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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 November 2008

[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

Fire Services (Hertfordshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ian Austin.]

9.30 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Hood.

This debate is about firefighters in Hertfordshire. Many hon. Members from all parties met their local fire officers when the fire officers lobbied Parliament on 13 November. The lobby took place principally to raise concerns about the deaths of firefighters in the UK since 1978, but the fire officers also wanted to discuss operational concerns.

Not all colleagues can participate in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and other hon. Members would have liked to attend, but they have other engagements. Regrettably, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is in Afghanistan with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but I know that he feels strongly that firefighters in Hertfordshire provide a hugely valuable service. That was never more appreciated than when our brave firefighters tackled the massive explosion at Buncefield, which was the biggest fire in peacetime Europe. He wants me to tell the Minister that he shares the concerns that I will raise today about the pressure facing firefighters.

I am sure that the Minister recognises that those in the fire service who are expected to deliver the service feel a great deal of anger and frustration. Such feelings are also felt by members of the public, who have seen cuts and closures in the name of rationalisation and local efficiencies. I will not address the closures that have impacted on my constituency, because I know that other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), will voice their concerns about the loss of local services. My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously against the closure of Radlett fire station.

As the Minister knows, I continually argue that Hertfordshire and, indeed, St. Albans do particularly badly under the Government’s current funding formula. That has serious implications for the funding of our local services and has led to so-called efficiencies. Given the real-term cut in funding that will take place for all county council services next year, there is a continuous need to find year-on-year efficiencies in Hertfordshire. As a floor authority, we expect to receive an increase of 1.5 per cent. Our fire and rescue authority is unable to raise its own precept, because it is not a separate entity, so it has even less control over its financial destiny. Although the fire authority is exempt from Gershon efficiencies, the total county council budget is not. There are pressures to cut budgets and make savings, which is already happening.

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Today is an opportunity for the Minister to address our concerns and give us a progress report on some of the outstanding policy recommendations that were made to the Government in relation to fire services. We are waiting for those recommendations to be implemented and for a decision to be made. The debate is timely, and I shall pose a series of questions to which I would like the Minister to respond. The number of firefighters who die on duty was falling, so why have more died on this Government’s watch? Linked to that, how can we tackle concerns relating to emergency planning and training issues? Why are the Government pressing ahead with regional fire control centres? In addition, when will the Government implement a policy of statutory obligations on flooding?

Every year on 28 April, trade unionists mark workers’ memorial day with a call to remember the dead and to fight for the living. This year, firefighters and the Fire Brigades Union had special reason to observe it, because, sadly, they had to commemorate the highest number of deaths in a single year since at least 1985, and three of those deaths were in Hertfordshire. Consequently, the FBU made recommendations to the Government in a report entitled “In the Line of Duty”. I agree with the FBU and think that the Government should look at some of the issues raised by the report.

Exactly what constitutes an on-duty death, because that has never been clearly defined? Often, it is defined as being a death that occurs when a firefighter is in uniform or doing a shift. Included in that are, for example, firefighters who are killed in road traffic accidents while travelling in an appliance or fire service vehicle en route to or returning from an incident. That might be extended to include retained firefighters who are killed when responding to a call or returning from attending an incident.

Brave firefighters usually selflessly head forwards into danger when we, the public, are mindful of our own lives and safety and head in the opposite direction. The least that we can do is ensure that those who lay their lives on the line for us are truly accounted for and that lessons are learned from serious incidents. That should involve publishing UK-wide figures for all firefighter fatalities, major and serious injuries and near misses in a single annual publication. A national independent fire and rescue service investigation unit should also be established. It is worth considering the FBU’s call for a widening of the definition of reportable incidents to the Health and Safety Executive to include work-related road traffic accidents, heart attacks or other life-limiting situations that are incurred as a result of working in an occupationally hazardous job. Those may be work related, but they are generally excluded from the on-duty figures, although many people think that they should come under the category of an on-duty death.

Currently, the only Government source that covers the whole of the UK for the period under review is the annual “Fire Statistics, United Kingdom” report. However, those figures refer to fatalities only from fires and therefore do not fully capture firefighter deaths that might be attributed to other causes. We need to learn from incidents, but to the Government’s shame, which is the true way to put it, no formal process has been implemented to deal with matters arising from significant health and safety investigations, coroner’s rule 43 letters
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and inquiries, such as the one into Buncefield. The Minister should tell us today why such a process has not been implemented.

