Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1120 - 1139)



  1120. One final question. Can you tell us what are the principal points the fire services made in their response to the consultation?
  (Mr Bull) Two major points for me. The need for a regional approach to integrated emergency planning, not from a command perspective but from a co-ordination and collaboration and co-operation perspective. Secondly, the other major point has to be back to the old adage of pounds, shillings and pence and funding. I do not think it was helpful recently for the Civil Defence Grant for next year to be reduced once again at a time when really—


  1121. You have just lost that job I was promising you.
  (Mr Bull) We should be expanding the emergency planning function or making sure they are resilient to be able to plan for these events that we are talking about now.

Jim Knight

  1122. You started off by talking about the Fire Services Act 1947, I know exactly what Martin Chapman in Dorset would say if asked this question but do you think we need to update that legislation?
  (Mr Bull) Yes, I do. I think it does need updating now in a number of respects. In doing that I think we have to be very careful in defining in the future what we want our Fire Service to do. It is easy to sit here and say we want the Fire Service to have a statutory duty for community safety work, fire safety work or for road traffic accidents or for floods or for storms or for tempests or for winds, but if we do that we have to be very careful about what we are actually taking on and demanding of our firefighters on the ground. At the moment we have a very comprehensive service that responds in times of need and does its best without a statutory base. I think in some ways the regulatory reform route in amending various sections and items of the Fire Services Act rather than tearing it up and starting again would be a better way forward.

  1123. Is there a danger that if we define more clearly what your statutory duties are that what is not mentioned then will not be done because of funds and, therefore, you will get a less rounded service?
  (Mr Bull) Absolutely.

  1124. You said amendment rather than starting again. Is there a certain amount of updating of your powers that should happen through the Emergency Planning Bill, which we are hopeful of?
  (Mr Bull) To be frank, I am not entirely sure about that. My view would be the Fire Services Act, the provision of fire service and the emergency response is here and the actual integrated emergency planning is here. As long as there is understanding and cross-over and mutual networking I do not think that would be a problem.

  1125. Time is short so I am not coming back too much. After 11 September the New Dimension Group was started by the Chief Inspector of Fire Services, Graham Meldrum, and as we understand it five project teams were set up: Urban Search and Research, Mutual Aid, Decontamination and Hazardous Substances, Appliances, Personal Protective Equipment and Vehicle Specifications, and Training and Personnel. What progress has been made by each of those five teams and what do you expect them to produce in terms of recommendations, further work, etc, and when?
  (Mr Bull) As I explained before, those five groups have been set up and are being serviced principally by the Fire Inspectorate, fire policy and some additional resources which are very minor which have been put into the centre but largely supported by fire authorities nationally from around the country, from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who are voluntarily putting their people in. If we very briefly go through each group and give you the present position and I will summarise at the end.
  (Mr Young) The position with regard to mutual aid is that there has always been a statutory obligation on fire authorities to have mutual aid arrangements but what that group is now looking at is whether that is sufficiently resilient to cope with post 11 September. The conclusion is that it is not and there is more work that needs to be done to actually ensure that fire brigades have the capability and the wherewithal to reinforce each other over very long periods of time, which is clearly one of the principal lessons coming out of New York. That work is going forward now and there is a group established to look at these issues about how we can reinforce a fire brigade that is dealing with a catastrophic event over an extended period of time 24 hours a day, seven days a week and those reinforcement arrangements, and all of the implications that arise from that, are being looked at. As far as appliances, equipment and protective clothing, are concerned, there is a group that is established that is looking at these issues. The Fire Service Inspectorate has already gone out through the European Journal and invited tenders from prospective bidding companies. I understand a number of companies have expressed an interest in bidding for that work. The group is currently developing specifications and determining types of equipment and quantities of equipment and disposition of equipment to ensure that we actually can move forward and the Fire Service Inspectorate, supported by our association and others, will be in a position to move forward to distributing equipment to enable brigades to be able to carry out the additional roles that are envisaged. I have just been reminded, there is a discussion going on at the moment about the feasibility of joint purchasing, particularly for personal protective equipment, between fire, police and ambulance to see whether there is some commonality of interest there and obvious benefits in terms of going out jointly for procurement.
  (Mr Dobson) In December last year a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Department of Health and the Fire Service which basically detailed the arrangements for co-operation between the Fire Service and the Ambulance Service if mass decontamination of the public was required. Following the production of that Memorandum of Understanding guidance around the structure of providing mass decontamination was issued by Her Majesty's Fire Service Inspectorate to all brigades. We are currently in the process of designing a system for mass decontamination, currently in the process of identifying user requirements for the equipment that is necessary to provide that service.

