Opinion Articles

Merging emergency services: is the Government wielding the axe on Britain’s fire and rescue service?

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The UK’s fire and rescue service faces fundamental changes to its independence and effectiveness through the Government’s proposals to merge it with the police. These proposed changes, published in a consultation paper titled ‘Enabling closer working between the emergency services’, hark back to the turn of the twentieth century when, for reasons of economy, many towns and cities were protected from fire by ‘police fire brigades’, in which police officers would perform fire-fighting work, either permanently or in addition to police duty, and placed under single command.

The Government’s plans involve re-establishing these links between the police and fire services. In the 1930s, 40% of all fire brigades across the country were still linked to police forces. The larger professional fire brigades – notably London, Birmingham, Leicester, Glasgow and Edinburgh – were independent of police control and were far more effective in providing a diverse range of humanitarian services in fire prevention as well as protection, whereas the police fire brigades, outside of a few well-run exceptions, did little else other than respond to fire alarms. These links were eventually broken, first, by the nationalisation of the service in May 1941 following the Blitz and, second, by the 1947 Fire Services Act, which statutorily abolished police fire brigades. This historic decision to formally separate both services was based on the consensus that a modern fire service was uniform, independent from police control, professional (especially in urban centres), and could be inexpensively run by local authorities. These principles have guided the service ever since in its move away from the police, especially in developing its integral role in fire prevention and educational work. Because of this, the current proposals pose a risk to the fire service’s reputation as a neutral and independent humanitarian service under the leadership of suitably trained and experienced officers.

Whilst ministers seek to reassure stakeholders that frontline services will continue to be separate, they have proposed to introduce a statutory responsibility on emergency services to work together to improve efficiency and effectiveness. The proposals outline the financial benefits of integration through savings in shared procurement, back office staffing, and management streamlining. Campaigners argue that spending cuts are driving this agenda. For example, the Leicestershire branch of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is campaigning to save Leicester’s historic Central Fire Station from closure, part of a county-wide plan to cut 160 firefighters and 11 fire engines. Leicester Central, opened in 1927, represents the core historic values of the professional fire service – independent, expert and geared towards fire prevention as well as protection. Similar campaigns are being run across the country.

The most controversial feature of the merger proposals will enable Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to take on the statutory responsibility for managing fire and rescue authorities. In areas where existing fire and rescue authorities decline to merge after consultation, a PCC can present a ‘business case’ to government to take on these responsibilities ‘where it is in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness or public safety.’ Unsurprisingly, PCCs support extending their powers in the run up to the 2016 elections.

The past experience of integrated police and fire services in the UK was patchy at best.  Police fire brigades generally suffered from under investment in staffing and equipment. In particular, senior officers had to seek the approval of the chief constable when seeking investment in new fire appliances or fire stations, which was rarely prioritised in a combined police and fire budget. History demonstrates that the proposal to make PCCs responsible for fire and rescue services needs rethinking. There are three main reasons for this.

  1. PCCs have faced criticism from both the Independent Police Commission (2013) and the Committee for Standards in Public Life (2014) for failing to safeguard democracy, represent diverse communities, or effectively manage policing since they were elected (on the lowest turnout in English history) in 2012. PCC panels have been criticised for being overly partisan, while there have been high-profile clashes between PCCs and chief constables over their jurisdictional responsibilities. Independent fire brigades were better managed and administered by direct channels of communication between staff, officers and local councillors. Independent fire brigade committees showed an interest and enthusiasm in their local brigades, but refrained from interfering in day-to-day operations.
  2. The single employer model proposes to do away with separate chief officers for the two services, which could result in a chief constable running a fire brigade, or even a chief fire officer overseeing the police. Historically, the independent brigades were run by specialists who gained experience through operational fire-fighting. Famous fire chiefs like James Braidwood (Edinburgh and London), Alfred Robert Tozer (Birmingham), and Henry Neal (Leicester) never worked beneath the supervision of chief constables who lacked the experience and knowledge of fire-fighting. The proposal to merge leadership roles threatens, as the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) recognises, both services’ autonomy as independent services. The proposals seek to break this historic link between leadership and experience, which acts as a disincentive for any rank-and-file firefighter with ambitions to pursue a leadership role.
  3. Both services have fundamentally different working cultures that inhibit any tidy integration. Since 1947, they have diverged significantly. Whereas firefighters once enjoyed certain benefits from being employed in police organisations – not least parity with the police in terms of pay and pensions – there is now a huge chasm between the two services. Whilst police officers lost their right to unionise and take industrial activity in 1919, following widespread strikes, the fire service remains a tightly-knit working community through the FBU, which represents the vast majority of the 50,000 firefighters across the country. Aside from playing an important role during periods of labour unrest (notably the 1977 and 2002 strikes), the FBU has played an integral role in transforming firefighters’ duties since the 1960s. It has, in particular, led the campaign for an increased role in fire prevention, through community outreach and educational work with schools and vulnerable communities. In recent decades, the service has further diversified its life-saving role, including attending road traffic accidents, flood control, tackling terrorism, and providing emergency medical treatment in collaboration with the ambulance service. The FBU highlights that: ‘the jobs and roles of firefighters and police are completely different. A firefighter’s role is to save life; a police officer’s job is to reduce crime.’ Both the FBU and the CFOA hold real concerns that greater integration with the police will materially diminish firefighters’ reputations amongst vulnerable and inner-city communities. This preventative work demands specialised knowledge, leadership and resources that the proposals do not currently guarantee.

The Government’s proposals, then, fail to take into account the significant changes that have taken place within the fire service since it was separated from the police. This is why it is dangerous to envisage returning to a pre-war patchwork model of provision.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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