Report on fire and rescue services

12 March 2009

The Public Accounts Committee publishes a report on Fire and Rescue Services’ capacity to respond to terrorist and other large-scale incidents

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"New Dimension fire and rescue equipment has proved to be useful in the response to recent major incidents such as Buncefield and the 2007 summer floods, and the new capability it brings is welcome. But it has not been tested either in real life or in practice exercises to the levels envisaged by the government when the programme was established following the September 2001 attacks on the USA.

"There are simply too many lacunae in the DCLG’s knowledge of the readiness of the programme and of what it is capable. There is no comprehensive data on the availability of New Dimension and other equipment across the country. The department is also less than fully informed about the skills available among firefighters in all Fire and Rescue services to operate the new kit. “The command and control arrangements are uncertain, with an unacceptable level of confusion among local Fire and Rescue services about who makes the decision to deploy the equipment. And many Fire and Rescue Services are remiss at planning for catastrophic incidents, especially at a regional or national scale.

"The DCLG must get a grip on all of this so that, if there is a catastrophic incident, a well-planned and coordinated fire and rescue operation can play its proper part in the overall emergency service response. It is not comfortable to contemplate the alternative."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 10th report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Communities and Local Government, including the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, examined the programme’s delivery, the adequacy of firefighter skills and the use of the equipment in practice.

The New Dimension programme (“the programme”) was established by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now the Department for Communities and Local Government—“the Department”) following the terrorist attacks in the United States of America on 11 September 2001. Its aim was to enable Fire and Rescue Services to respond effectively to terrorist and other large-scale incidents such as flooding. The programme has procured specialist vehicles and equipment, funded training for firefighters and provided other support. It has cost around £330 million, with the procurement of vehicles and equipment now almost complete. The programme has enhanced the Fire Service’s capacity to respond to terrorist and other large scale emergency events, as demonstrated by its use in major incidents such as the Buncefield oil depot fire in December 2005 and the flooding in the summer of 2007.

Up to 2005 the procurement of the equipment was conducted poorly with inadequate programme, project and financial management. There was no overall implementation plan or clarity of scope or objectives. In 2004, weak financial controls allowed a fraud of £867,200 to remain undetected for nine months. Improvements in the programme’s management were made by bringing in consultants and training finance staff. The consultants cost more than envisaged, however, and programme and project decision making would have been enhanced if supported by more reliable financial information.

The programme funded the training of around 10,000 firefighters in all new equipment types, mostly at the Fire Service College. The adequacy of current and future skills will be affected, however, by the extent to which trained firefighters have been moved to alternative duties, and whether training quality is benchmarked rigorously. Maintaining skills may be expensive and more demanding if potential large-scale incident threats increase. The Department intends to rely on individual Fire Services to maintain firefighters’ skills, with occasional monitoring from the National Operational Assurance team and the Audit Commission’s oversight of operational performance.

New Dimension equipment has been used successfully at three large-scale incidents, but has yet to be tested to its limits. Clarification of command and control arrangements over equipment deployment is required for local Fire and Rescue Services. Information on non-New Dimension equipment held by the National Co ordination Centre is incomplete and gaps exist in agreed common operational procedures. Well co-ordinated major emergency planning at local and regional level will be essential if effective use is to be made of the equipment in the future. Retaining a strategic response oversight role will be essential if Fire Service capability is to remain relevant and adequate to changing threats and risks.

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