  1126. So it is more sophisticated than two tents alongside each other?
  (Mr Dobson) Yes, it is. We are talking about properly constructed equipment and tents with warm water rather than cold.

  1127. Excellent.
  (Mr Dobson) We have issued a notice in the European Journal asking for expressions of interest in terms of the procurement of equipment. Also we have received a number of expressions of interest from a number of companies and we are looking to hold some demonstration days in the next couple of months. We are also working with the training and personnel group to identify the training needs that will accompany the equipment that will eventually be procured to provide this system.
  (Mr Bull) Lastly, in terms of urban search and rescue, again that group is very active and is looking at processes, procedures, standing operation procedures for search and rescue resulting from a major incident such as this. We already have an International UK Search and Rescue Team which is co-ordinated through DTLR which responds to international incidents and has been abroad to earthquakes and disasters of this type, of which they have got great experience, but we never use that in the UK, so now we are bringing that into play to give us much more resilience. The situation we are in now is in Fire Service terms we identified, accepted and recognised that there is a risk. This work is now going on and is in place and is moving forward but, once again, we come back to the pound sign. The funding that is required for all of this is additional, is new money. DTLR made a bid to the Capital Modernisation Fund and to the Treasury for some £217 million to underpin this future work. At the moment we are still awaiting final results of all of that but the messages we are getting back from the Treasury are not positive at this moment in time I have to say. We do watch this space with bated breath, if I can put it in that way.


  1128. Can you send us the correspondence, if you do not mind, of the arguments, that would be quite helpful.[6]
  (Mr Bull) Yes. The DTLR three weeks ago announced from their own funding £53 million to underpin mass decontamination and a degree of regional support in planning and training for these type of events. That comprised some 40 million capital and 30 million revenue which also included three million for Wales. We have got to move quickly now to put that in place. As Rob explained, we have a Memorandum of Understanding now but I have to be honest that the development of that in different areas of the United Kingdom is at different stages of progress. So one area of the country will have signed the Memorandum of Understanding and have the procedures in place and have moved ahead whereas other areas of the country have done very little. The reason for that is obviously fire authorities are very uneasy about expending additional expenditure without the assurance that the new money is going to be in place.

  1129. Did the Memorandum come with any money from DoH?
  (Mr Bull) No. In terms of the bigger and wider issues which are really around human rights issues, the legality of the fire authority to be able to do this, the litigation issues that may result from this from mass decontamination of large numbers of people, local members and fire authorities are uneasy about those issues and we are in active discussions with Government about how we can resolve those issues. Some of them are unresolvable, I have to say, in terms of moving forward.

  I think we have made some progress at a national strategic level but if you went to individual fire fighters on the ground, and think of the time since 11 September and where we are now, very little has changed on the ground. That is really because we need this national guidance, National Standard Operating Procedures, processes, things in place to be able to transfer that into the fire fighters. One of the pleasing things, I think, is that the Fire Brigades Union, which is a very strong union, I am sure you will appreciate, has been very supportive of these issues and has underpinned the work which is going on which I think is very pleasing to note in these circumstances.

  1130. Yes.
  (Mr Bull) Everybody, the Local Government Association, the professionals, DTLR are all working very supportively together which I think augers well for the future. At the end of the day we have got to produce the goods, and that is one of my major concerns, as I said, that if the work slows down or the funding does not become available then we accept there is a risk but we do not have the infrastructure to deal with the risk.

