Brandon Lewis – 2014 Speech to LGA Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Brandon Lewis, the Fire Minister, to the LGA Conference on 12th March 2014.

I am delighted to be here with you today on the second day of the Local Government Association’s annual fire conference. I understand that yesterday’s sessions and workshops were informative, engaging and that the day overall was a huge success. I hope to live up to your standards for day 2 of the conference!

Over the last 6 months you will have heard me say that the publication of the government’s response to the Knight review is imminent, and I can tell you today that it is still imminent.

I have to say I was pleased to see that the sessions and workshops at this year’s conference have in the main been focused on the findings of Sir Ken’s independent review, Facing the future. I know you are eagerly awaiting the response, but the journey of travel will be very much outside of a document that will sit on a shelf. Transformation will be what you make it; it will be about more targeted prevention, it will be about better collaboration between and across services, with blue lights services and other public bodies, it will be about more flexible resourcing such as increasing on-call fire fighters, and it will be about better procurement – which I know you are already committed to.

It’s been an interesting year and we’ve all seen some fairly interesting events. The first national firefighter strike in over 10 years and major flooding incidents across the country have tested fire and rescue authorities, and while there will be important lessons learned from the preparation for events, I believe that fire and rescue authorities across the board have responded very well to both the industrial action and the recent severe weather.

I was pleased to see that there was almost a ‘business as usual’ service, during strike action and that many chief fire officers, if they spotted gaps, trained up resilience staff to fill them.

I commend those who used innovative measures to boost their resilience – I was really impressed by those fire and rescue authorities who ‘looked outside of the box’ in improving their resilience. I particularly wish to commend those firefighters and support workers who continued to work and protect their communities. I received letters from some who, despite pressure from union officials, felt protecting thier communities was the right thing to do. They deserve our profound gratitude, and thanks.

A further sustained challenge to the continuity of service was provided by the severe weather and major flooding incidents that began late last year and continued through the first couple of months of this year.

Fire and rescue authorities from Northumberland to Kent worked with their partners to protect people in their communities from the potential devastation of an east coast tidal surge, evacuating homes, and, sending in boats and rafts to rescue people from flooded properties.

More than 1,000 fully equipped fire fighters from across the country assisted with the flood response over December, January and February. They did an incredible job working in shifts to reduce water levels and help communities deal with the flooding. They gave support wherever and whenever it was needed and there were still plenty of fire engines in local areas to respond to non-flood emergencies.

I wholeheartedly praise the great work that fire and rescue authorities across the country have done in supporting not only their communities through the sustained flooding events but also supporting other fire and rescue authorities. Fire and rescue authority staff should be congratulated on their professionalism throughout this period and thanks given to those who worked tirelessly and continuously at this time.

While your response activity rightly grabs the headlines, it’s the work you do on prevention and protection that is the bread and butter, it is front line.

Fire calls, fire deaths and injuries have fallen significantly over the past 10 years. I believe that this trend can and will continue downwards.

You play an important part in achieving this and I know there will be more we can do to prevent fires and many other emergencies occurring in the first place. This means that fire prevention should not be a soft option when it comes to looking for savings. There are efficiencies to be made but the determination to address fire and accident risk, must remain at the forefront of each authority’s activity. While I know many of you are taking great steps to address this, there is still more headway in reducing the number of false alarms, which still account for over half of calls.

This is why the government, in partnership with fire and rescue authorities, continues to run the Fire Kills Campaign. Today is too good an opportunity to remind everyone that 30 March is clock change day. So Tick Tock Test your smoke alarms and persuade as many people as possible to follow your example. Our latest analysis suggests you are at least 4 times more likely to die in a fire in your home if there is no working smoke alarm.

Sadly more than half the people still dying are aged 65 or over. We are encouraging everyone to test for family, friends or neighbours who need help. As it’s Mother’s Day too, what better way to show you care. Please spread the Fire Kills messages via all the channels you have. In October, you supported the campaign through website reminders, tweets, press releases and in many other ways. One in 8 householders tested – let’s do even better this time.

In the coming year we want to explore how we can reduce the number of deaths among older people. What other campaigns could include our simple testing message? What local services could help test and make sure that older people have enough smoke alarms installed to give them the best chance of escaping a deadly fire? Why do some people never test? Together we need to make testing smoke alarms regularly and installing them at least on every level, the right thing to do, the social ‘norm’.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sir Ken for his thought provoking review – he is an expert in his field and I was delighted with the breadth and scope of his report. I am very grateful to him for starting a debate on the challenges and opportunities facing fire and rescue authorities. Sir Ken has set us all on a direction of travel, throwing out the challenge for radical and rapid transformation in line with public expectations.

