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A Snapshot of Fire and Rescue Services Reform in Europe

Commentary, 7 June 2013
Resilience, Europe
European governments are findings ways to 'do more with less' and Fire Services are increasingly the focus of their efficiency drives. A review of English Services follows from reforms initiated on the continent and North of the Border.

European governments are findings ways to 'do more with less' and Fire Services are increasingly the focus of their efficiency drives.  A review of English Services follows from reforms initiated on the continent and North of the Border.

Fire brigade

Sir Ken Knight's review of efficiencies and operations in fire and rescue authorities in England signals that fire service reform may be on the Coalition government's austerity agenda.  The report claims that savings of £196 million a year are possible.  A headline-grabbing figure that Sir Knight uses to justify his findings is that in the last decade, whilst expenditure and firefighter numbers have remained the same, incidents have declined by 40 per cent.  In Sir Ken's view, this suggests that 'Fire and rescue authorities [are] spending to their budget not to their risk'.  In response the Fire Service Union has argued that the review is a fig-leaf for frontline service cuts.  The debate hinges on the interpretation on available fire statistics and an examination of the roles that fire and rescue services undertake in the modern era.

 

In some respects the government has arrived late on the scene in examining the fire and rescue services' changing role and the threat fire poses. Sir Ken 's appraisal follows not only other reviews but also implementation of reform across Europe post-2008, including in Scotland where fire and rescue service amalgamation is a key pillar of the devolved administration's 'Safer Scotland' agenda. 

Moreover, English fire and rescue services are already changing.  In response to cuts, between 2007-12 there was a 7.8 per cent reduction in whole time fire staff and a 4.6 per cent reduction overall in the number of personnel.  And Local Government Association research suggests more pain is coming.  But Sir Ken's report suggests that it is service models and mentalities that need to change.  To that end it is worth exploring the characteristics of European neighbours' fire and rescue service provision and analyse if their reforms offer insights for the England case.

The European Landscape  

European fire and rescue services are locally accountable, often staffed with a significant volunteer component: 98 per cent of Germany's 900,000 firefighters are volunteers, as are 80 per cent of Portugal's. European volunteer fire and rescue models are at the heart of community life, particularly in rural areas. Even in centralised European states - where firefighters are more often full-time professionals - communities matter because notions of safety and civic pride are attached to hosting fire stations and staff are usually local.   

The place of fire and rescue services in community life is one reason why the footprint of stations and number of staff has changed little across Europe.  German or Austrian volunteers' fondness for their station (and social hub) makes rational closures unpalatable for local politicians (and this pattern is not restricted to volunteer model countries).  Yet some argue that uncritically maintaining services can have a detrimental effect as Sir Ken's report notes:

"Unconditional attachment to the fire and rescue service can be constraints on...pursuing the most effective ways of working [and] changing service delivery to improve overall outcomes"

European fire statistics suggests that there have been a steady reduction in the number of fires and casualties over the last twenty years throughout the continent. As World Fire Statistics show the numbers of fires and casualties across Europe are falling at different rates and the reasons for this are not sufficiently understood.  Difference in how European countries collect data compound the difficulty of unravelling the reasons behind falls in fire incidents.  Nonetheless it is widely accepted that as well as fire services' excellent response to incidents, tougher building standards, better furniture design and the uptake of alarms (all measures supported by firefighters' campaigns) are part of the success story of the reduced threat fires pose.

Yet falling incident numbers coupled with static staffing levels belies a new development in fire service provision.  Services have both broadened and deepened.  UK fire and rescue services have been at the forefront of increasing their role in fire prevention.  Other European services have also increasingly recognised their services' contribution to wider public safety outcomes through outreach activities to vulnerable groups like the elderly. 

Those rejecting Sir Ken's analysis point to fire and rescue services' role in tackle complex emergencies in modern society, including terrorism and natural hazards.  Since 2001, UK fire services have made an important contribution to planning for major civil emergencies, including potential terrorist attacks through the New Dimensions programme.  European fire and rescue services often lead in the design of national responses to major incidents such as CBRN incidents.

