Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Association of Principal Fire Officers (APFO) (FRS 44)


  1.1.1  The Association of Principal Fire Officers (APFO) is a body formally constituted to represent approximately 200 of the most senior managers in the Fire & Rescue Service, specifically with regard to pay matters and conditions of service. In our response to the new Inquiry into the Fire & Rescue Service, APFO has confined its response to those matters most pertinent to our Association and its Members.

  1.1.2  Whilst remaining supportive of the principal drive of the FiReControl Project to deliver a more efficient, cost effective and resilient service, we are concerned that the full business case and the evidence to support the financial consequences of the Project is not available for scrutiny. It is the members of our Association who are currently leading and managing the FiReControl Project, still with many questions unanswered.

  1.1.3  The eventual outcome may be one that meets all the aims and aspirations of the project; conversely a less successful outcome will fall upon our members to rectify and make good. Future sustainability of the Fire and Rescue Service is in many ways dependent upon successful delivery of the FiReControl Project.

  1.1.4  Our Association believes that FireLink will significantly improve operational and incident ground communications providing both the scope and opportunity to increase the effectiveness of the Service. We believe now is an opportune time to revisit the original specification for FireLink and examine the benefits of including both hand held communication for the incident ground and alerting systems for retained Fire Stations within the scope of the Project.

  1.1.5  Institutional reform is a priority for the Service at all levels. We believe the current overly bureaucratic processes do not aid effective industrial relations. APFO are both keen and willing to engage in meaningful discussions with the NJC and others to promote and foster a more conducive climate for the future of industrial relations within the Fire & Rescue Service.

  1.1.6  Promoting diversity within the Fire & Rescue Service is key to developing the Service both as an employer of first choice and one that is seen by the public as being at the heart of community safety. Notwithstanding all our efforts to reduce deaths and serious injuries through fire and other emergencies and promoting a community well-being agenda embracing a diverse workforce, we must not lose sight of the fact that the Fire & Rescue Service is critical to the future resilience of this country.

  1.1.7  Recent events including the terrorist bombing of London, the floods in Carlisle and the major fire at an oil refinery in Buncefield, Hertfordshire, provide unequivocal evidence that the nation must have readily available, a competent, well trained, appropriately equipped and effectively led Fire & Rescue Service to respond to such emergencies. Our members who are the senior leaders of the Fire & Rescue Service need to be competent in all aspects of incident command in order to effectively lead and manage a dynamic and complex operational environment.

  1.1.8  Whilst we fully recognise the benefits of opening the Fire & Rescue Service to multi-tier entry, we believe that ensuring the competence of our incident commanders at all levels is crucial to maintaining our world class reputation as an emergency response agency. Our ability and expertise in all aspects of critical incident operations must be preserved.


2.1  Regional Control Centres

  2.1.1  The Association of Principal Fire Officers (APFO) are not fully convinced that a robust business case has been made to support the creation of nine Regional Control Centres. Our members have concerns as to the potential revenue costs of the FiReControl Project which may eventually fall upon local tax payers and the consequential responsibility for that will lie with the senior managers of the Service to drive through the project and manage the eventual outcomes.

  2.1.2  We have previously stated that we would support a project that clearly delivers enhanced resilience, greater interoperability between Fire & Rescue Services, enhanced operational effectiveness including call handling, provides for better operational working with other partners in particular Police Forces and Ambulances Services, and delivers better value for money for local taxpayers. APFO continue to lend our support to a project that is designed to deliver improvements to a key aspect of the Critical National Infrastructure.

  2.1.3  We are not opposed in principle to a reduction in the number of existing Fire Control Centres, rather we wish to articulate a professional view that prior to embarking upon a project of this magnitude, the full business case including details of the revenue and capital costs and apportionment would have been made available for all key stakeholders to consider alongside the clearly stated service effectiveness outcomes.

  2.1.4  Our Association has raised what we believe to be quite legitimate questions regarding the potential additional costs, which we consider may fall upon local Fire Authorities as an outcome of the FiReControl Project, as well as seeking assurances with regard to governance arrangements for the new Fire Control Centres including legal accountabilities and responsibilities with regard to the Fire & Rescue Services Act 2004. Whilst we have received some general responses from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), we await clarification on the matters we have raised in our earlier discussions with ODPM representatives.

  2.1.5  APFO recognise and understand the need for Government to have in place effective arrangements to protect the security and infrastructure of the country, and can understand there is merit within the case put forward for larger Fire Control Centres. Indeed our members have already agreed to support cross-border working and have given a commitment to respond nationwide to maintain and ensure effective incident command arrangements.

