Chair's Blog


'Shaping 2020 - the challenges that demand our focus and shape our work'

In my last blog of 2019, I looked forward to the challenges that will demand our focus in 2020, including the ongoing fallout from the Grenfell tragedy, the HMICFRS State of Fire report and the expected comprehensive spending review.  Since my blog we have seen further developments in all these areas and they will certainly shape much of what we do this year, alongside NFCC’s programmes, committees and workstreams.

The continued aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy and subsequent actions through the inquiry, Hackitt review and Government’s Building Safety Programme continue to influence much of what we do.  We have, however, said many times that as NFCC we do not want to be driven by a single event or report and risk tunnel vision.  We would much rather analysis and collate the emerging themes from various sources, whilst not ignoring specific recommendations.  To do this we have developed our strategic improvement tool, or SIM.  The model is still developing but we use it to examine issues like the GTI recommendations, national operational learning, learning from our programmes and reports like the State of Fire.  In doing so, we can identify themes such as leadership, communications or competence and can shape our work accordingly, ensuring links to our soon to be launched refresh strategy.

The State of Fire report is one input and I think it would be fair to say the HMICFRS recommendations have not landed with universal acclaim.  On the code of ethics, NFCC will take the lead, working with the Local Government Association and other partners to see this developed.  We welcome the recommendation for Home Office to agree a strategy for fire and rescue but recognise this will be an English strategy.  This English focus of the recommendations makes the recommendation concerning the NJC, a current UK convention between employers and trade unions, a more nuanced thing to achieve.  NFCC stands ready to assist and advise where we can.  The last recommendation on the operational independence of Chief Fire Officers will also need some consideration.  In its current form it can look a bit stark, but we believe there is something to consider and we will work with the LGA Fire Services Management Committee to ensure there is a common understanding of what this might mean to support the role of Chiefs and fire authorities in all their structures.

NFCC is working much more closely with the LGA FSMC now. A good example is our agreed joint work on the Comprehensive Spending Review, where for the first time we will have a dedicated Fire team working with the Home Office on the CSR submission.  I am not naïve enough to believe this team will solve all our issues by the end of this CSR period, but it will undoubtedly put us in a better place and set foundations for future spending reviews.  There is an excellent opportunity to be part of this team, working to try and achieve the right level of funding, the opportunity is still still live on our website.  I think all relevant stakeholders should see this as an opportunity not to be undermined by individual actions.  

As this blog might demonstrate there more and more going on throughout the NFCC and at the Chief’s council last week we were updated on the programme’s projects and work streams that will help shape the fire and rescue service for the future.  Projects that will assist all FRSs, such as the end point assessment partnership with Cornwall Fire and Rescue so we can sign off apprenticeship schemes and ensure the levy money stays within the sector.  This is one of the projects in the People programme where prioritisation of work with the support of the SIM model has led to a leadership board being established.  The Community Risk Programme also continues to push ahead with projects on the economic value of fire, integrated risk management guidance and definition of risk.  Although not quite as established as the the other programmes, Data and Digital is now consulting of project initiation whilst supporting other work within the NFCC.  Data is such an important driver of all we do that getting data sets right through this work will benefit us all.

Having said we are determined not to be driven by a single event or report, I believe there hasn’t been a day since June 2017 when I haven’t discussed or thought about something related to Grenfell.  With reference to the inquiry, although London Fire Brigade and NFCC have now accepted the phasing and we have moved on to making improvements, the revelations from the first few days of Phase 2 have been shocking.  We have always said, as did Sir Martin Moore-Bick in his Phase 1 report, that the cladding system on Grenfell Tower never complied with building regulations.  The disclosures and internal communications that have surfaced in Phase 2 clearly show that people knew the products used were not suitable for high-rise residential buildings.  But to admit this—and then for each organisation to avoid any responsibility so far—beggars belief.  I am also not entirely sure, with this level of misuse of materials, how anyone in the fire and rescue service could have anticipated that level of risk and incompetence and then trained for it.  At the time of writing this the question of immunity from prosecution was being considered by the Attorney General.  I just hope we all manage to get to the truth and the bereaved, survivors and residents can finally find some answers to their questions.

This leads me on to the whole question of the state of the building stock in the United Kingdom.  I have said many times before that our expectations of how buildings will now react in fires has changed.  We have seen that compartmentation, cavity barriers, fire stopping, protected escape routes and other cladding systems, including certain types of HPL are all giving cause for concern.  We discussed this recently at the NFCC Chiefs council and there is agreement that as we send more resources to high-rise buildings, and fires like the Cube in Bolton are demanding a bigger response, we will need to revise our Integrated Risk Management Plans to take account of the change in risk.  This can only mean the need for more resources for fire and rescue—a point I have made at the Home Office Permanent Secretary’s strategic board along with the fact there also needs to be a focus on keeping people safe in their homes. 

The first part of the Board’s work on ACM clad buildings has been going well but I know colleagues are getting closer to considering more action as some buildings still do not even have plans for remediation.  We are very hopeful that we will soon see the extra funding promised to support the work of the board.  Linked closely to this is the plight of residents and leaseholders in those blocks that still need cladding removed.  Often paying for waking watch and living in homes that have lost their value is leaving families in stressful and challenging financial circumstances. 

I heard some of these stories personally when I attended a leaseholders event at London’s City Hall.  This is very different from the Grenfell tragedy and loss of life of course, but we must not lose sight of these difficulties as we move forward.  That includes work on the new Building Safety Regulator, now in shadow form through the HSE and the new Fire Safety Bill that will give fire authorities extra powers on cladding as well as clarification on fire doors.  We will still need to use these powers sensible and will hopefully have extra resources to make them work whilst continuing to consider the residents caught in the drive to improve our building stock.

NFCC has also had the returns of our survey to fire and rescue services concerning the Grenfell inquiry Phase 1 recommendations.  In this way we aim to ensure our national programmes are aligned to the recommendations and coordinate any national work, such as the Control Room guidance being developed and any changes to National Operational Guidance.  NOG has already been updated to include issues like external breaches of compartmentation but we have just commissioned a further piece off work more specifically about operational response to a Grenfell type incident.  We had hoped that the government-led work on Stay Put strategy and building remediation would have been much further advanced.  But as neither are as far forward as we hoped we need to do this piece of work for those exceptional, but now foreseeable incidents.

All the topics above were discussed this/last week at the NFCC Chiefs Council which continues to go from strength-to-strength, as does the NFCC.  At the council we also agreed a balanced budget and work programme for 2020/21 and signed off our revised strategy with a couple of minor amendments.  Both pieces of work, along with closer working between our hubs can only be good for NFCC, our partners, fire and rescue services and ultimately and most importantly, the communities we all serve.

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