So rather than waiting for the government to publish its response, you, as leaders need to and want to get on and deliver. We do not have the answers, you as leaders of your sector are in the driving seat. And given the theme chosen for today’s conference I am pleased that the responsibility to transform is a responsibility that you seem to relish.

And we as government will support you, starting with a £75 million fund available to fire and rescue authorities – on a bid for basis – to drive transformation.

£30 million of the fund is resource funding, and £45 million is a capital fire efficiency fund. Both will be allocated on a bid for basis so that it can be put to use where it will make the most difference.

I encourage you to bid for this fund. In particular I am keen to see bids that encourage some of the key themes in the Knight review; greater collaboration; initiatives that support improving local delivery; initiatives that increase on call arrangements; innovations that prioritise prevention and protection and ones which promote asset transformation.

While I am not yet in a position to publish the government response to the Knight review, I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about my own personal thinking on the direction of travel. None of this will be a surprise I guess, it’s all of the things I have been talking about since Sir Ken published his review. My thinking picks up on some of the key challenges Ken mentioned.

One thing is for sure, fire in rescue in 10 years time will be totally different from 10 years ago. The fall in calls generally means that there is now a great opportunity to significantly review both the number of on-call firefighters and on-call stations with a view to putting in place more modern and flexible arrangements. On-call firefighters are a vital and important part of how authorities deliver services and in times where call outs are falling, you as leaders must recognise the enormous potential they offer.

Can you really afford not to review each station, and identify if that station or one of its pumps, can be devoted to on-call activity?

Will you just keep doing the same thing hoping for a different outcome or will you transform your services in this way both in urban as well as rural areas?

Sir Ken Knight highlighted the importance of collaboration with other local services in helping fire and rescue authorities to transform the way they run to meet the changing needs of communities.

I firmly agree.

Local collaboration between local services – including fire, police and ambulance – is the future of public service delivery, and I want to be in a position to award you transformation funding for innovative bids in this area.

I believe that the relationship with the other emergency services is the most untapped route and needs to be pursued at all levels. The best fire and rescue authorities are already beginning to collaborate with police and ambulance services and local authorities – through co-location of stations and services, through sharing back office functions, including sharing senior staff, and through co-responding and joining up on service delivery. They are achieving better outcomes for the public and getting more from their resources in the process.

For example:

In Hampshire, fire, police and the council are joining up back office services and expect to save up to £4 million a year.

In Merseyside fire and police are working together to create a new, combined command and control centre, saving them £3.5 million and allowing them to share information and expertise, and, ultimately, provide a more integrated emergency service.

In Lincolnshire, fire and ambulance services provide an integrated service, with on-call firefighters delivering emergency medical support and transport. This is an extension of their existing excellent work and they have been awarded £500,000 through the recent Transformational Challenge Award.

However, progress across the country is patchy and I want to make sure that every authority and community can benefit from collaboration. This good practice needs to become standard practice and the public need the emergency services to consider collaboration first in all they do.

Alongside the transformation fund is of course the new police innovation fund, and I know that some of you have already received funding from the Home Office. From 2014/15 the next police innovation fund will incentivise transformation, collaboration and other innovative delivery approaches, including greater collaboration across forces and other emergency services.

I want to see all of the emergency services working together to deliver world class services that match the needs of today and tomorrow’s communities – collaboration really is the future for local public services.

A further area the Knight Report highlighted as being in need of greater collaboration was procurement. Sir Ken found widespread duplication of effort in the design, commissioning and evaluation of fire specific products and suggested that fire and rescue authorities should focus their efforts on improving procurement under these areas.

Fire and rescue authorities should – without doubt – be exploring collaborative procurement with other fire and rescue authorities and emergency services to drive efficiencies – especially given that the requirements of individual fire and rescue authorities across England are not different enough to warrant going it alone.

We are publishing the fire and rescue procurement aggregation and collaboration report, a joint research project with the Chief Fire Officers’ Association. The report found that there is a compelling case for collaborative procurement. The sector spends £127 million very year on fire and rescue specific products such as clothing and vehicles; that collaboration alone could achieve huge savings of at least £18 million.

In addition if products were standardised more it is likely that even bigger savings could be realised and further potential efficiencies made not least if non-fire specific goods and services were bought together with other public bodies.

Twelve months on from my last speech here we have a lot to celebrate; our collective success in making our communities safer from fire; the key role that fire and rescue authorities played in responding to the worst floods since 2007 and successful business continuity arrangements during severe weather and industrial action.

We’ve also got a lot to look forward to, including the opportunities presented by transformation. I encourage you to use the success of the past year as motivation to tap into opportunities for reform and take steps that will make your fire and rescue authorities more efficient and more able to meet the demands of your communities in the future.