Driving down risk
Amidst the constant bickering between both politicians and professionals that ushered in Scotland’s new single police service earlier this month, one could be forgiven for forgetting the legislation allowed for not one but two mergers of eight distinct forces.
In the eight months that have ensued since Alasdair Hay became the first chief officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), he has largely been left alone to lay the groundwork as Police Scotland became a sustainable source of stories for members of the media.
Unfortunately for the former acting chief fire officer of Tayside, on the morning he welcomes Holyrood into their temporary headquarters in Perth, the newspapers have shifted their focus, fresh from confirmation that SFRS is to face prosecution in connection with the death of firefighter Ewan Williamson in July 2009.
Though the 35-year-old, who died while tackling a blaze in an Edinburgh bar, worked for Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, structural changes that took effect just nine days earlier have ensured the charges brought under health and safety legislation have found their way onto Hay’s desk.
Understandably, the SFRS head cautions “at this moment in time, because obviously this is now subject to legal proceedings, it’s not appropriate for me to make any further comment on it”. However, asked from a broader point of view, what lessons might be learned, Hay is quick to stress complacency is not in their nature.
“I think what I would say is that if you look at the history of the fire and rescue service, you know, we are an emergency response service, you know, firefighters do have to work in inherently dangerous environments – that is part of the job,” he says.
“But we have to do everything we possibly can to make what is a difficult and at times a dangerous job as safe as we possibly can and whatever incidents have occurred, throughout the history of the fire and rescue service, we have always sought to learn lessons and we have always sought to improve, the service we give to our communities, but also the safety of our firefighters.
“So any lessons that can be learned from this tragedy or any other incident that occurs, we will always seek to learn from it. The fire and rescue service has always learned from major events that have occurred. That is the nature of the fire and rescue service.”
It soon becomes apparent that unyielding commitment to driving down risk is not out of character. Charged with delivering the most sweeping reform of the fire and rescue service in almost four decades, Hay is expected to achieve recurrent gross efficiency savings of around £31m from five years in, a process that will be done in a “safe” and “controlled” way that is not allowed to raise the risks communities and firefighters face.
However, the economic imperative of reform that ministers were quick to underline during the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill’s passage through parliament seems to be second to the operational imperatives that the chief officer believes will not only be preserved but boosted as a result of the changes that came into force on 1 April.
“If you take the long-term perspective, prior to the Second World War there were, literally, hundreds of fire and rescue services in Scotland,” recalls Hay. “National service during the Second World War, returned to local authority control after the Second World War where there was 11 in Scotland, and [after] regionalisation in 1975, there was eight. So if you take that longer-term perspective, fire and rescue services have been getting bigger because it gives them the opportunities, I believe, to do more without losing sight of the fact that most of our services are delivered at that very local level.”
Three service areas – one for the north, east and west of Scotland – have been established with responsibility in each delegated to an assistant chief officer, while a local senior officer has been appointed for each local authority to prepare a distinct fire and rescue plan that will take effect from the start of the next financial year.
A layer further down, Hay – conceding it sounds a “bit jargonistic” – is looking to ensure the responsibilities of local station managers are “coterminous” with local authority council ward areas so that local plans are based on a “real understanding of what the needs of local communities are”.
Eight existing command and control centres have been connected to ensure “more equitable access to specialist resources” that could be required, for instance, in the event of a more devastating incident akin to the attempted car bombing of Glasgow Airport in 2007.
“We are a national service and there is times when we will have to act nationally and bring our resources together to deal with major incidents, to help prevent major incidents, but most of our services are and always will be delivered at a very local level and we will not lose sight of that,” Hay insists.
Irrespective of an admission that the new service will “need to live within a reduced financial window” – £19.5m has been taken out of the budget in real terms in year one – business continuity remains and will remain intact, vows Hay.
Disposal of surplus assets could generate an estimated one-off saving of around £15m, amid observations in an Audit Scotland report last July that the number of fire stations nationwide has not changed significantly in the past decade despite a steady fall in the number of fires.
While the watchdog’s comprehensive assessment of strengths and challenges Hay’s team inherits will be used “to help to steer the reform process”, closure of stations is not up for discussion between now and an ‘end state’ of 2015-16. “In terms of fire stations, we’re looking to protect the front line,” he says. “So we’re not looking at closing fire stations as we go through this initial phase of the reform process.
“We are looking at asset reduction – we’ve got eight headquarters buildings, we’ve got eight workshops, we’ve got eight control rooms, we’ve got eight sets of stores, we’ve got eight training centres of various sizes, so what we’re doing at this moment in time is we’re actually looking at what are the needs of the new Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in terms of those physical assets and what do we actually have and how do we match the two together and anything that we don’t require, how do we dispose of it to realise savings but at the same time, by realising savings in those areas, enabling us to protect the (front line). So all that work is going on at the moment.”
Looking forward, there will be a reduction in command and control centres, Hay confirms, albeit insisting no decision has yet been made in terms of numbers. “We’re working very closely with the trade unions, particularly the Fire Brigades Union, and we’re also working very closely with the professional control room staff that work within there to make sure that the options that we’re currently appraising and developing deliver the best structure for the people of Scotland.”
Of course, the underlying concern in any asset depletion is the jobs that they preserve. The Scottish Government has issued a commitment that there will be no compulsory job losses in either of the two single services, albeit against a backdrop of warnings from Police Scotland chief constable, Stephen House, that achieving voluntary redundancies in sufficient numbers was proving difficult.
Hay, who inherited 9,000-plus fire and rescue staff three weeks ago, admits fewer people will be working in the new SFRS, though stresses the service will be “working in doing everything we possibly can” to deliver on Roseanna Cunningham’s promise as Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs.
“We’ve been anticipating the move to a single fire and rescue service so there has been some very careful vacancy management up until that point so there has already been a reduction. We did get support from the eight previous services in relation to that but also they offered voluntary severance, early retirement to some staff just before we moved over so that’s helped to reduce the numbers and it is our intention this year and next year to offer more voluntary severance and early retirement as we carefully manage the transition to the single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.”
Will we see a world-class service emerge once that transition is complete? According to Hay, Scotland already has one. “I think the essence of being a world-class fire and rescue service is performing well but also realising that you constantly need to seek to improve and in our case, improving means driving down risk for people in Scotland and if we continue to do what we’ve always done then I think we will remain a world-class fire and rescue service,” he says.
“But that world-class fire and rescue service will look very different to the one that James Braidwood [credited with creating the first municipal fire service in the world in Edinburgh] set up in 1824 and the one that I have inherited in 2013. It will evolve, that’s what world class is all about.”
Not only will those north of the border be keeping a close eye on that evolution, though. Like House, Hay believes the merger of forces could be emulated elsewhere in the UK – even if he refrains from going so far as his equivalent in saying structural change is inevitable.
“I’m now on the Chief Fire Officers’ Association board, which covers the whole of the UK, so I have quite a lot of good dialogue and working relationship with chief officers south of the border,” adds Hay. “They’re looking with a great deal of interest at what is happening here in Scotland because they’ve got [a] considerable challenge in maintaining their services and living within reduced budgets and the feedback I get from colleagues south of the border is that if, and there’s no reason why it won’t be, if reform and bringing eight services together is successful in Scotland, they would very much see that as perhaps a way forward for them.
“So I don’t know if it is inevitable because these things are ultimately a political decision, but certainly at a professional level, the chief fire officers south of the border are very interested in what is happening up here and they can see the advantages that perhaps larger services that do have those economies of scale and scope and will help them meet their financial challenges.”