  2.1.6  However as a professional Association we believe it is our responsibility to ask for reassurances with regard to future costs and governance arrangements including legal liability, as these are matters which fall within the corporate accountability of our members.


3.1  FireLink

  3.1.1  APFO fully support the introduction of FireLink to replace the existing main scheme radio, and recognise the ODPMs resource and funding support in moving this project forward. At the time of the initial specification for FireLink, the issue of hand-held communication on the incident ground fell outside the scope and remit of the project, as did the provision of alerting for retained fire stations.

  3.1.2  We believe that in light of the evolving role of Fire Authorities in supporting the civil resilience agenda as well as the increasing role the Service now plays in responding to a wider range of civil emergencies, it would be prudent to re-visit the initial specification with a view to including hand-held incident ground communication facilities (Hand-held radios) and to re-consider extending the scope of FireLink to including alerting systems for retained fire stations.


4.1  Fire Prevention

  4.1.1  APFO would wish to lend their support to the proposed introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, emphasising the need to ensure the considerable body of knowledge and professional expertise on fire safety and fire engineering matters currently residing in the Service, is not diluted. The Fire and Rescue Service has for many years played a significant role in fire safety in the built environment; our Association believes this role should continue.

  4.1.2  One further matter we would want to comment on is that of automatic fire sprinkler systems. APFO members continue to witness the damage caused to school buildings and our young people's education, through malicious and deliberate fire setting in schools. This Association lends our full support to the installation of automatic sprinkler systems in all new school buildings and major refurbishment schemes in school premises. We also extend our support to the case for domestic sprinkler systems in all new house building programmes. The opportunity to leave a legacy for future generations, providing a home environment protected from fire, should not be missed.


5.1  Institutional Arrangements and Reform, Including Transitional Arrangements and Finance

  5.1.1  Almost every aspect of the Service is now in the process of change with that change either refocusing resources to better address risk in our communities, be that risk from the Service's traditional focus/adversary of fire, or deal with threats from transportation accidents, hazardous materials, infrastructure failure, terrorist activity or climate change.

  5.1.2  Many of the current elements of modernisation assist Fire Authorities in using their resources more flexibly, including taking a more entrepreneurial approach to preventing emergencies and protecting people and property, as well as tailoring our operational response more closely to evidence based demand.

  5.1.3  Ironically, the one area which has failed to respond to these changes, and yet in many ways was instrumental in precipitating the industrial disputes of 2002-03, is the national negotiating arrangements. Currently two NJCs exist. The first and largest of these negotiating fora is euphemistically entitled "NJC for firefighters", although it actually accommodates all roles from firefighter to Area Manager.

  5.1.4  A smaller NJC for Principal Fire Officers operates for the most senior members of the Service, those who lead industry and manage the considerable changes, with the vast majority being members of APFO. The Association do not believe the current arrangements serve our industry well. They are overly bureaucratic, process driven and reinforce an industrial relations culture of conflict rather than co-operation. Reliance on constitutional arrangements rather than mediation and resolution has led to industrial relations characterised by long periods of stalemate and then dramatic change, often precipitated by damaging industrial action.

  5.1.5  Whilst this has been the pattern for the NJC for firefighters, that for Principal Fire Officers, although somewhat less turbulent, is nonetheless equally moribund. Its operation, structures and methods of working hark back to an era long gone elsewhere in either the public or private sector, yet still remain the principle structure for driving change at a national level.

  5.1.6  APFO members, both as employees and as managers of the Service, have grown frustrated and increasingly disillusioned with the present arrangements. In our view they need wholesale reform, both to widen representation of employee groups and more importantly, to introduce greater objectivity centered upon a partnership approach to problem solving.

  5.1.7  The NJC has been tasked with transforming itself; this in our view has not come about. We do not believe it is able to change itself as it is an entity which reinforces the status quo, rather than facilitating transformation. It is therefore time to overhaul the mechanism for national negotiation and agreement and to promote more constructive labour relations that are focussed less on process and more on clear outcomes.


6.1  Promoting Diversity Within the Fire and Rescue Service

  6.1.1  The wholesale drive to modernise the Fire and Rescue Service has the Association believes, created a view amongst some key stakeholders that what went before had not delivered what was expected of a public funded service, and was therefore in need of complete reform and re-design. We believe that it is important we remind ourselves that the Fire & Rescue Service is not, and has never been, a failing Service. Room for improvement yes, in need of some reform we agree, but far from sub standard.

