Friday, 3 June 2016

Why our Fire Service needs to stay just where it is

The Home Secretary Theresa May is looking at making changes to the way fire services in the country are run and managed.

She’s asking Police and Crime Commissioners to look at the business case of bringing them under the direct control of the Police and Crime Commissioner.

At the moment fire and rescue services exist in two forms in the UK - they’re either their own independent fire authorities (like East Sussex) or they are joined with the county council like ours is in West Sussex.

Anyone who attended full council on Friday, or who has watched the meeting online since, will have seen something a little bit unusual happen in the council chamber.

We have 71 Councillors elected to represent the views of West Sussex’s 800,000+ population. We’ve got Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Labour and Independent party politicians that come together to form our Council.

We may – and quite often do! -  have different views on how or why things should be done or not, which gives for some lively debate at times. But just sometimes we all agree because we all feel strongly about what is right for our communities. And this is exactly what happened on Friday (you can watch it here if you want to see it).

The issue that united all political colours on Friday was this bid by the Home Secretary to look at reforming our fire service.

Because, in our opinion, it’s absolutely fine as it is.

Over recent years we have integrated our fire and rescue into the County Council and we have led the field in developing a very different and successful approach to how we do things.

Our firefighters and all the staff that make up our fire service work shoulder to shoulder with all our other council services.

They do this at the same time as undertaking considerable preventative work, particularly with our vulnerable residents. Last year alone 6,516 home safety visits were undertaken by the service. This means that nearly 7,000 people are living in safer homes and have a plan for how to escape should the worst happen and a fire break out in their home. The team fitted 4,000 smoke alarms and 3,749 community fire links – these are radio-linked smoke alarms for vulnerable residents which link to existing 'Careline' or 'Lifeline' monitoring centres.

Our FireBreak programme puts some of the most vulnerable and troubled youngsters in our county through a special training course that encourages them to become positive role models among their peers and within their communities.

This innovative scheme is run by West Sussex firefighters in partnership with County Council colleagues from Targeted Youth Support. Last year 128 youngsters took part.

The ceremony that marks the end of the course is so heart-warming to watch. These youngsters learn and achieve so much.

Cast your minds back to June 2012 when we suffered some of the worst flooding in history. Our fire and rescue teams were busy responding to the huge amount of emergency calls and, since then, they have been working with local communities to make them more flood resilient. 

But our fire service isn’t just about putting out fires. We help make communities stronger and we help make them safer. For us, this is a natural evolution of a service that responds to what our residents need and want but that doesn't stop up being incredibly proud to have been recognised nationally for this work.

Our fire service is about so much more than responding to a 999 call.

All this preventative work is immensely valuable in so many ways to our communities, so of course I am really concerned that this work which we have developed, to help our communities, could be put at risk by these reforms. We achieve what we achieve because we have worked hard to make the fire service an intrinsic part of county council business, wired into all that the County Council does.

There is talk of the potential savings if this reform was to happen and that’s a valid point to consider.

But we’ve already achieved significant savings across the board. Our fire service share what is known as back office functions - payroll, HR, legal services etc with the County Council already so we’re stamping out duplication and unnecessary costs. Our fire service control centre is shared with East Sussex and, over the years, the Fire and Rescue Service have joined in with procurement, purchasing consortia, with other authorities to ensure some very good deals. Of course we can always improve but we have so much good collaborative working and that is what we should be building on.

Last year the Shoreham tragedy tested our resilience to the limit, there was terrific working with the Police and other Fire and Rescue Authorities helped either with dealing with the incident or helping us provide backup cover to our residents so it just shows what can be done.

Over the coming months residents will hear more on these possible changes and in July there will be another debate at Full Council.

I have invited Theresa May to visit us and see for herself the set-up we have in West Sussex. Our communities don’t need a reformed fire service. They need an integrated fire service that is committed to helping them become stronger and more resilient.

I am immensely proud of the work that our Fire and Rescue Service does 24/7, 365 days a year, working for West Sussex communities. Whether it’s in an emergency situation or not, they are always there serving our residents of West Sussex.

So we will be making our case loudly for our excellent fire service to stay just as it is and I hope that you join us.

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