Monday, 26th June 2017

Funding Surrey’s Fire Service. How do we get it right?

Chapter Two.

We are preparing a motion asking that the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service is properly funded by the County Council so as to keep the residents of Surrey safe. We are asking also that it is properly equipped to be able to reach the top floors of all high-rise buildings in the County; that fire safety audits are carried out annually on buildings with a communal entrance and that all new schools should be fitted with sprinkler systems.

None of these appears to be a controversial request. But the trouble is, we don’t have a bench mark to enable us to know whether the Fire and Rescue Service is properly funded, or what the right level of funding should be. The Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union has written to me to say that the service has been inadequately funded since 2014, since when further cuts have been made to the funding of the service. So do I call for funding to be restored to the 2013/4 level?

Successive governments of all parties have shed their own responsibilities for making funding judgements, devolving them to local government working in an ever more constrained financial envelope. That means that if something goes wrong, the local council gets the blame. In general, National regulation, or standard setting, has been regarded as red tape, to be burnt on a bonfire of the quangos. I have written back to the Secretary of the FBU, asking what level of funding is required, but that is an opinion. There is no objective yardstick which can be used to determine a proper standard of service. Should there be so many crew per thousand of the population? Should it be possible for a fire brigade crew to reach every property in the County within a certain time scale? Such timescales are set for ambulances reaching life threatening emergencies and rigorously determine the operations of the service.

The London Service response time targets for 2015/16 were: Answer 999 calls within 1.4 seconds, despatch a fire engine within 1 minute 40 seconds for an emergency, the first fire engine to arrive within an average of six minutes from being despatched. We should be looking for something comparable for our County.

Richard Jones, of the FBU, replies to me as follows:

“The table below will give you a good overview of the cuts suffered since 2010 in terms of their impact. I have tried on many occasions to get actual figures to show budget reductions but its not that easy, to say the least. By my rough calculations, I believe the budget has been cut by approximately £10m in real terms between 2010 and now.

Year                                                                    2010         2017     Posts Axed        % Reduction
Fire Fighters                                                       378           252                  126                         33%
Emergency Control Staff                                    31              24                     7                          23%
Incident Command Officers/Management    64              36                  28                          44%
Non-uniformed Support Staff                         101               59                  42                          42%

I would say the budget we had in 2013-14 was one that was very tight, but did not impact on the service we provided. It forced us to work hard to reduce unnecessary expenditure and find cheaper ways of delivering the service without detracting from the service supplied to the public. But after 2014, the budget continued to be cut and the cuts have been made in the frontline service which has resulted in a downgraded service being provided to the public.

If the 2013 budget was uplifted by inflation, I would say it would be fit for purpose to run an adequate traditional fire and rescue service.
As a rough estimation, I would say approximately £5m should be reinvested back into the service now, with inflationary uplifts going forward. But without the exact budget figures to refer to, this can only be an estimate.”

The Surrey Fire Safety Plan 2016-2025 makes interesting reading.

The report linked below looks at fire fighters supporting the work of the ambulance services and getting to people with, say, heart attacks to support paramedics and save lives. Response times for the fire service can apparently be far quicker than for ambulances. One of the authors of the report, Professor Andy Newton, a former colleague of mine when I worked in the NHS, is a visionary, so I commend the report. The summary at Pages 7 and 8 is all you need to read to get the flavour.….pdf

It may well be that we need to get the funding back to 2013/4 levels with a real terms injection of cash; but the government has not given Surrey the funding it needs to make that injection. I would not wish to capitalise on the Grenfell tragedy, but surely government must look at a whole range of issues emerging from those dreadful events- and sufficient funding for Fire and Rescue Services must be one.

Observation suggests to me that the relationship between the leadership of the County Council and the Fire service has been less than cordial; I am not sure it is constructive. That worries me. I think we need more transparency and clearer performance targets for our fire and rescue service. It feels like there has been a relationship breakdown that urgently needs repairing.

Update! I just received this motion of no confidence from the FBU. I must have been psychic1

27th June 2017
Motion of No Confidence in Surrey’s County Council’s Fire Authority
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Surrey, are appalled at the budget cuts being forced upon Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) by Surrey County Council’s (SCC) Fire Authority (FA) and extremely concerned that the safety of the public and Fire Fighters will be subjected to a totally unacceptable level of risk.
Despite the FBU formally raising such concerns to the FA over several years, the FA appears resolute in imposing even more budget cuts on the service, without concern for the consequences of its actions.
Since 2010, SCC’s FA has imposed budget cuts on SFRS annually, which have so far resulted in;
2010          2017        Posts Axed       % Reduction

Fire Fighters                                                                                          378            252                     126                     33%
Emergency Control Staff                                                                       31               24                        7                      23%
Incident Command Officers/Management                                      64               36                      28                     44%
Non-uniformed Support Staff                                                            101               59                      42                     42%
Whole-time Fire Engines crew reduced from 5 to 4
A Fire Stations staffing establishment reduced from 26 to 20 Fire Fighters

No improvement on approximately 40% On Call Fire Fighter understaffing
Failing to meet the revised (slower than previous) Emergency Response Standard
Failing to meet both Whole-time and On Call Fire Engine availability targets
66% decrease in the number of Fire Protection audits carried out
Of all England’s FRS’s, Surrey already has the lowest number of staff per head count of population
SFRS’s FA has now set a 4 year budget plan which will result in another £10m in cuts. If these cuts are implemented, it will leave the public of Surrey, with nothing more than a false sense of security.
All this during a time when fire deaths are rising, Emergency Response Times are worsening and demands on SFRS are increasing.
The budget set by SCC’s FA for the next 4 years will result in a much greater degradation to service, enforce Fire Fighters and Emergency Control Staff to be made redundant, reduce Incident Command capability, replace Fire Engines with 2 seater vans (IRV’s), close some fire stations, reduce availability of crews at others and introduce yet another revised down Emergency Response Standard.
By enforcing all these cuts, the risk to the public and Fire Fighters will soar upwards to a totally unacceptable level.

The Professional Voice of Your Fire Fighters
Fire Brigades Union
South East Region
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hampshire,
Isle of Wight, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, West Sussex

FBU Surrey’s membership, therefore declares this Motion of No Confidence in Surrey County Councils Fire Authority and demands that the FA members either halt all planned cuts to SFRS, reinstates a fit for purpose budget in agreement with the FBU to restore an adequate level of safety for the public and Fire Fighters in Surrey or SCC relinquishes it governance of SFRS.
The SCC’s FA is in a race to the bottom, which we believe the people of Surrey would not want to compete in and it’s certainly not one Fire Fighters will tolerate.
FA members need to get their heads out of the financial spreadsheets and into the real world, where real people live or die as a result of ill thought out decisions.
Richard Jones, FBU Regional Secretary, South East Region
07769 249097
Lee Belsten, FBU Surrey, Brigade Secretary
07717 571726
Asif Aziz, FBU Surrey, Brigade Chair
07769 249098

The next chapter, later this week, will look at the Tandridge Local Plan and its implications. Please keep in touch.