Policy Papers

‘Our fire and rescue service’: a local, regional or national responsibility?

Shane Ewen |

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Executive Summary

  • The current political debate concerning the local, regional and national status of the fire service has many parallels with similar debates during the late 1930s and early 1940s. These culminated in the nationalization of the service in 1941, radically altering the structure and powers of local fire authorities.
  • The current proposals claim to strengthen existing powers, modernize administrative and operational practices, and stabilize the officer structure. But comparison with the 1940s suggests that this may not work out as intended.
  • The renewed proposal to reorganize the Fire Service on a regional basis is likely to result in a complex, multi-layered structure with blurred division of responsibilities. This is precisely why regionalization was abandoned in 1947.
  • While on paper regionalization can be also presented as a way of saving on personnel, in practice even regional control rooms will still need staff with detailed local knowledge.
  • Moreover, attempts to rationalize the officer structure are only likely to lead to demotions, redundancies and widespread dissatisfaction within the service.
  • Especially in the light of historical experience, it is not clear why today's new needs cannot be met by reformed local fire authorities.
  • At the very least, the smooth running of the fire service during any process of reform requires that it be evolutionary, carefully-planned and inclusive of the suggestions of professional stakeholders.


History can deepen contemporary policy debate, and it demonstrates that questions over the local, regional and national status of the fire service are not new. It also reveals that the fire service has already undergone comprehensive reform during periods when national security has been threatened. Indeed, amidst heightened concern about terrorism, the service is currently undergoing reform that will radically alter its structure and powers, particularly as a result of proposed regional fire and rescue authorities. Regional fire protection is not a new concept: reforms between 1938 and 1941 involved the regional co-ordination of existing resources and the creation of national standards of cover. This paper will contrast these earlier reforms with current proposals by examining the strengths and weaknesses of regionalization and focusing on the historical lessons for this aspect of the Labour government's new strategy.

Fire protection before 1939

Before the mid-1930s there was virtually no national political debate about the status of the fire service. Organized fire protection was a purely local responsibility left to the discretion of local authorities, private enterprise (especially the fire insurance companies) and volunteers. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade, originating in 1865, was Britain's sole mandatory fire brigade. Moreover, there was no exchequer funding for provincial fire protection, while very few minimum standards had been prescribed, with the exception of those concerning water supplies for extinguishing fires, the fire-fighter's right to force entry into a burning property, and the provision of pensions to a certain class of fire-fighter. Of those local authorities that undertook responsibility for fire protection, a great proportion (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield, Portsmouth, etc.) simply made their police forces responsible for fire-fighting to save money.

Sustained pressure during the 1920s and early 1930s from local authorities, professional associations and certain politicians and civil servants culminated in the establishment of the Riverdale Committee on Fire Brigade Services in 1935. Riverdale's report was published the following year, in which it recommended the overhaul of the existing ad hoc system of fire protection in favour of a uniform organisation in readiness for a future aerial war. During the First World War there had been limited aerial bombing of London and provincial towns, which had led to the creation, in 1917, of area schemes whereby local brigades would provide assistance during heavy air-raids. Although this move had been made too late to affect the home front, the principle of mutual assistance remained popular within the Home Office after the war, with attempts made to establish peacetime co-ordination agreements in parts of the country. Moreover, the development of air-raid precautions from the early 1920s, particularly as military technology became more advanced, served as a warning that the existing system of approximately 1,450 fire brigades, many of which were equipped with obsolescent appliances, notably manual or steam engines, and manned by unpaid fire-fighters with little training, was wholly inadequate to deal with the threat posed by incendiary bombing.

The Fire Brigades Act, 1938, sought to address some of these problems. Firstly, fire protection was made compulsory for every local authority. Secondly, a Fire Service Commission was appointed to review the provision of fire cover in the country. Britain was soon divided into twelve regions under the command of Chief Regional Fire Officers to co-ordinate resources, including manpower and appliances. However, no exchequer grant was provided, nor were the existing brigades reduced to a more manageable number. The act also failed to abolish the police brigades despite criticism that they could not devote their whole time to fire prevention. The effectiveness of the 1938 Act in improving peacetime services was never ascertained, yet its wartime effectiveness was soon tested, and found wanting, with the declaration of war in 1939.

Furthermore, in 1937 local authorities had been compelled to recruit and train a volunteer body of auxiliaries to supplement existing manpower, which culminated in the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) in September 1939 comprised initially of 89,000 men and 6,000 women. This was an enormous change to the existing service, which comprised less than 5,000 professional fire-fighters and approximately 50,000 volunteers or retained fire-fighters, and caused tension between the professional and auxiliary fire-fighters, especially over the latter's lower standards of training. The Civil Defence Act of 1939 gave local authorities additional wartime responsibilities for the provision of air-raid shelters, first aid, and repair of bomb-damaged houses. Fire-fighters, like the police, were prevented from retiring for the duration of hostilities. The Home Office was confident that the reformed service would provide adequate protection against the impending incendiary attacks.