  1131. We will do all we can, I am sure, to help present your arguments for more money.
  (Mr Bull) Thank you.

  1132. Finally, very, very briefly, a small question. You have mentioned Search and Rescue, we have not asked anybody about the Coastguard Agency, are they involved in all these discussions and civil contingency work?
  (Mr Bull) I think in a very distanced way, similarly with the MoD and other agencies that may be involved in this. At the moment it is focusing on the resilience of the blue light services but we are having ad hoc discussions with other agencies about how they fit into the planning process. I think that particularly comes through at local and regional levels depending obviously where the coastguard stations are, where they are located.

Rachel Squire

  1133. I think you have dealt with a large part of my first question which was about decontamination both in your remarks, Mr Dobson, and yourself Mr Bull, talking about some of the progress you have been making in terms of the equipment and the equipment that will be necessary. Really I would just ask you whether you want to make any further comments about acquiring both the funding and equipment that you think is necessary and ask you whether the equipment you have identified is not only equipment needed to deal with contamination which has occurred and where it is clear what the contamination is but whether you have looked, also, at the equipment you need where it is clear that something is seriously wrong but maybe it is not yet clear just what the substance or form of contamination is that the firefighters are having to go in to deal with?
  (Mr Bull) If we come to the last point in a moment, Ron will deal with that. First of all, we have to understand that the Memorandum of Understanding is an agreement between the Department of Health, DTLR and LGA about how the services of decontamination are going to be provided. It does not devolve the whole responsibility, the responsibility still remains with the Department of Health. The Fire Service is providing that service at a local level agreed locally with all the agencies which are available in that region. We are expecting everybody in the ten regions that we have defined will sign a Memorandum of Understanding locally as well with all the agents so there is mutual understanding there. At the moment we are providing that mass decontamination very much in line with what Jim described, using existing equipment, existing people, existing resources which is a very ad hoc arrangement but nevertheless will work to some degree because the normal Fire Service anyway is doing decontamination on a daily basis on our motorways as road traffic accidents and chemical spillages and things of that nature happen now. That expertise and skill is there but it is more about the scope and scale of the mass decontamination that we are going to deal with in the future. If we are going to deal with that scope and scale then we are going to have to have the right equipment, the right skills and the right people in place to be able to deliver that and the most effective way to do it is on a regional basis. So that is, if you like, the strategic viewpoint. I will just ask Ron to deal with the points on the actual type of decontamination.
  (Mr Dobson) On the actual type of decontamination, in the Fire Service we always work on the worst case scenario unless there is a clear indication of what the substances are that we are actually dealing with. Our procedures already allow for us working on that basis. What we are doing at the moment is working closely with the other agencies, particularly the ambulance service and the police that would be involved in the decontamination incident, to identify responsibilities for identification of the substance we are dealing with. We are working also very closely with the Science Working Group the National Chemical Focus and a range of other scientific groups to make sure we have got the best scientific advice into all the procedures we put into place and eventually the equipment that we will procure. The answer is yes, we do work on the worst case scenario, first of all.

  1134. My second question is about building safety and evacuation procedures. None of us will ever forget the horror of seeing the Twin Towers collapse and Syd has mentioned already the high regard all of us already had for firefighters and rescue workers but enhanced by the tragic outcome of that where all the escape routes just seemed to disappear in a matter of a few seconds. Inevitably that leads us then to look at tall buildings in our own country like Canary Wharf and others and think what about them if something hit them. Can I ask whether you have been reviewing the evacuation procedures which seem appropriate for such buildings since 11 September?
  (Mr Bull) That block of work is now in progress. It is too early in the research to actually report the outcome of the progress or where we are at at this moment in time. Two research projects have been led now by DTLR to look at fire dynamics, the performance of buildings, the actual structural fire protection we have in place now, building regulations, how all of these things interact on an internal risk scale and then how in the future that will influence whatever standards we have in place for the future which is not only about the protection of the general public but also about the protection of our firefighters who we are sending in to these buildings to rescue people which is an interesting concept as well which has been debated in many other arenas to do with sprinklers in large single storey buildings and things of this nature.

