.

Mr Roy

  1094. Gentlemen, to what extent does the fact that fire services are established locally and resourced and accountable locally make arrangements for securing inter-operability and successful mutual aid more difficult?
  (Mr Bull) Good morning everybody. I think, first of all, that fire services are all established under the Fire Services Act 1947 which goes back some 50 years now and is probably the only piece of Government legislation which has remained largely untouched in all of that time. We are a local authority service, locally accountable. Unfortunately, in some ways the UK Fire Service now operates within several organisational, constitutional and financial models in the United Kingdom which does present some problems in funding arrangements and things of that nature. The services that we provide are obviously tailored to meet local needs within the national framework. They are there to cover normal day to day occurrences. I am sure you will see the scope of the business that the Fire Service and our firefighters deal with on a daily basis now which originally in the Fire Services Act and even today are vested in fire and dealing with false alarms, and that is a statutory base. The service over the years has widened out to take on many other non statutory duties: road traffic accidents, chemical spillages, rescues from tall buildings, high structures, things of that nature which really fire authorities have taken on over the years with no statutory database. Indeed, I think if you ask the general public what their perception would be if they dial 999 in times of need they would expect the Fire Service to respond whether it is unusual incidents like a seagull trapped on an aerial on top of a house or a major fire, a chemical spillage or whatever, that is their perception and that is the way the fire services are structured. In terms of dealing with the higher level scenario which we are confronted with now in planning terms, following the events of 11 September, I think we are asking our fire services to operate and perform in an entirely different environment now to do with a catastrophic event, no matter what that may be. I think where we fall down now is in terms of resilience. We have the local service able to deal with the local day to day emergency requirements very well. Above that, however, in terms of regional and national co-ordination we have very little and that is where our resilience is brought into question in some ways.

  1095. We know obviously the Fire Service is localised and much loved and much needed. We know also there is a debate going on at the moment about more regionalisation of the service. In your opinion would that be a good thing or a bad thing, better or worse? Would it improve the operational ability and would it improve the administrative efficiency of the service?
  (Mr Bull) That is a million dollar question.

  1096. I know.
  (Mr Bull) You might be asking me to do myself out of a job. This is an issue which continually raises its profile in temperature, depending upon the political will at the particular time or the professional opinion or where we are moving to. In terms of the best value regime that we are being subject to along with all other local authorities and in terms of the new dimension work that we are being involved in now, the need for greater collaboration, value for money, co-operation between fire authorities, the need to join together in major projects that we are taking forward now is naturally moving us along a regionalisation type route in my view. My professional association has not got a policy on regionalisation but if you ask my personal opinion I would say that regionalisation of fire brigades would be a good thing for the future and would help in eradicating the differences we have in constitutional and financial terms now which cause extensive problems in day to day service provision.

  1097. Could I further ask you on joined up services and the need for it. Last year the Fire Service decided against a national procurement approach for a new radio system. This has undermined efforts to have Airwave, or Airwave compatible systems used by all emergency services. What factors led the Fire Service to make this decision? Was it purely financial?
  (Mr Bull) First of all, this is a very complex and complicated issue and actually the decision was not made last year it was made some years ago. When we were part of the Home Office along with police, some five or seven years ago, this project started off being very much led by the police and PTO, their purchasing organisation. At the time the police moved ahead they moved the decision to go for a national system which would be procured nationally and would be the same in every police authority. The Home Office made available, also, some £500 million I understand to fund that particular project. As the project moved along it was subject to various challenges under EC procurement rules about the police moving forward with a single supplier without open competition. For that reason, the Home Office at the time Fire Policy Unit took the decision to allow the fire service to stand outside of that procurement. Our instructions were to go for a standard national output specification which would then be subject to open competition and all of the suppliers would be able to tender for that work. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, no funds were made available to the Fire Service, and we are talking about some £120-150 million to fund radio replacement in the Fire Service nationally. About a year ago, just before we moved from the Home Office to the DTLR, the decision was made to move into a regional procurement framework and now we have ten regional frameworks moving ahead. Indeed, the South West and the West Midlands are already at preferred bidder stage, about to make announcements. We have still no funding available from even DTLR now for the project. This issue was raised within the Civil Contingencies Committee about four months ago now and a small sub-committee chaired by Andrew Smith, the First Secretary of the Treasury, met this week to consider the issue. We are now in a situation where we have agreed between the three blue light services a national specification for inter-operability and inter-service working, which we have all signed up to now. The decision now the committee has to take is how the Fire Service procurement is going to move forward within the overall police procurement and our own situation. They are coming together again next week to decide the Fire Service options which are likely to be either to stop everything we are doing at the moment and start again with a new Fire Service National Procurement or to allow the South West and the West Midlands to continue, and then everybody else to stop and have a new national procurement competition open. We are also in a position where DTLR made a bid to the Capital Modernisation Fund for £120 million to fund the radio project which has been turned down. So we are in the position now that even if the Fire Service decided to go along a particular route, there is no funding identified as yet. That is a very, very brief overview of where we have come to and where we are now. As I say, it is not an easy position. I think from the 11 September viewpoint, whatever technologies we have in place in terms of fire, police and ambulances, the blue services in particular, we have to guarantee that those technologies are able to talk to each other at the various command levels. For example, and I hate to talk in code, but in police and fire terms that would be Silver and Gold Command level and into control room whereas between ambulance and police they would have a need for paramedics to be able to talk to individual police officers, particularly in need of transfer of medical information and data and medical assessments and prognosis which had been made at an incident on a particular casualty. Those are essential requirements. In Fire Service terms obviously with an incident of the type and size we are talking about if appliances went from Newcastle to support London, for example, then we would want those appliances to be able to arrive in London and talk to the London fire brigade control and fit into the command structure.


  1098. They would never be able to understand what you said.
  (Mr Bull) Absolutely, Sir.

  1099. However sophisticated the means of communication.
  (Mr Bull) There would be a translation at the end of it all.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 July 2002