Chair's Blog

23-07-19

Building safety and pay among the current driving issues for fire services

June and July have seen my regular round of meetings and engagements, including with the Local Government Association, Home Office, Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Fire Standards Board and many others. But two meetings, in particular, have stood out and really capture two of the driving issues of the moment: building safety and pay.  Both were discussed at this month’s National Fire Chiefs Council meeting, amongst a number of other important issues, and I gave evidence on behalf of the NFCC at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee on Building Regulations and Building Safety.

At the Select Committee, I reiterated the message I covered in my last blog, namely, the fact it has taken too long to remediate high-rise residential buildings with ACM3 cladding.  Although we welcome the money provided by government, we always said that the Housing Act and Fire Safety Order were not written for the sort of building crisis we have now and something else needs to be done.  NFCC would support emergency powers that enabled local housing authorities, with the support of the local Fire and Rescue Service, to force building owners or responsible people to remove the dangerous cladding or undertake the work themselves backed by the government’s fund.  Everyone from the MHCLG Secretary of State James Brokenshire and down, apart from some building owners it appears, believes people have had to live in these buildings for far too long.  Something needs to be done to unblock this inertia in the private sector. 

My evidence included ensuring that any moves to introduce even more reliance on modern methods of construction to deal with the need for more housing did not overlook the need for these methods and the products used to be fire safe.  I went on to support the case for sprinklers.  I do believe government is starting to listen to this case, but we would like to see this prioritised in the review of building regulations.  What we do know from meetings with the Home Office is that they are very keen to understand how Fire and Rescue Services are ensuring that interim measures in residential buildings with unsafe cladding are being maintained.  The point about this is: firstly, the interim measures, as with all building safety are the responsibility of the owner or responsible person.  Secondly, interim measures were only ever supposed to be temporary and although Fire and Rescue Services are doing all they can to keep these measures in place the ills of the broken building safety system should not be placed on the shoulders of Fire and Rescue Services.  We will always do our best to respond to any building fire but cannot be seen as a comprehensive safety net for a dysfunctional building safety regime.

That sentiment leads me on to another discussion that is always with us at the moment: the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry.  We are still waiting for the phase one report and I know everyone involved in the tragedy is waiting for the report and any recommendations.  It is the view of the NFCC that the inquiry started at the wrong end of the incident. London Fire Brigade responded to an incident not of their making—and after the designers, architects, planners, product manufacturers, construction firms, building owners and building maintenance had played their part, or not.  I hope the phase one report is balanced and fully appreciates the circumstances faced on the night.  Undoubtedly there will be lessons identified and a proportion of them will be directed at fire and rescue. It is our duty to recognise those lessons and ensure they are feed into our national programmes and guidance for everyone to learn.  But, in some areas we will need help. 

After many years of localism and austerity, which saw the closing down of many central resources, including any central government fire research, the National Fire Chiefs Council is the only UK-wide professional body that is moving forward and co-ordinating guidance, programmes and projects for fire and rescue. A classic example of the need for research is any change from a Stay Put strategy (by the way, Stay Put doesn’t mean ‘stay put in all circumstances’)  to an evacuation strategy that may mean simultaneous evacuation of all residents. We need research to look into the real practicalities of how to do this when we are faced with hundreds of residents that will have disability and mobility problems, may well refuse to leave, and may have residents whose awareness is impaired through other means and with no means for the Fire and Rescue Service to communicate with every dwelling.  The Fire and Rescue Service, through NFCC, is more than willing to explore the options and have ideas on the way forward, but are calling on government and the Local Government Association to join us in that research.  One of the simplest answers is, however, to build and maintain buildings properly, not just trying to meet compliance but constructing buildings so they are safe. 

We also discussed the issue of pay at the Council, fully recognising that we are not the employers, nor a trade union, but that we are the professional voice of the Fire and Rescue Service and should be providing advice to the national employers.  There was a long and very helpful debate which resulted in me writing to the Chairman of the employers’ side, to set out our views. Chiefs supported this view at two NJC consultation events last week.  Another factor that will affect this debate is the public announcement of pay rises above 2% for some parts of the public sector.  The drawback being the rise needs to come from existing budgets, meaning less money elsewhere.  As the debate continues the National Fire Chiefs Council stands ready to assist in any way we can to move this issue forward.

As we look to the future, there are two events coming up that will have a great deal of my focus.  In October, the NFCC will hold its autumn conference.  The first day will focus on risk and data.  I believe our Community Risk Programme is so central to the future of fire and rescue, the role we play and the work we do—linked to standards—that following updates from the four countries, the first day will be focused on this with a fantastic speaker from the United States: Doctor Lori Moore-Merrell. 

The second event is a little more personal as I take on the British Firefighter Challenge again this year. Staying fit is something I enjoy, and this challenge certainly puts your fitness to the test.

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