I would like to say how delighted I am to be invited to speak to this summit - an event that grows in importance every year.
I am particularly pleased that the summit brings together all parts of the fire industry - not only those who deliver the fire and rescue service at the sharp end, but all those who, often behind the scenes, do so much to ensure the buildings we live in and the products we use on a daily basis, are safe.
A success story
And in terms of fires you should all congratulate yourselves on a considerable success story. In England, fire fatalities and non-fatal casualties fell by 34% and 54% respectively between 2001 to 2002 and 2011 to 2012, and the average area of fire damage fell by 20% in dwellings and around 10% in other buildings during the same period. Last year, total fires fell by 6% to 227,000. I very much hope that these trends continue way into the future.
As part of government’s commitment to maintaining a high profile focus on prevention activity, the Fire Kills campaign is currently running its hugely successful national advertising campaign. As with last year, we are encouraging everyone to test their smoke alarms when they change their clocks this weekend as you are four times more likely to die in a fire if you do not have a working smoke alarm. I would ask that in order to extend the reach and breadth of the campaign, you use your own websites to disseminate this important message. By working together we have the opportunity to really drive home the importance of fire safe behaviour and maintain the downward trend on fire deaths.
The interaction between the fire industry and fire and rescue is a complex one - and for that reason I am delighted that the Fire Sector Federation is playing an increasingly important role in pulling all parts of the fire industry together, into a forum where ideas and knowledge can be exchanged. And I would particularly like to thank Brian Robinson, the Chairman of the Federation, for his hard work and perseverance in bringing the Federation to life.
The importance of co-operation
Growth is a top priority for this government. Supporting business growth for both new and existing companies is fundamental to our approach. And encouraging the creation of new businesses and sectors is crucial to this country’s future. These new businesses will help to create the necessary wealth and growth, and much needed jobs. But we need also to ensure that both new and existing businesses are strong and resilient, including safeguarding and protecting them from the devastating effects of a fire.
All of you here today will know a fire can result in a business loss both in terms of its employees, its contribution to the local economy, and ability to recover and trade again in the aftermath of an incident.
I urge the fire sector to go out and proactively engage with representative bodies for industry and commerce and make the case for effective and proportionate fire protection - passive and active interventions - in all areas of business in England.
The industry also has a vitally important role to play in ensuring that we make the best use of innovative technology. You will know better than me the scope for technology to improve resilience to fire - but one area where more can be done is in limiting the number of false alarms. Last year there were 249,000 fire false alarms.
London Fire Brigade says that despite a reduction of 23% in false alarms in the last 5 years, a fire engine is still called to a false alarm every 12 minutes in the capital, costing an estimated 34 million every year. More importantly, these unnecessary calls impact on the Brigade’s ability to attend real incidents, deliver training and carry out vital community safety work.
I believe that technology can address this issue. To that end I have asked Brian Robinson to see what the industry itself can do to drive down false alarms through improved technology. Brian has asked a Fire Sector Federation working group under Martin Harvey to look into this issue - and I very much look forward to hearing their findings.
Another area where I see significant improvement is in relation to workforce development in fire and rescue services. Here collaborative working between the Sector Skills Council - Skills for Fire and Rescue, and the Chief Fire Officers Association amongst others - is starting to produce tangible results, especially in the risk critical areas of intervention activity. Such work helps underpin integrated risk management plans, interoperability, national resilience and common working. Much energy is being devoted to this work. I would like to thank Max Hood, the chair of the National Occupational Committee for his efforts in leading this work.
I know that many of you have an interest in public procurement and accessing new markets. This is an area where government is keen to help. As you may know, the government has put in place the Contracts Finder website, aimed at making it easier for suppliers to find and apply for public sector contracts. It is the main source of government opportunities worth more than £10,000.
My department has already approached certain fire and rescue authorities to help populate pipelines and is very grateful for the assistance given to date. We are now asking all fire and rescue authorities for help to get as much information on future procurements in the pipeline - this should not be difficult as fire and rescue authorities should already be publishing this information existing contracts and tenders under the local government transparency code. The information on future procurements will help strengthen the UK supply chain by identifying current gaps between supply and demand and giving industry the confidence to invest for the future.
The government is also committed to devolving power away from Whitehall so that fire and rescue authorities can decide how they can deliver services in a way that best meets their communities’ needs. I hope that the fire sector can join together to develop new ways of working and further innovation that can stimulate growth for all.
I want to speak a little about youth employment. In response to the challenge of youth unemployment, year the Deputy Prime Minister has launched a £1 billion Youth Contract to help unemployed people get a job. The Youth Contract will provide a number of new opportunities for young people, including apprenticeships and work experience placements. Many of you will be aware of the The Prince’s Trust Fire Industry Scheme, and some have supported it. I wish to thank you for that, and encourage others to get involved if they can.
I know a number of fire and rescue authorities have started training apprentices. I was particularly impressed to hear that in Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service 12 young people have started a community safety apprenticeship.
The apprentices are young people who have already had some contact with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, for example through the Prince’s Trust courses, cadets and Fire Fly following a targeted recruitment campaign.
To support them through the application process, they put on a 10-day pre-recruitment course - run by Salford City College - to give candidates an understanding of working with people in the communities they would serve, as well as meeting a community safety adviser who is already in the job, so they know exactly what the role entails.
I would like to commend Greater Manchester for this valuable initiative, and wish the new entrants every possible success in their apprenticeship, and future careers.
Retained duty system firefighters
And finally, the one area where industry and the fire and rescue service co-operate on a daily, if not hourly, basis is in the retained duty system. There is no doubt that the retained duty system is the backbone of the fire and rescue response in large swathes of the United Kingdom. We must, as leaders in the fire sector, wherever possible, bring to people’s attention the valuable work done by retained duty firefighters, and encourage employers and members of the public to offer their services to this essential service.