Reform in European Fire and  Rescue Services

European governments are undertaking a number of dimensions of service reform with the shift upwards from local accountability a common theme.  Reform in Europe can be characterised as points on a spectrum: from national amalgamation in Scotland through regionalisation in the Netherlands to integration of different types of emergency service in German Länder like Hamburg.

Scotland is pursuing a transformative and rapid reform agenda programme conceived following the election of the Scottish National Party to government in Holyrood in 2010. The reforms merge the eight Scottish regional services into one national service operational from 1 April 2013.  This 'big bang' amalgamation of Scottish fire and rescue is taking place in tandem with the merging of Scottish police services.  Sir Ken's stated aim to promote collaboration echoes the ambition of this reorganisation: to centralise much of the existing 'back office' functions e.g., administration, some non-operational work and procurement whilst protecting the front line fire-fighting function and equalising quality of service. 

Another place offering lessons to the English context may be the Netherlands.  It phased reform incrementally as part of the wider Safety Regions agenda. The Dutch government is approximately three years into the implementation of the Safety Regions Act (Wet Veiligheidsregio's) which transfers all service related duties from the municipal level (there are over 400 municipalities) to the twenty-five safety regions.  Dutch policy documents outline the goal of achieving a service which is both cheaper and better, but accept that change will occur over a longer period.

Reform in other European countries is patchier.  A comparison of two German Länder, Lower Saxony and Hamburg illustrate that the pace of reform varies within countries as well as between them.  Reform in Lower Saxony is non-existent. The volunteer nature of the service and local accountability and funding models limits Länder policymakers' powers. Moreover the Federal Government has little constitutional authority outside of national emergency response.   

Hamburg however has taken a lead in working with the private sector to ensure complimentary capabilities and in increasing the interoperability of its fire and ambulance services.  Firefighter recruits are fully trained to use and be deployed as paramedics and ambulance staff are trained to respond to certain types of fire incidents.  Improving interoperability and joint working has been a cornerstone of Hamburg's FRS reform programme and a model that others are beginning to emulate. 

 Lessons from Reform Agenda

A review of reform programmes suggests the following factors are enablers to reform:

The Importance of Data and Audit

It is notable that reform has been undertaken in states with high standards of data on service performance.  Data is required to inform business change, understand outcomes and build financial cases. Both Scotland and the Netherlands have built their reform programmes' parameters from the data available.  Audit functions such as the Scottish Fire Inspectorate's reports have also highlighted strategic issues in the eight forces which the unified, national force can now deal with.  The use of fire and rescue service statistics in Sir Ken's report at least provides a step in the right direction in providing an evidence base to support future service development. 

Financial Necessity

The bottom line of public spending is an important driver of reform.  There is no doubt that the extent of reform in Scotland reflects pressure to respond to 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review and that the government of the Netherlands has a similar financial imperative.  However, financial necessity must be balanced with a consideration of quality of service and greater equality of outcome.

Wider Emergency Services Reform Agendas

In both Scotland and the Netherlands, fire and service reform has been coupled with police reform.  In Scotland change in each service has been in lock-step whereas in the Netherlands, the police reform agenda is more mature.  Hamburg has focussed on improving the interoperability of all its emergency services at the city state level. 

Political Momentum and Leadership

The reorganisation of fire and rescue services in Scotland and the Netherlands have required political momentum, or at least a conducive political climate.  The move from a regional to national model of service provision in Scotland has occurred under the auspices of a popular nationalist government for whom a national service makes political sense. In the Netherlands, key national figures in reform have experience of emergency services oversight at local  level and are therefore trusted by the public and local leaders.  In the German case, there is no political incentive or constitutional basis for the Länder to centralise services but greater interoperability is an option. 

European governments are using the current fiscal climate and harnessing political will to change the structure and accountability of fire and rescue services. Moreover fire and rescue services themselves are (like Hamburg) demonstrating an ability to reform and change mentalities and models.  Further investigation and analysis of England's neighbours' efforts to reform, including England's neighbour north of the Border, will yield dividends in understanding both obstacles and enablers to high quality and less costly fire and rescue provision.

*Photo courtesy of the London Fire Brigade

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