Emergency services under threat
Police takeover of fire services will put public safety at risk, warns Dave Green, FBU National Officer
THE FIRE BRIGADES UNION (FBU) is extremely concerned by the government’s proposals for greater emergency service collaboration which would allow Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England take control of fire services in their area.
Both services have been under severe financial pressure due to the austerity measures imposed by the Westminster government since 2010. The fire and rescue service in England has suffered a cut in frontline firefighters of 5,500 -- around 12 per cent of the workforce -- purely due to budget cuts imposed centrally, with no consideration of the impact on service delivery or performance. Enabling PCCs to take over fire and rescue service in the name of “efficiency savings” is the next step in the government’s ideologically driven, cost-cutting agenda.
PCCs have an appalling mandate - voted in by around 14% of the electorate - and since their election have established a dubious track record in government. There have been numerous scandals concerning many of the PCCs, ranging from allegations of cronyism to interference in operational matters. There is virtually no support for PCCs and certainly none to enable them to take over the fire and rescue service. Such a move risks undermining public confidence in the accountability and governance of our emergency services.
PCCs pose an intrinsic threat to the independence and effectiveness of the fire and rescue service. Although the emergency services work together effectively at many incidents, there is no operational reason for police and fire services to merge. Police officers and fire fighters perform very different roles - police officers have the power of arrest whereas fire fighters do not. This distinction is an important aspect of fire fighters’ relations with local communities. The worry for fire fighters is that mergers will undermine the public’s trust in the impartiality of the fire service, which they rely upon to gain access to people’s homes for vital fire prevention and emergency rescue work.
Aside from the clear distinction between the two roles, in many areas mergers will simply be unfeasible due to mismatched police and fire boundaries. There are 39 territorial police forces and 46 re and rescue services in the UK. Transferring responsibility for re to a PCC would involve a complex and costly restructuring of service areas which is unlikely to have local support or present a sound business case. This will lead to the fragmentation of emergency service delivery across the UK by introducing competing models of policing and fire and rescue between England and Wales, and from area to area within England.
Regrettably, merger proposals do nothing to invest much needed resources in fire and rescue services, or develop the role of fire fighters to better meet today’s challenges and deliver safer, healthier and more resilient communities. Increasingly, fire fighters are responding to new and emerging risks such as the threat from terrorism and the impact of climate change. Flooding is now a key function of our fire and rescue services, despite the fact that successive governments have steadfastly refused to give fire fighters a statutory duty to prepare and respond to such incidents.
Instead of further undermining the fire and rescue service, this government needs to present a coherent strategy to invest properly in the service and give us the confidence that they are serious about keeping our communities safe. Sadly, we suspect this ideal is furthest from their minds.