I am delighted to be here today speaking at my first Local Government Association fire conference.
Today we have a lot to celebrate in our collective success in making our communities safer from fire. Fire fatalities are at their lowest level ever. Even the most cautious statistician would agree that the downward trends on fires, deaths and injuries are well-established.
Fire prevention is always better than cure. There are many people alive today who might not have been had we not implemented effective strategies, campaigns and activities over the past 20 years. Prevention must remain at the forefront of all fire and rescue authority activity. Prevention is the frontline for fire and rescue authorities. Prevention saves lives and resources. Prevention ensures our communities are safer places, less exposed to fire-related destruction and devastation.
Statistics tell us you are 4 times more likely to die in a fire if you do not have a working smoke alarm. That’s why the department continues to fund the Fire Kills campaign: designed and delivered in partnership with you, supported by business. The campaign’s national advertising begins on Monday, encouraging people to test their smoke alarm when they change their clocks. I urge you all to promote the department’s new hard hitting online video.
On your child’s life.
Protecting the most vulnerable through non-regulatory routes
I know that you will be asking me about my position on sprinklers. Let me be clear and save some time in the question and answer session. I support any and all fire safety measures. I know sprinklers save lives, as do smoke alarms, building regulations, fire safer cigarettes and the like.
The part sprinklers play in any fire safety strategy should be determined by the findings of the owner or occupier’s assessment of risk - not blanket regulation. Not all buildings carry the same level of risk. Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety must be able to make informed - and cost effective - decisions on how best to manage the risks in their particular buildings.
Some in the sector have chosen to interpret this position as a signal that the government are ‘against’ sprinklers. This is clearly nonsense and I want to put the record straight. Sprinklers work and we know it. They are an effective way of controlling fires, and of protecting lives and property. That is why they are required in certain higher-risk premises under the building regulations and why all guidance we make available to support compliance with the Fire Safety Order highlights sprinklers as an effective risk mitigation measure.
There are many good things we can collectively do to prevent fire deaths without the blunt tool of regulation, and it is these to which I now want to turn.
The department is continuing its efforts to tackle the most common causes of domestic fires and focus interventions on those most vulnerable to the risk of fire.
Statistics show that people aged 65 or over account for around 50% of all fire-related deaths. As most of you know, Home Fire Risk Check activity, implemented by fire and rescue authorities for many years now, has dramatically reduced accidental fire deaths. But, in these straitened times, we need to ensure that resources are utilised to maximum effect and focussed on the most vulnerable.
The Chief Fire Officers’ Association believes that data sharing is the key to ensuring that resources are effectively deployed to protect those who need them the most. To that end, it is exploring with the Department for Work and Pensions the feasibility of fire and rescue authorities accessing data for people of pensionable age and on benefits.
Having access to this kind of data would allow proactive Home Fire Risk Checks to be targeted at the most vulnerable in society, including those suffering from age related mental health conditions such as dementia, and their carers. I welcome this approach and my department stands ready to assist the Chief Fire Officers’ Association in a barrier-busting capacity.
We are also raising these issues with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that a targeted fire safety message is understood and can be delivered by healthcare professionals either directly, or in partnership with their local fire and rescue authorities.
Also worth a mention is the fact that the incidence of fires, deaths and injuries in commercial premises are falling significantly.
No business wants to experience a fire: the vast majority want to do all they can to minimise the risk. I firmly believe that businesses have the right to expect regulators to act in accordance with the principles of better regulation. I therefore welcome the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Chief Fire Officers’ Association pilots of the primary authority concept for the Fire Safety Order. Given that economic growth and business support is our shared number one priority, delivering business aspirations for better regulation is an important development area which should not be neglected by local leadership.
The settlement represents a fair funding deal for this fiscal climate. It protects the most grant dependent authorities; provides new opportunities for authorities to benefit from the rewards of growth; and supports authorities to drive through further service reforms and efficiencies. It will be for individual fire and rescue authorities to plan and decide how to make savings locally, in consultation with their local communities.