There is a large gap in the fire service’s processes and guidance and in the information that is vital for operational response. There has been a lack of national, central risk-critical operational guidance for some years now, and only recently have the Government started to develop a mechanism to deal with that important issue. Why have the Government been so slow to deal with the matter and shown such a lack of urgency?

The chief fire and rescue adviser’s unit has been established. It has sufficient resources to advise Ministers, but, bizarrely, it has insufficient resources to cover the role and responsibilities of the old fire services inspectorate. I am given to understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government is so short of resources in the unit for fire and safety policy that it is considering outsourcing and commissioning national fire service policy work. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?

There was a consultation on a possible centre of excellence for the fire and rescue service, as envisaged by the Bain review, which took place more than five years ago. A centre of excellence may have gone some way to meeting the concerns about central guidance, capacity and policy. However, sadly, there was no agreement on the funding of the centre and little indication of how it would work in practice. So, the fire service missed out yet again on an opportunity for improvement and on having an agency similar to the one used by the police. Even more worrying—this is linked to the lack of central guidance—has been the demise of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of fire services, which means that fire and rescue services are assessed by the Audit Commission. Although the Audit Commission is an expert in audit, it has no professional expertise in fire and rescue, unlike the inspectorates of other services.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): My hon. Friend has rightly mentioned the absence of a national operational guide, but representations from my firefighters in Hertford have brought to my attention the point that basic operational training—the thing that they need for their safety—comes second to other matters, such as long-term contingency planning. Given the tragic deaths in the county and nationally, does she share my fear that that set of priorities is wrong—particularly for firefighters themselves?

Anne Main: I completely concur with the observations of my hon. Friend. As I shall mention later, I have had contact with people who work in the operational field and who have drawn exactly that conclusion.

Will the Minister tell us whether he intends to remedy that deficiency? Crucially, we need to learn from when incidents go wrong. For example, on 2 February 2005, two Hertfordshire firefighters died at a fire in a block of flats at Harrow court, Stevenage. Bravely, the firefighters had rescued one victim and were attempting to rescue another when they were both killed. The report into the incident found that the deaths would almost certainly have been prevented, if Hertfordshire fire and rescue service had ensured that adequate procedures, training
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and resources were systematically in place. The report also found that adequate procedures, training and emergency response resources would have significantly reduced the life-threatening risks that faced the firefighters who attended the incident. There is a need for centrally-issued, substantial, safety-critical national guidance on the issues that have arisen from recent fatalities.

We need rigorously to assess the concerns about the distress signal unit that firefighters raised with hon. Members when they met at the recent lobby. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, that unit is worn by firefighters with breathing apparatus and emits a loud sound if the firefighter does not move for 20 seconds or so, which provides a warning and a location for firefighters who are lost, trapped or injured. The battery has lower temperature resilience than the unit—55° C compared with 75° C. Yes, the battery was tested in isolation and not within the unit, but firefighters are deeply unhappy about the uncertainty surrounding the reliability of that equipment in the event of a serious hot fire. It should be fully appraised as a matter of urgency, if we are to ask people to use it, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that that happens.

The FBU believes that there should be guidance for initial attendance, risk assessment, incident command, breathing apparatus, compartment fires, high-rise fires, backdraught, flashover and heat stress. That is a long list, but as I am sure the Minister is aware, firefighters’ anger is growing about the lack of urgency surrounding those matters. Relevant training courses should also be provided.

Will the Government consider imposing a duty on employers, landlords and other responsible persons at selected high-risk premises to submit in writing their fire risk assessments to the local fire and rescue service? The public find it somewhat strange that that does not happen. Such a move would provide more information for risk mapping and identify potential areas for enforcement action and operational planning.

Our local branch of the FBU is anxious that Hertfordshire learns lessons from fire-related deaths and has made a number of recommendations to Hertfordshire fire and rescue service. It recommends that all firefighters receive regular training in all aspects of active fire safety measures. I shall go on to say why the FBU believes that that is not happening. We should ensure that there are sufficient firefighters on the initial attendance, so that one firefighter can be detailed as forward commander.