The Blitz and the nationalization of the fire service

In August 1940, one year after the declaration of war, German air-raids began on oil installations at Pembroke Dock and Thameshaven. London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights between 7 September and 2 November by an average of 200 bombers every night, and also heavily bombed during December 1940, and April and May 1941. In November 1940 the main ports and engineering cities were targeted. Coventry, for example, was bombed by 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons of high explosives on 14-15 November, while other cities, notably Hull and Plymouth, were raided during 1941. Reinforcement schemes were co-ordinated by the Regional Commissioners, although these were hampered by differences in organization, equipment and, especially, service command. In Coventry and Birmingham, AFS crew complained of being left to combat dangerous blazes without support from the professional cadre. Water supplies and telephone lines were cut. Transport links were blocked by falling debris. Many fires were left completely unattended.

Criticism was levelled at the government for providing insufficient leadership during 1940 and early 1941. In fact, the only action taken by the Home Office was to send inspectors to provincial cities to report on bomb-damage, and to distribute a series of memoranda to local authorities encouraging careful preparations to combat incendiary fires. The absence of a direct chain of command between the Home Office and the 1,450 brigades further undermined resource co-ordination. Pressure from several senior officers in the London Region about the inadequate level of protection in provincial cities culminated in the appointment of the Labour MP Herbert Morrison as Home Secretary in October 1940. Formerly leader of the London County Council, Morrison was sympathetic to the demands for greater government control of the service. Negotiations, however, lagged, and it took the heavy raids of April 1941 to force Morrison to propose nationalization to the War Cabinet, which duly ratified the scheme on 8 May. During parliament's debate of the Fire Service (Emergency Provisions) Bill, Morrison insisted that there was a clear difference between peacetime and wartime fire protection, stating that 'fire-fighting, in substance, had become a military operation, and, certainly for the period of the war, had ceased to be a municipal one.'

It took just thirteen weeks to nationalize the fire service. Even the Treasury, notoriously resistant to allowing exchequer support for fire protection, agreed to fund all emergency costs as well as a quarter of each brigade's peacetime costs. Yet, like so much public policy towards fire protection before, during and after the war, nationalization was a knee-jerk reaction to fire disasters. Furthermore, although it was national in name, in practice the National Fire Service (NFS) was a regional structure. Britain was divided into 39 Fire Forces, each commanded by a Fire Force Commander; each Fire Force was divided into separate divisions and further sub-divided into 'Columns' and, finally, 'Companies'. The Fire Force Commanders were responsible to Chief Regional Fire Officers, who exercised extensive powers over the deployment of manpower and equipment within their boundaries. There were between 2 and 4 Fire Forces in each region. The best officers were stationed in those areas deemed of the highest importance, which meant many existing officers were relocated, demoted or pensioned off. Furthermore, the AFS was incorporated into the NFS, which went some way to ending the animosity between the auxiliary and professional fire-fighters, and abolished the police brigades. The only brigades which remained outside the NFS were the hundreds of works brigades that protected industrial premises and were funded by their parent companies (many of which had rendered valuable assistance during the air-raids of 1940-41, especially in the West Midlands).

In fact the relative rapidity of nationalization, when it came, was only possible because of the series of preceding piecemeal reforms of 1937-40. The establishment of the Fire Service Inspectorate in 1937, and the formation of the Regional Commissioners in 1938 helped to lay the groundwork for nationalization by centralizing responsibility for fire policy, dividing the country into manageable regions, and inspecting local standards. Moreover, the Home Office had been involved in the procurement of appliances, especially pumping and ancillary equipment, and the improvement of water supplies as well as the standardization of hydrants, since 1938, and had ordered local authorities to draw up risk-assessment plans (as they are now known) in order to allocate resources. Evidently, the Home Office had also learned from the delays in establishing mutual assistance schemes during the First World War by creating 12 special area schemes in 1939 under emergency powers. The creation of a separate Fire Brigade ('K') Department within the Home Office (previously the fire service had been the administrative responsibility of the Police Department) and the hiring of a Fire Adviser to the Home Secretary were the final 'preparatory' steps.

Owing to the threat to national security, Morrison only gave 'K' Department three months to make the transition from local to national footing, during which time the constitution and organization of the NFS was formalized. By the autumn of 1941 the NFS was fully operational, with 'K' Department issuing instructions and conducting inspections on a frequent basis to co-ordinate service delivery. This transition, however, was undertaken during a period of virtual inactivity by the Luftwaffe. Indeed, the NFS never faced air-raids to the extent of those experienced in 1940-41, although the Tip-and-Run and Baedecker raids and the 'Little Blitz' all challenged the new structure. In fact the performance of the structure was far from a glowing success, largely owing to its multiplicity of tiers. Disputes between the 'K' Department, Regional Commissioners and some Fire Force Commanders over the powers of setting conditions of service, the mobilization of appliances and other operational procedures such as procurement led to friction at the higher levels. At the operational level, Column and Company Officers argued over who was responsible for directing fire fighters during incidents, while Divisional Officers clashed with Fire Force Commanders and their assistants when implementing policy.