Jim Knight

  1135. Can I declare an interest as patron of the National Fire Sprinklers Association.
  (Mr Bull) The other aspect of it is to do with people's behaviour in a catastrophic incident, about what actually happens inside these buildings and how the people react because that is particularly important. If anybody has ever been in a situation where you have been in a fog situation or, heaven forbid, if you have been in a situation where there has been a fire and you have smoke and combustion, the major disorientation that gives to people is amazing and the things they will do are amazing. Children, for example, in house fires sometimes do not naturally go to the front door, they will go and hide in the bathroom under the bath and things of that nature. All of that human behaviour element has been researched as well as a project. We are working closely with colleagues in America and Europe on both projects to get a much more integrated and combined approach to that.

  Chairman: That is a fascinating area, I wish we had time to explore that further.

Mr Jones

  1136. Can I ask a question really leading on from Rachel's question, it is about the capacity of the Fire Service, not just to respond but also to sustain an operation over a period of time. Certainly with the Twin Towers it was not turn off a tap and it will go away or put the fire out and walk away, often it takes weeks or months of being involved. Are you satisfied in terms of the overall numbers? I know we have you both from urban areas and Paul Young, you are from a rural area. Are you satisfied firstly you have got the numbers? Secondly, is the training being done not just for existing fire officers but retained fire officers in terms of particularly dealing with chemical and biological threats? To what extent are you working at regional level or local level with other agencies under, for example, the Military Assistance to the Civil Authority arrangements?
  (Mr Bull) There are several aspects in there.

  1137. You should be used to them by now.
  (Mr Bull) First of all, we are not satisfied that we have the resilience to deal with a catastrophic incident over an extended period of time, hence that is why we have been doing the work, particularly in terms of search and rescue. We have the capacity to deal with normal day to day emergency incidents that arise of a fairly high magnitude. If I can quote an example that you are probably well aware of, Kevan. We had an incident in Tyne and Wear a week on Friday where a chemical factory went up, 25 appliances were involved, 10,000 people evacuated, 150 police officers, 25 ambulances, the whole thing, and that went absolutely superbly. The liaison between the agencies was first class. But that lasted for six or seven hours. We are talking about something here that is going to last a week, two weeks, three weeks, a month, and then still expect the normal day to day emergencies to be dealt with on a day to day basis. If the whole of the London Fire Brigade is taken up dealing with a catastrophic event we are still going to have other emergencies in and surrounding London which will have to have back-up from the rest of the country. We certainly have not got the resilience to do that. That is why we have put together this structure in terms of search and rescue, mass decontamination and everything that goes with that, and the reason why we say if there is a risk of magnitude, if this is the kind of service that you require, then it is going to cost £270 million more than it does at the moment. We are also in a situation where in a way because the Fire Service is part of local government, because of the way the Fire Service control total is put in place, because of the way the SSA works, and Members in this room are probably well aware of the reductions in fire services that have taken place throughout the country simply because of financial reasons, not because of operational or cost-effective reasons, but because fire authorities cannot afford to keep that level of fire cover above the minimum recommended standard throughout the country.

  1138. On that point, it is quite a bleak picture that you are painting. To what extent could that be supplemented or helped by military personnel or military resources at local level?
  (Mr Bull) All of our planning assumptions are based on the immediate response. Fire authorities, police authorities, ambulance authorities, can put a lot of people on the ground within the first 20 or 30 minutes of an incident. Within 20 minutes in London we can have 200 firefighters on the ground. We are probably the only emergency service that can put that many people on the ground at the present time. In terms of the military, we do not know what their capacity is, their response times are certainly not guaranteed in minutes or hours.

  1139. I am not talking particularly about first response, for example, I am talking about if you had to sustain an operation at a site like the Twin Towers over weeks or months, is there a role there or are there resources so that the military at local level could be brought in?
  (Mr Bull) I think there is a role in the recovery phase, as you very ably outlined there, to return society back to the norm but, again, I am not aware of what resources are available at local or regional level from the military, how available those resources are, how sustainable they are, what equipment and things are available there to supplement what we want to do because we have never, ever included that in our planning assumptions.

6   Ev 217. Back

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