Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1094
WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL 2002
Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much
for coming. I am sorry there was a long delay but I am sure in
your profession you have complaints about time slippage. It is
not a science on this side of the table as to how long you take.
Thank you very much for coming. We have a very full agenda. We
have read your various documents and we have looked at the National
Audit Office report on Airwave. I will call on my colleague, Frank
Roy, to kick off the questioning.
1094. Gentlemen, to what extent does the fact
that fire services are established locally and resourced and accountable
locally make arrangements for securing inter-operability and successful
mutual aid more difficult?
(Mr Bull) Good morning everybody. I think, first of
all, that fire services are all established under the Fire Services
Act 1947 which goes back some 50 years now and is probably the
only piece of Government legislation which has remained largely
untouched in all of that time. We are a local authority service,
locally accountable. Unfortunately, in some ways the UK Fire Service
now operates within several organisational, constitutional and
financial models in the United Kingdom which does present some
problems in funding arrangements and things of that nature. The
services that we provide are obviously tailored to meet local
needs within the national framework. They are there to cover normal
day to day occurrences. I am sure you will see the scope of the
business that the Fire Service and our firefighters deal with
on a daily basis now which originally in the Fire Services Act
and even today are vested in fire and dealing with false alarms,
and that is a statutory base. The service over the years has widened
out to take on many other non statutory duties: road traffic accidents,
chemical spillages, rescues from tall buildings, high structures,
things of that nature which really fire authorities have taken
on over the years with no statutory database. Indeed, I think
if you ask the general public what their perception would be if
they dial 999 in times of need they would expect the Fire Service
to respond whether it is unusual incidents like a seagull trapped
on an aerial on top of a house or a major fire, a chemical spillage
or whatever, that is their perception and that is the way the
fire services are structured. In terms of dealing with the higher
level scenario which we are confronted with now in planning terms,
following the events of 11 September, I think we are asking our
fire services to operate and perform in an entirely different
environment now to do with a catastrophic event, no matter what
that may be. I think where we fall down now is in terms of resilience.
We have the local service able to deal with the local day to day
emergency requirements very well. Above that, however, in terms
of regional and national co-ordination we have very little and
that is where our resilience is brought into question in some
1095. We know obviously the Fire Service is
localised and much loved and much needed. We know also there is
a debate going on at the moment about more regionalisation of
the service. In your opinion would that be a good thing or a bad
thing, better or worse? Would it improve the operational ability
and would it improve the administrative efficiency of the service?
(Mr Bull) That is a million dollar question.
1096. I know.
(Mr Bull) You might be asking me to do myself out
of a job. This is an issue which continually raises its profile
in temperature, depending upon the political will at the particular
time or the professional opinion or where we are moving to. In
terms of the best value regime that we are being subject to along
with all other local authorities and in terms of the new dimension
work that we are being involved in now, the need for greater collaboration,
value for money, co-operation between fire authorities, the need
to join together in major projects that we are taking forward
now is naturally moving us along a regionalisation type route
in my view. My professional association has not got a policy on
regionalisation but if you ask my personal opinion I would say
that regionalisation of fire brigades would be a good thing for
the future and would help in eradicating the differences we have
in constitutional and financial terms now which cause extensive
problems in day to day service provision.
1097. Could I further ask you on joined up services
and the need for it. Last year the Fire Service decided against
a national procurement approach for a new radio system. This has
undermined efforts to have Airwave, or Airwave compatible systems
used by all emergency services. What factors led the Fire Service
to make this decision? Was it purely financial?
(Mr Bull) First of all, this is a very complex and
complicated issue and actually the decision was not made last
year it was made some years ago. When we were part of the Home
Office along with police, some five or seven years ago, this project
started off being very much led by the police and PTO, their purchasing
organisation. At the time the police moved ahead they moved the
decision to go for a national system which would be procured nationally
and would be the same in every police authority. The Home Office
made available, also, some £500 million I understand to fund
that particular project. As the project moved along it was subject
to various challenges under EC procurement rules about the police
moving forward with a single supplier without open competition.
For that reason, the Home Office at the time Fire Policy Unit
took the decision to allow the fire service to stand outside of
that procurement. Our instructions were to go for a standard national
output specification which would then be subject to open competition
and all of the suppliers would be able to tender for that work.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, no funds were made available
to the Fire Service, and we are talking about some £120-150
million to fund radio replacement in the Fire Service nationally.
About a year ago, just before we moved from the Home Office to
the DTLR, the decision was made to move into a regional procurement
framework and now we have ten regional frameworks moving ahead.
Indeed, the South West and the West Midlands are already at preferred
bidder stage, about to make announcements. We have still no funding
available from even DTLR now for the project. This issue was raised
within the Civil Contingencies Committee about four months ago
now and a small sub-committee chaired by Andrew Smith, the First
Secretary of the Treasury, met this week to consider the issue.
We are now in a situation where we have agreed between the three
blue light services a national specification for inter-operability
and inter-service working, which we have all signed up to now.
The decision now the committee has to take is how the Fire Service
procurement is going to move forward within the overall police
procurement and our own situation. They are coming together again
next week to decide the Fire Service options which are likely
to be either to stop everything we are doing at the moment and
start again with a new Fire Service National Procurement or to
allow the South West and the West Midlands to continue, and then
everybody else to stop and have a new national procurement competition
open. We are also in a position where DTLR made a bid to the Capital
Modernisation Fund for £120 million to fund the radio project
which has been turned down. So we are in the position now that
even if the Fire Service decided to go along a particular route,
there is no funding identified as yet. That is a very, very brief
overview of where we have come to and where we are now. As I say,
it is not an easy position. I think from the 11 September viewpoint,
whatever technologies we have in place in terms of fire, police
and ambulances, the blue services in particular, we have to guarantee
that those technologies are able to talk to each other at the
various command levels. For example, and I hate to talk in code,
but in police and fire terms that would be Silver and Gold Command
level and into control room whereas between ambulance and police
they would have a need for paramedics to be able to talk to individual
police officers, particularly in need of transfer of medical information
and data and medical assessments and prognosis which had been
made at an incident on a particular casualty. Those are essential
requirements. In Fire Service terms obviously with an incident
of the type and size we are talking about if appliances went from
Newcastle to support London, for example, then we would want those
appliances to be able to arrive in London and talk to the London
fire brigade control and fit into the command structure.
1098. They would never be able to understand
what you said.
(Mr Bull) Absolutely, Sir.
1099. However sophisticated the means of communication.
(Mr Bull) There would be a translation at the end
of it all.