Morrison always stated that nationalization would be a temporary measure and that fire protection would be returned to local control after the war. This was because local government still retained power and influence over national policy. From 1943 discussions began concerning the post-war status of the service. There were suggestions that the service should remain a national responsibility, especially as the Labour Party promised to nationalize health and public utilities, although this was resisted by Morrison and his successor, Chuter Ede, because of the animosity it would generate within local government. It was eventually decided that the service would be returned to local control, yet with some important reforms. Under the Fire Services Act of 1947 fire protection became the responsibility of the county boroughs and county councils, which drastically reduced the number of peacetime brigades to 135. Moreover, the Home Secretary was given power to fix national standards (under section 19). A Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, consisting of the main professional and governmental organizations, was also formed to advise the Home Secretary on national policy.

New Labour and reform of the fire service

Since the 1947 Act there has been little reform to the service despite frequent complaints that it needs structural and financial reorganization. Local authorities have struggled to maintain the high standards set by the NFS after 1947. The exchequer grant only covered a quarter of local expenditure, and many authorities responded to this by arguing that fire defence was a national responsibility that should be supported equally by taxpayers and local ratepayers. Recommendations for reform from departmental inquiries were shelved during the 1970s and 1980s. Even during the 1990s, two independent reports on the cost-effectiveness of the service were not acted upon. The service remained the responsibility of the Home Office until 2001 when it was transferred to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (now disbanded) and, since May 2002, has been the responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). This has created confusion and consternation amongst certain sections of the profession. In stark contrast to the period of reform of 1938-47, for the past two decades the fire service has been in a state of inertia. Coupled with this, the ODPM has recently sent mixed messages to the fire service community by advocating the empowerment of local communities to have more say over local fire protection (by rescinding section 19 of the 1947 Act), while, in response to the national fire-fighters' strike in 2002, giving the Minister of State power to fix or modify the conditions of service of fire-fighters and to direct fire authorities in the use of property.

The British fire service is currently undergoing reform that will radically alter its structure, powers and responsibilities. The proposals, published in a White Paper in 2003 entitled Our Fire and Rescue Service, are based on the recommendations of the Independent Review of the Fire Service (popularly known as the Bain Report), published in December 2002 during the second national strike. Alongside the government's drive towards regional assemblies, regional fire and rescue authorities will be created and managed by regional management boards. The Fire and Rescue Service Bill also proposes to abandon national standards of fire cover and empower fire authorities to identify their own risks locally. Moreover, an emphasis is placed on 'community fire safety', with authorities expected to refocus their resources on fire prevention as well as protection. This, it is envisaged, will free up further resources to concentrate on fires in 'high' risk areas, environmental challenges posed by fire and flood, and the growing threat of terrorism. To reflect the diverse responsibilities of the twenty-first century fire service, it will be renamed the Fire and Rescue Service.

The current ODPM proposals would undoubtedly create a more complex, bureaucratic, multi-layered structure than currently exists, with worrying similarities to the NFS structure of World War II. The proposals involve a three-tier structure, with the ODPM setting national policy under its new National Framework, regional management boards co-ordinating resource deployment and, when (or if) elected regional assemblies are established, regional fire authorities replacing existing county authorities for service delivery. As noted, one of the weaknesses of the NFS after 1941 was the blurring of responsibilities between the various tiers created. Clearly the service needs strong leadership to ensure the successful implementation and management of reform. There were perhaps understandable reasons why this was not achieved by the NFS under the pressures of wartime haste, but the Labour government today does not have this excuse and appears to be intent on repeating these mistakes at its leisure.

The ODPM needs to demonstrate how the proposed regional authorities will be different from and, more effective than, local authorities. Many of the procedures currently governing the local authorities will simply continue, including inspection by the Audit Commission, the pattern of financial arrangements (the service is jointly funded by an exchequer grant and local taxation), and the adherence to Best Value Practice. The additional layer of bureaucracy represented by regional authorities contradicts government policy advocating the empowerment of local communities, and fails to address how it will produce freedom and flexibility within service delivery. While the NFS was quickly established due to the suspension of normal party politics during the war, a resurgent Conservative opposition has warned that reform could vest the Secretary of State with powers to 'change local authority arrangements at will', and the Labour government's proposals will face stiff opposition during a likely third term.

