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Uncertainty continues as Fire and Rescue Service steps up to combat COVID-19

18 August 2020

IN ASSESSING the current ‘State of the Nation’ when it comes to the fire sector, National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) chair Roy Wilsher (a guest on Episode 9 of the Fire Safety Matters Podcast) has observed that, although national COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have eased, we’re still in a time of uncertainty.

In a blog post scripted specifically for the NFCC’s website, Wilsher (pictured) stated: “As we try to balance infection control against further damage to the economy, we all need to remember the basic rules of hand hygiene and social distancing outside of our family bubble in order to help fight COVID-19.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Fire and Rescue Service has continued to step up to the plate. As reported by Fire Safety Matters, the tripartite agreement forged back in March has been extended to 30 September, while the number of COVID-related activities taken care of by Fire and Rescue Services across the nation now numbers almost 400,000.

“Firefighter absence within Fire and Rescue Services remains remarkably low,” continued Wilsher, “with overall absence at 3.6% and COVID-related absence standing at just 1.5%. This is quite remarkable.” Fire Safety Matters joins Wilsher in paying tribute to the magnificent efforts of firefighters the length and breadth of the nation.

The economic impact of the pandemic is not yet fully known, of course, but it’s fair to suggest that many of us will be highly surprised if the aftermath of the virus doesn’t bring some kind of fiscal constraint. Forecasts from leading financial bodies in the national media of late appear to corroborate that view. “It’s likely to be a difficult period,” affirmed Wilsher. “Last year was the first time in over a decade when the Government’s Spending Review didn’t mean some kind of reduction for Fire and Rescue Services.”

On that note, Wilsher spent many hours talking through Budget-related financial figures with Government colleagues, ably supported by John Buckley and the Finance Committee, subsequently witnessing investment in Fire and Rescue Services in England. Indeed, fire protection has seen welcome investment of £16 million, while another £7 million has gone towards supporting the implementation of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendations. A further £4 million has been invested directly into the NFCC Protection Hub.

Best endeavours

Wilsher chairs the Protection Board that has pushed for and then overseen this investment. “Of course, this is one-off funding and we’re working hard behind the scenes to have this baselined through the imminent Spending Review. Our input into such processes has always been about best endeavours, but this time around I’ve worked with the Fire Services Management Committee to agree support for a dedicated resource to be placed within the Home Office in order to support our bid.”

Funding from each Fire and Rescue Authority was agreed which then saw Amy Webb seconded to the NFCC and embedded within the Home Office to help make sure the bid is “better formed than ever before”. According to Wilsher, further work on the ‘Digital and Data’ programme over the next few years will help produce the data needed to make the bid even stronger in the future. “We’re in the best place we can be this time around,” he said.

Much of that investment is focused on building safety and the overriding requirement to help fix the broken system so very clearly highlighted in Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Through Wilsher’s own work with the Expert Panel and links into the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the NFCC was able to secure places on all six of the Hackitt Review workstreams. This has placed the NFCC in a “strong position” to support Fire and Rescue Services going forward.

Wilsher opined: “One of the unintended consequences of the building safety failure and the fact that 160 ACM-clad buildings still need to be remediated is the financial and psychological effect on leaseholders. We’re trying to support them. We’re redrafting the simultaneous evacuation (ie ‘Waking Watch’) guidance to be more supportive of leaseholders.”

Alongside Dan Daly and Nick Coombe, Wilsher held a virtual meeting with cladding leaseholder action groups from across the country to listen to their concerns and views, but also to explain the thinking behind the guidance when it was first developed in 2017. “One thing we didn’t consider back then is that these interim measures would be needed years later. I wanted the meeting with the residents arranged to give them a voice. It proved to be extremely beneficial for the redrafting of the guide.”

Solid programme management

Wilsher chaired the National Operational Guidance Programme from its inception back in 2011 and, as he led the transition from the Chief Fire Officers Association to the NFCC, there was always going to be a requirement for solid programme management. Hence Wilsher’s suggestion that the established National Operational Guidance (NOG) be transformed into the NFCC Central Programme Office.

“This has been reasonably successful,” asserted Wilsher, “as we can see from the maintenance of the NOG, the development of National Operational Learning and the launch of main programmes focused on ‘Community Risk’, ‘People’ and ‘Digital and Data’.”

Wilsher helped secure £1.5 million of funding per annum that goes to the Central Programme Office (CPO) to support fire standards work, but this year has also secured an extra £3 million of Home Office investment to not only boost the work of the CPO, but in tandem provide vital implementation support for Fire and Rescue Services.

Looking ahead to the next few years, Wilsher references the economic impact yet to be felt from COVID-19, pay claims, pension remediation, a probable new fire safety framework for England, Brexit and, of course, the eventual enactment of the Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill. 

The NFCC is now buoyed by having the financial investment that has moved it from being an organisation turning over less than £1 million in 2017 to a £10.5 million organisation come 2020. The NFCC will have more full-time staff as a result, plus the dedication and commitment of all programme executives, committee chairs and workstream leads.

“This will enable us to do even more good work,” concluded Wilsher. “Currently, we’re well placed to meet the challenges ahead of us.”