Shrinking fire authorities losing capacity to tackle major incidents

Although fire and rescue authorities have coped well with significant funding cuts since 2010, some will be forced to cut jobs and services and face the prospect of strikes by firefighters, the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

In a report published today (5 November), the auditor revealed low-level stress signs beginning to emerge in the sector, with several teams raising concerns about their capacity to respond to major incidents as a result of slashed budgets.

Since 2010, fire authorities have cut numbers of whole-time firefighters by 14%, carried out 30% fewer audits of business premises and spent 27% less hours on home fire safety checks. Some have also changed the scope of their emergency response, often by sending fewer staff to incidents.

While they have dealt well with these cuts overall, the NAO says – with the numbers of fires and casualties continuing to drop – many anticipate that further cuts will begin to manifest across the quality and capacity of services.

NAO also blasted the DCLG for reducing funding to the fire authorities with the highest levels of need, while simultaneously failing to inspect their services. The department has no external inspection regime of fire and rescue authorities, unlike other emergency services, and is almost entirely reliant on councillors, fire chiefs and the public to scrutinise services.

But councillors can lack technical independent support and do not have standardised data on response standards, making it impossible to compare their performance against a national backdrop.

And while communities secretary Greg Clark MP has a statutory duty to guarantee overall standards of fire authorities, the department’s evidence is, in reality, limited.

Head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, commended fire authorities for dodging financial failures despite squeezed budgets over the past five years, but added: “I would expect the DCLG to have a better understanding of the appropriate funding level necessary to support services, in order to maintain the financial sustainability of the sector in the context of funding cuts.

“The department should also seek greater assurance that authorities are maintaining service standards and delivering value for money locally.”

The Public Accounts Committee also put DCGL in the firing line, calling its understanding of current pressures “seriously flawed”.

Committee chair, Meg Hillier MP, said. “Without this understanding, further efficiency savings could put services at risk, potentially putting lives at risk.

“Finding year-on-year savings while protecting firefighter levels will be increasingly difficult and some authorities already report that their capacity to respond to major events will be put at risk by further reductions,”

But a DCLG spokeswoman said they were disappointed that the NAO’s report did not recognise the “excellent work of fire and rescue authorities in reducing fire deaths and incidents by around half over the last decade” – even though that was included in the report’s first page.

“We collect and publish an extensive range of data from fire and rescue authorities across the country on spending, performance and outcomes, which show improvements across the board.

“DCLG has considerable expertise in this area which allows us to challenge and validate the data and we are confident that services have been maintained while making valuable savings for taxpayers,” she added.


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