The 2003 White Paper notes that existing arrangements for managing the service are 'confused and inefficient.' However, history informs us that alleged weaknesses in administrative management are not new. Councillors were criticized for their parsimonious attitude towards investment before the NFS was formed. Indeed, this was one of the chief reasons why, when the service was returned to local control in 1947, it was limited to county borough and county council control. Accusations of the decline in the quality of elected councillors cushion ministers against criticism that the service lacks national direction. By adding an additional tier to central-local government relations, issues of accountability, management and resource co-ordination are in fact likely to become less, not more robust than they are currently. The experience of the previous episode of regionalism between 1938 and 1947 strongly indicates that, if it is to reduce costs, increase viability and improve transparency, regionalization must be simple in its structure and clear in the delineation of responsibilities.

The nerve system of any fire authority is the communications network to report incidents and direct resources. The NFS depended on direct telephone communications between the Regional Commissioner, Fire Force and Divisional Headquarters. The Home Office established a Communications Directorate which collaborated with the General Post Office to ensure that the network could handle the predicted level of use. There was some investment in new wireless technologies, although this was slow and had little operational impact. Other hi-tech equipment, such as two-way radios, was not invested in owing to the high costs of civil research and development during wartime. The ODPM's proposals, if implemented, will similarly depend on investment in communications. It is proposed to create regional control rooms: this will, it is suggested, augment savings by spreading the cost of cover per incident. However, one of the advantages of having local control rooms is that the telephone operators have greater knowledge of their locality, and are able to direct resources more effectively. By creating integrated regional control rooms, the ODPM would need to invest not only in new equipment such as the latest GIS systems, but also in staff training to offset any loss of local knowledge.

The ODPM proposals also claim to stabilize the officer structure and strengthen operational leadership, yet attempts to achieve this during the 1940s serve as a warning that this could weaken the service. Many chief fire officers were demoted to lower ranks or pensioned off and replaced by officers who were more compliant to the new NFS regulations. Officers, some of whom had joined the service through the AFS, were also externally appointed to the new regions, which caused dissension amongst long-serving fire-fighters who felt that they were more experienced and had greater local knowledge to serve as senior officers. While the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association (CACFOA) publicly supports the current proposals, during nationalization in the 1940s the Home Office bypassed existing professional organizations, notably the Professional Fire Brigades Association, and simply established its own association of officers (the Chief Fire Officers Association) loyal to its proposals. CACFOA would be wise to consider the impact that regionalization today could have on its members, not least the need for redundancies or demotions of many existing senior officers, a process that occurred in 1941 amidst great tension.


The main positive lessons learned from the earlier episode of nationalization of the fire service in 1941 concerned the development of truly national standards of service, replacing the disparate system of local fire brigades. The introduction of uniform procedures within training, inspection, technology and funding certainly improved the efficiency of fire protection nationally. Yet fire protection remained, and remains today, an inherently local activity requiring detailed local knowledge. Although standards of fire cover were nationally produced from 1947, the identification and control of risk was conducted locally. Some of the government's reform proposals have merit, not least the desire for fire authorities to be vested with greater powers to produce local standards of cover, and the 'New Dimension' of adequate readiness to respond to terrorist attacks. But one is left wondering why such responsibilities cannot be met by reformed local fire authorities. History has shown that to ensure the smooth running of the fire service, reform must be evolutionary, carefully planned and inclusive. Bulldozing reform through parliament without considering the suggestions of professional stakeholders will only create dissension and lack of coherence, as it did with the National Fire Service in 1941. Nationalization was the last time a Secretary of State used sweeping powers to direct the service and fire policy. Even then the NFS was built on past experience to deal with contingencies that did not arrive. The current proposals are not based on past experience, but are an inflexible extension of the government's fashionable commitment to devolving power to regional authorities, as a principle to be pursued for its own sake, regardless of whether it makes any practical sense in the light of experience and the history of the fire service.


The Independent Review of the Fire Service, The Future of the Fire Service: Reducing Risk, Saving Lives (2002)

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Our Fire and Rescue Service (2003)

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework (2003)

Government Response to ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee's Report on the Fire Service (Cm 6154, 2004)

John Mohan, The past and future of the NHS: New Labour and foundation hospitals, History and Policy, June 2003

Chris A. Williams, Britain's police forces: forever removed from democratic control?, History and Policy, November 2003

Further background to the current proposals, including the responses of professional stakeholders, is available from the following websites:

Fire Brigades Union

Local Government Association

Local Government Employers' Association

Chief Fire Officers Association

UK Fire Service Resources

Further Reading

V. Bailey (ed.), Forged in Fire: The History of the Fire Brigades Union (London, 1992)

G. V. Blackstone, A History of the British Fire Service (London, 1957)

C. Demarne, The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale (London, 1991)

S. Ewen, 'Central government and the modernization of the British fire service', Twentieth Century British History, 14:4 (2003), 317-338

T. H. O'Brien, Civil Defence (London, 1955)


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