I accept that times are tough. Making the efficiencies needed in readiness for 2014 to 2015, will undoubtedly be a challenge for us all.
But you have already shown great skill in reducing your budgets, demonstrated real flexibility and openness to change and are working hard to find innovative ways to manage your spending.
Procurement is another area where there are opportunities for further efficiencies. To assist with this my department will shortly be working with the Chief Fire Officers’ Association to capture procurement data on fire specific equipment. This data can then be used by the sector to drive savings and to consider areas for future collaboration.
Fire efficiencies review
To offer further support on flexible planning for efficiencies, I commissioned Sir Ken Knight, to review the ways fire and rescue authorities can pinpoint savings and improvements without reducing service quality.
Sir Ken has free range to follow the evidence and he has been engaging closely with the Local Government Association, representative bodies and directly with fire authorities.
Ten years ago the Bain review provided a catalyst for change. My hope for Sir Ken’s report is that it can reflect on the journey the service has come on over the last decade and prompt us all to think of the big questions for the next decade - are we fit for purpose? what will the new challenges be? how can we best provide value to the communities we serve?
Retained duty system
Which brings me to the retained duty system - it represents not only a flexible and economic service, but one which helps bind communities together.
There is much good news about the retained across the country, 2 examples I have noted recently are:
- Cheshire where the number of retained pumps is actually increasing
- Hampshire where crew members have the opportunity to cover specific whole-time positions where the post holder is temporarily absent, for example due to maternity leave, or to undertake reservist duties
With calls falling, there is now a need to address whether more of your stations can now be crewed by retained, even in urban areas.
And to attract retained firefighters fire and rescue authorities need to check their polices and remove blanket discrimination which limits the pool from which candidates can be drawn.
Whilst I am talking about flexibility it is probably a good time for me to clarify the governments position on mutuals. I can confirm that it is not the government’s intention to roll out privatisation of the fire and rescue service and recent media attention characterising it as such is completely misleading.
We are considering these proposals in response to Cleveland Fire and Rescue Authority’s interest in extending into a locally-led mutual to help regenerate their community.
Our aim is to give fire and rescue authorities the flexibility to deliver their services in the best way for their communities, and support those who want to explore a mutual model.
Any measures would be optional. It would be wholly up to individual fire and rescue authorities as to whether they want to set up a mutual. The funding and accountability for the provision of such services would remain in the public sector; ultimately fire and rescue authorities are statutorily responsible for delivering this important public service.
Fire Service College
In contrast, as you can imagine, I was delighted to announce last month the completion of the sale of the Fire Service College to Capita.
As I said on the day, the sale is a hugely significant event which provides the college with the best possible chance to fully realise its huge potential.
By freeing the college from the constraints of government ownership, a private sector owner like Capita will have the freedom to generate new business and provide the innovation and capital investment which the college needs to secure its long-term future.
We have done all we can to secure the future of the college. You now have a crucial role to play in helping Capita realise its vision. A vision which includes a significant programme of infrastructure and transformation and plans to develop the college as a state of the art training facility for fire and multi agency incident command training. In addition Capita are keen to ensure that training courses deliver improved value for money, something I am sure will be warmly welcomed by fire and rescue authorities and their local tax payers.
Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser
This brings me to my final item. In my speech at the Chief Fire Officers’ Association annual conference last September I spoke of the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser post; of Sir Ken Knight’s decision, after 5 years and the Olympics behind us, to move on and of our decision to advertise for his successor.
In January I announced that Peter Holland would succeed Sir Ken as Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser. I am sure you will join me in welcoming Peter to the role.
I would also like to take this opportunity not only to place on record the government’s appreciation for the work Sir Ken has undertaken during his time as the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, but also my own thanks for the personal support he has shown me during my time as Minister for Fire.
Finally, please have a great conference. I look forward to meeting many of you again during the day, and look forward to hearing the results of your deliberations.