What skills does a 21st Century fire service need?

Dave Cross

Over the past twenty years the fire service, like many other public sector agencies has undergone radical change. Whilst the public’s expectation of the fire service as a response based fire and rescue service remains the same, the organisational expectations of fire fighters has increased markedly. To quote a senior Greater Manchester fire officer “The job of a fire fighter nowadays has changed from not just putting out fires… to almost being a semi social worker”.

This change was precipitated by the Bain report of 2002 and the resultant repealing of the 1947 Fire services Act to be replaced by the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act. No longer was it response, but prevention that became the fire service’s primary consideration. In line with this prevention orientated approach fire fighters nationally are now undertaking Home Safety Checks. It is the carrying out of these checks and the increased access into people’s homes that has brought about an increase in fire fighters generic skills. A fire fighter now has to be aware of a range of issues, some way beyond the fire safety sphere. These would include health and wellbeing of the occupant, child and adult protection issues, possible need for a vulnerable person’s referral or other agency involvement.

The rationale behind this is that the most at risk groups fall into the catchments of many public sector bodies. This is borne out in the MECC programme (Making Every Contact Count) and the Marmot review of public health. MECC is a means by which other, agency appropriate involvement can be sought through previously established referral pathways.

Through their prevention schemes, the fire services run a universal programme of home fire safety checks: they are in touch with members of the public from all sections of the community and not only attempt to prevent fires, but are also involved in running prevention programmes from home safety to road safety. They link up with schools, engage and inspire young people, visit people’s homes and develop relationships with the community – they are in the perfect position to deliver interventions and partner with other agencies to reduce health inequalities. The fire services do what every stakeholder involved in reducing health inequalities should do: engage directly with the community, work to provide them with the opportunities they need to live a healthy life and focus on prevention.”

Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

Of more recent concern for the fire service is an awareness of signs of radicalisation and counter terrorism for which the fire service forms part of the first and last line of domestic defence.

In addition to home safety checks fire fighters are actively engaged in local schools delivering targeted, curriculum supporting sessions on fire safety and road safety. Fire stations are considered a community resource. They can be used by external agencies if they are a better avenue into at risk groups.

The perverse incentive that was envisaged by decreasing calls is being realised (fires having fallen by 64% in 10 years). The continuing effects of the government’s austerity measures which has seen fire service budgets slashed by 25% over the last 4 years has seen staffing numbers and appliances decrease. This has come with increasing pressure from central government to adopt more use of retained (part time) fire cover as this is considered to be more cost effective. In response some metropolitan brigades are resisting these pressures believing them to be unworkable in major conurbations. This has brought about an increased and management supported use of social media. It would not be unusual now to find a fire fighter ‘tweeting’ from the fire-ground. Whilst this carries some risk to the organisation and people have on occasion had their fingers burnt. The benefit of informing the public of our activities is seen as outweighing the risk from the odd ill advised ‘tweet’ but is yet another example of the broadening role of the fire fighter.

Commensurate with that reduction in calls is a reduction in fire fighters experience. This has created a double edged sword, for while the public are becoming increasingly safer fire fighters are becoming exposed to more risk. Not just from a lack of practical experience but also because advances in building construction (double glazing, furniture) is making fires hotter and requiring far more refined technical skills to be able to adequately deal with and therefore realistic training needs to increase.

Fire services are now faced with the dichotomy of putting more time and resources into the ‘softer’ skills that, increase public health and safety, complement interagency work but ultimately reduce service demand and funding with the need for increased staff training and awareness not only in the equipment and procedures for personnel safety in an increasingly threatened world but also in the necessity for public awareness and marketing. The role of a fire fighter is not what it was.


Dave Cross is Watch Commander at West Midlands Fire Service.

This post was originally featured on the 21st Century Public Servant blog.

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