  6.1.2  Notwithstanding the undoubted successes of the Service, a belief appears to have emerged in some quarters that those officers who presently lead the Service are not able to take forward the progressive change agenda or are not suitably "managerially" qualified and that "managers" from outside must be brought in to inject expertise and bring a fresh perspective to the Service. In some ways this approach has been justified by suggesting that it brings diversity to the Service.

  6.1.3  APFO refute entirely the assertion held by some influential parties that Principal Fire Officers are not best placed to lead the Service. The majority of our members hold academic qualifications at First and Masters Degree level and have led the Service through extremely challenging and difficult times, not only in the area of strategic organisational leadership, but crucially in the absolutely vital role of command at operational incidents.

  6.1.4  As a reminder, the recently witnessed major floods in Carlisle, terrorist bombs in London and oil terminal fire in Hemel Hempstead demonstrate the fundamental importance of the command and leadership role of Fire and Rescue Service Officers, including Principal Fire Officers, at the scene of operational incidents.

  6.1.5  APFO has been quite clear that opening up the Service to talent from outside is to be welcomed. We recognise that whilst principal managers are performing well, they have no monopoly on innovation and managerial expertise. However, those entrants who join the Service need to be developed to take on the significant operational command role the public quite rightly expect from a primary emergency service. Operational command at tactical and strategic level can be developed through training and experience, but takes time and resources to guarantee high performance.

  6.1.6  Unfortunately the haste to repeal the existing Appointment and Promotion Regulations that had once ensured those placed in command roles had the requisite expertise, has resulted in a lack of accredited training programmes being made available for new talent. The development of accredited training programmes is fundamental if the Service is to support and enable those persons who enter the Service at a junior, middle or strategic management level, to acquire the competence necessary to safely and properly undertake the complete range of functions within the role of a Fire and Rescue Service Manager, particularly where it includes operational command.

  6.1.7  Unfortunately there appears to be a belief in some quarters that as operational command occupies such a relatively small proportion of an officers' time, it is unimportant. The fundamental flaw in this thinking was dramatically exposed by the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. The simple fact is that the Commissioners of both the London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Police Service spend comparatively little time undertaking operational command in their present roles. However, when they do take command it is vital that they have the requisite knowledge as well as being both competent and experienced to enable them to effectively meet those enormous challenges.

  6.1.8  There is now a real vulnerability, most obviously at strategic level, but also throughout the whole Service as new entrants are invited and encouraged to join, with as yet no proper programmes in place to ensure that this new pool of potential leaders are properly trained and developed to meet the operational challenges they are to face.

  6.1.9  The public, and other emergency service colleagues, have a right to expect proper levels of experience and competence throughout all roles within the Service and need an assurance that those leading this key emergency service are indeed capable of effectively undertaking their full range of duties.


7.1  Joint Working Between the Fire and Rescue Service and Other Emergency Services

  7.1.1  A major thrust of reform in the Fire and Rescue Service is close collaboration between Services and other partner agencies. The motivation for such partnerships can be varied, ranging from capitalising on individual strengths, sharing fixed costs, greater economies of scale and better use of resources.

  7.1.2  Whilst central Government appears to have abandoned its desire for regional Fire and Rescue Services, it appears now to have moved to a more covert position whereby it seeks to encourage voluntary collaboration and merger. The Association recognises the potential benefits this may bring, both in terms of some aspects of service delivery and easing pressures on the public purse, but would argue that a "one size" solution is not necessarily in the best interests of the Service and more importantly nor is it in the best interests of service delivery to the public.

  7.1.3  We would also argue that whilst a cursory examination of the evidence may suggest that larger Fire Authorities appear to perform better, close scrutiny will reveal that many smaller Fire Authorities are high performing, particularly in indicators such as cost per head of population.

  7.1.4  Inevitably, examples of closer collaboration has led to a number of Services sharing officers to provide strategic operational cover across the partner authority areas. A sensible and pragmatic approach at a local level, this may be. Unfortunately were this trend to continue unabated, the lack of a regional or national perspective will create a considerable vulnerability in resilience.

  7.1.5  Individual authorities not surprisingly are considering local needs when making their own arrangements, but are not assessing the wider implications for national and regional resourcing of major civil emergencies. With the response to terrorist attacks and major climatic events being predicated at least on a regional basis, the minimum number and availability of principal officers across the UK needs to be properly assessed and maintained. At present, this assessment is not being undertaken and the lack of overview and co-ordination is allowing a vulnerability to grow in terms of national resilience.

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