House of Commons Select Committee – 09 September 2013

On Monday of this week there was another 'evidence session' regarding the Knight Review of Fire and Rescue Service (Facing the Future). Previously back in July, Sir Ken Knight was called as a witness by the committee to discuss his report.

This time the witnesses consisted of CFO Darran Gunter, (Dorset), CFO Steve McGuirk, (Gtr Manchester), London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson, Matt Wrack, (FBU), Councillor Kay Hammond, (LGA) and CFOA Vice-President Paul Fuller.

The session, which lasted 2 hours, covered a number of topics that were contained within the Knight review and a brief summary is enclosed for your information.

  • Mr McGuirk stated that the amount of time available for On-Call firefighters to achieve and maintain competence posed some 'real challenges'
  • Mr Gunter said the availability of On-Call firefighters can have a detrimental effect on resilience
  • There was a general acceptance by the witnesses that it was inevitable that some FRS would merge in the future
  • On-Call staff are not as cost-effective as they used to be and in some cases are more expensive than Wholetime
  • Greater amalgamation with other 'blue-light' services was seen as a viable means of realising additional budgetary savings
  • In the future community fire safety work would need to be undertaken by volunteers rather than operational staff and that this was already happening in some FRS
  • Expanding the use of On-Call staff will increase response times and therefore increase risk
  • The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) has offered to undertake a piece of work to identify the duties within the operational role that can be completed by someone of the age of 55+
  • Questions were also raised as to whether the service should return to having an Inspectorate to scrutinise FRAs.

From the RFU's perspective, it was disappointing that there were not more positive comments made regarding On-Call personnel relating to their effectiveness, flexibility, commitment and dedication. Again we have to question: a) what services are actually doing to resolve the issue of recruitment and retention in the On-Call system; b) are they arguing against statistical evidence which shows fire deaths are happily reducing year on year?; c) time spent on operational activity is now less than 7% d) the years of prevention and educating on the dangers of fires are somehow worthless and of no benefit at all. We must never forget however that the Chiefs of today were the firefighters of yesterday and that perhaps for some, old habits and prejudices never really fade away.

As time progresses it becomes more and more evident that the RFU is the only organisation totally committed to the interests of On-Call personnel.

You can draw your own conclusions by watching the evidence here.

However, there are a number of FRS who are extremely pro On-Call; Essex, Devon & Somerset and Mid & West Wales to name only three. It is hoped that these and similar FRS will be used as the blueprint for how FRS could be in the future.

On a more positive note – our visit to Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service
The RFU has a well established positive relationship with Devon and Somerset FRS and on Monday 9th September at the invitation of DSFRA Chair Mark Healey I attended a meeting of the Members' Forum. It is always a pleasure to be able to engage positively with those who have responsibility for the provision of fire and rescue services and this meeting was no exception.
I can only say that the welcome I received was warm and friendly and I took the opportunity through open discussion to enlighten those present of what the RFU is all about and restate its values and commitment to the communities our members serve, especially at a time of potential industrial unrest.
I can assure our members that the RFU’s unique No Strike stance and openness to a mature working relationship between ourselves and elected members was very well received. I honestly believe that being part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem is always the better option. The response from those present was clear; the contribution of the RFU and On-Call firefighters in D&SFRS is appreciated and valued and in no way viewed as a second class service.
Sir Ken Knight had also been invited to give a presentation on his work on the recently published efficiencies review and given that the RFU had contributed to the review, it was valuable to be able to sit on the sidelines and listen to Sir Ken speak about the review team’s findings and listen to comments from members present.
What this event showed quite clearly is that in testing times, services are having to come to grips with weighty challenges about the shape of the fire and rescue service in the future, it is only by engaging positively and working together where possible, creating the vital level of understanding that some of these challenges will be met.

John Barton

National General Secretary


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