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12-06-20

NFCC Chair's blog: 2020 - who predicted that?


It has been quite a while since I wrote my last blog, February to be exact, although I have tried to keep in touch via video.  Video discussions! There have been plenty of digital and virtual meetings in the last few months, hopefully they were of some use to help keep you informed.

If I think back to February, we were aware that Coronavirus was becoming a bigger issue, we were being warned to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds and avoid handshakes and touching too many hard surfaces.  I flew home from a short break on 13 March and the flight staff were already dispensing hand sanitiser.  I am not sure, except with the value of hindsight, many saw the full impact that was heading our way.  I was abroad when I had my first conversations with the Minister with responsibility for fire, James Brokenshire, about fire and rescue planning for a pandemic.  These conversations led to the NFCC setting up a COVID-19 structure with CFO Phil Garrigan as our C-19 Gold and a Gold Group consisting of many of our committee leads – Protection, People, Prevention, Finance, Operations and the vice chairs. Additional sector expertise was supplemented by others such as Stuart Errington and Ian Hayton leading on specific issues.  This structure has worked extremely well and by the time I was back in the country we had a NFCC position statement closely followed by a strategic intentions document.  A special mention needs to go to Tina Butler from Kent fire and rescue service for her unbounded energy whilst dealing with joint procurement of PPE.

Throughout the C-19 crisis we have been having daily catch-up calls with the Home Office, daily reporting to Government, weekly Gold meetings and weekly dial ins for all Chief Officers. The NFCC has issued communication and guidance to assist fire and rescue services to see their way through this national health emergency, whilst working with partners in other agencies; including nationally with the National Police Chiefs Council and Ambulance Chief Executives, which complemented the local work of fire and rescue services through the local resilience forum or similar. A point of some note throughout the crisis have been the unprecedented tripartite agreements between the NFCC, National Employers and Fire Brigades Union which has seen activities such as emergency driving of ambulances, movement of bodies and deliveries to vulnerable people progressed at a national level.  The framework and agreements have been an enabler, not an instruction and have helped the response in many areas of the UK.  How we move forward with this way of working, not always easy, but with tangible outcomes will be important as we move forward into an uncertain future.  As we move out of lock down and transition into new ways of working and thinking the we have established a Covid-19 committee to oversee the C-19 related issues and will form part of our regular structures for as least as long as the COVID-19 Act is in place.

I have said in my videos and Twitter posts how thankful I am to all fire and rescue staff, whether firefighters, protection and prevention staff or other professionals who work in control or head office functions, you  have all been ready, willing and able to step up and assist your communities through this crisis.  The low levels of absence from work have been, and continue to be remarkable, it demonstrates the early decisions made and guidance that Services issued have protected fire and rescue personnel. It has also shown the dedication and professionalism of the people who work for the UK fire and rescue services and how committed they are to serve and support, especially in a crisis.  Thank you.

But despite the focus and new ways of working other matters continue to draw our attention and time.  I am writing this blog just two days before the 3rd anniversary of the tragic Grenfell Tower Fire.  As many will know I spoke to Dany Cotton on the night and have been a member of the expert panel since July 2017.  If anyone had told me then that three years later we would still have 160 buildings with failed ACM cladding systems that haven’t even started remediation, I would not have believed them.  It is unbelievable that it has taken this long and unacceptable that the interim measures and simultaneous evacuation guidance, such as Waking Watch, which were supposed to last for months have been in place this long.  We still have many other building safety matters to deal with, including other non-compliant cladding systems and the unacceptable build quality of many buildings in the UK.  These failures have been many years in the making and will take many years to put right, but some matters, such as ACM cladding are a vital priority.  Whilst, on the subject of high-rise residential buildings, we have seen some good movement from government in terms of heights for sprinkler installation and the combustible cladding ban.  We still wait to see the final structure of the new Building Safety Regulator, but meanwhile, through the oversight of the Protection Board, fire and rescue services in England are about to embark on the second stage of the building risk review in line with the MHCLG Secretary of State’s ambition to review all 11,000 such buildings in England.  This will be include a triage process that will see our limited resource concentrating audit and any intervention on those buildings that might need such action.

Another matter occupying my time and thinking has been the new fire Minister’s letter regarding the HMICFRS recommendations and the future of the fire and rescue services in England.  Lord Greenhalgh is the current English minister and has a real interest in those recommendations and continued improvement in fire and rescue services based on three pillars of People, Professionalism and Governance. We will shortly be responding to the Minister’s request and will continue our dialogue on the future of our service.  Much of the NFCC thinking is included in a document we have developed with the LGA called Fit for the Future.  This aims to see fire and rescue capabilities be developed through a risk and evidence base that shows the value fire and rescue services can add. 

Reflecting on when I wrote in February, other than matters already mentioned, we were gearing up for a comprehensive spending review.  I now believe all financial bets are off at the moment and we will need to ensure we have the evidence to maintain the position, strength and investment in the fire and rescue services through whatever the spending review will look like. One matter that will be important is data, I have said this many times, but the data we have collected through the C-19 response has proved the point and continued development of this process will, I believe, help us all.  I said in February it was going to be a challenging year, I am not sure anyone realised just how true that would be!

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