I have been told about a worrying situation in which there were not enough firefighters. The firefighters were expected to wait outside a property until the second engine arrived. In the event of a blaze, the public would not understand why firefighters were waiting for the correct numbers. Of course, firefighters do not wait in such circumstances, which puts them in danger. We should ensure that all firefighters receive regular training in all aspects of compartment fires and ventilation, particularly in high-rise buildings. We should ensure that all firefighters receive regular training and monitoring in all aspects of high-rise procedures and that initial crews take the correct equipment up to the bridgehead. Will the Minister consider those requests?

We also need to address the issues relating to hot fire training. Before 2006, Hertfordshire had a single real fire training unit that burned wood and chipboard. In
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2006, Stevenage borough council placed an abatement notice on that facility, because of the pollution, and mobile units were purchased to take its place. Those units came into service in 2008. However, concerns have been expressed to me and other hon. Members that the units are used only to train new recruits and not to train existing firefighters, some of whom have told me that they have received no hot fire training at all since 2001. That was put down to financial constraints, but whatever the reason, does the Minister believe that the situation is satisfactory?

I particularly want to talk about retained duty firefighters, who experience a particular set of issues relating to training and safety. I was contacted by a retained duty firefighter, Mr. Bill Liggins of Wheathampstead, who works part time with Hertfordshire fire and rescue service alongside his full-time job. Believe me, we need retained duty firefighters. Mr. Liggins is concerned because whole-time duty system firefighters do 18 weeks training, whereas retained duty system firefighters do only four weeks. The WDS firefighters do a 42-hour week in which they are expected to train for eight hours; the RDS firefighters do only a three-hour drill night. He asserts, quite logically, that those cannot and do not equate, but when the two types of firefighter turn out to fires, the dangers that they face are the same. He believes that the RDS firefighters need more training on weekends and at drill nights by specialists.

The service has introduced national vocational qualifications to recognise competency, but they are not paid for, and RDS firefighters have to pay for them themselves. WDS firefighters do qualifications at work, but the service says that RDS firefighters should do them during drill nights. As an RDS member, Mr Liggins is concerned that they just do not have enough time both to train and to study for qualifications.

RDS firefighters have historically had hand-me-down equipment from the WDS. Bizarrely, firefighters who met hon. Members the other week told us that uniforms go missing in the abyss of the cleaning systems and that they rarely get the same one back. The RDS has been allocated some new fire engines, but they do not carry full equipment—disc cutters, chemical suits and air mats. Again, that has to do with training implications and is principally driven by cost. As I have said, Hertfordshire county council is hard-pressed financially, and it has asked Hertfordshire fire and rescue service to try to cut £1.1 million every year for the next three years, which must have implications for training budgets.

The Minister must accept that there are huge concerns about the levels of financing and training offered to serving WDS and RDS firefighters. If the regionalisation of our fire services were scrapped, that funding could be better spent. Why are the Government pressing ahead with regional fire control centres? I have a deep unease about moving services further away from local expertise and knowledge. Conservatives have consistently argued that that scheme should be scrapped. It is a costly, wasteful and misguided approach to delivering local services dressed up in a cloak of so-called efficiency savings.

According to my local county council:

Lesley Morris, who works in command and control in Hertfordshire, also wrote to me to make exactly that point. She said that

contrary to what the Government say—

Lesley also told me that

She was of the view that any delay, for whatever reason, in mobilising appliances puts more pressure on our firefighters once they are at an incident and therefore puts the public at risk. She asked that the Government consider her expert opinion:

If regional control centres are so badly needed, how did Hertfordshire’s control room cope with the biggest fire in peacetime Europe? During the Buncefield incident, Hertfordshire fire control coped professionally and comprehensively with hundreds of calls to that incident alone. The regional fire control project is officially three years late and the costs are 14 times the original estimates. The new centres were to start opening in November 2006, but are now not due to start opening until October 2009. Indeed, local rumour says that that date is optimistic—unless the Minister tells us differently. I hope that he will tell us that the centres are to be scrapped.

In a written answer regarding the original cost estimates for regional fire control centres, the then Minister responsible for fire services, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), said that consultants Mott MacDonald

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