COMMITTEE FOR HEALTH, SOCIAL SERVICES AND PUBLIC SAFETY
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service
Thursday 6 September 2007
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mrs Iris Robinson (Chairperson)
Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson)
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Dr Kieran Deeny
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Tommy Gallagher
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín
Mr Nigel Carson ) Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Mr Colin McMinn )
The Chairperson (Mrs I Robinson):
This item is a briefing, as requested by members, from officials from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the work of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, for which approximately 45 minutes has been allocated. A written brief has been provided, and Assembly research staff have prepared a research paper for the Committee’s attention.
I welcome Mr Nigel Carson, director of equality and public safety, and Colin McMinn, head of the public safety unit. I invite you to make a short presentation of up to 10 minutes, although a minute or so beyond that is fine. After that, the Committee will put questions to you.
Mr Nigel Carson (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):
As you have introduced us, I do not need to go over our roles again. However, I want to make the point that Colin has the primary relationship with the Fire and Rescue Service in the Department. We welcome the opportunity to talk to the Committee today. I hope that the fact that the Committee has chosen to discuss the issue so early in the session demonstrates its recognition of the importance of the role of the Fire and Rescue Service in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps it is worth making the point that we are not involved in the operational matters of the Fire and Rescue Service. Our role essentially concerns policy and sponsorship. I will describe in a bit more detail exactly what that involves. We are dealing with a non-departmental public body (NDPB) that has its own board. The traditional arm’s-length relationship exists between the Department and that non-departmental body: sometimes the arm is long and sometimes the arm is short. However, the body’s role is to deliver specific services that are made clear to it. The Department has a particular role to play in the way that body functions.
The Fire and Rescue Service Board came into being in July 2006, having previously been called the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 recognised that the other activities of the Fire and Rescue Service should be enshrined in legislation. The Order sets out clearly the responsibilities of the Fire and Rescue Service.
Members have information on the organisation, but I will describe it briefly. In Northern Ireland terms, it is relatively large. It has over 2,200 staff, of whom nearly 1,900 are firefighters, and more than half of those are retained or part-time. It has 67 stations throughout Northern Ireland with 180 specialised vehicles and equipment. Its budget is about £80 million. I apologise that the figure is given as £77·779 million in the members’ briefing. It should read £79·779 million, but we will call it £80 million for today’s purposes.
As I said, the Department’s role is sponsorship.
It is our responsibility to look for the resources that the Fire and Rescue Service needs, to set the targets and the operating environment in which it works, and to hold it to account. At present, the Fire and Rescue Service operates to performance targets that, broadly, extend to the year 2010. As members may be aware, the service’s performance over the range of indicators and targets is generally very good. The Department is discussing with the service what targets might be adopted beyond 2010. As that date approaches, we need to consider what targets should appropriately be applied and to what they should relate.
A recent very good report by Her Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate (Scotland) on the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service found it to be a highly achieving service, which came as no great surprise to us. However, the service was asked to pay attention to a few small things in the report, and we will discuss with the service its approach to the report’s recommendations and how it might put them into effect.
However, it is worth recording that the report was an excellent outcome with which the Minister has expressed his pleasure.
Mr Colin McMinn (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):
There is little to add to what Nigel has said. I have the closer day-to-day relationship with the Fire and Rescue Service in that I monitor and scrutinise bids for budgets, the setting of performance targets and preparing the items that we address at the accountability reviews that are held between the Department and the service during the year.
You have pre-empted me: I was going to extend our hearty congratulations on most of the report, as it was very positive indeed. I am sure that all members will join with me in expressing our deepest gratitude to the staff of our Fire and Rescue Service for the risks that they undertake on behalf of all the community. We all deplore attacks on officers as they try to rescue folk and save lives.
You touched on one negative finding in the report: the lack of dignified facilities for staff and visitors and the lack of disabled access. The report seems to call for a review of the entire property portfolio of the service. The Department and the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) are studying ways of delivering a major capital investment programme, and that is wonderful.
What procedures are in place to ensure value for money in procuring such investment? Is a private finance initiative (PFI) being considered to deliver Fire and Rescue Service facilities?
As you say, the Department is involved in a major programme that is considering the needs of the Fire and Rescue Service over the next 10 years. That will give us the opportunity to capture the service’s estate, fleet and equipment requirements. As you would expect, it is a rigorous process. More than £80 million of investment will be available to the Fire and Rescue Service over the next 10 years, and that must be heavily scrutinised. The Strategic Investment Board is also involved. Consultants are studying the detail of the business cases that are required to defend every aspect of the expenditure. What is agreed on will have to go through the normal processes that are required to show that value for money is being obtained. It is an extensive and expensive programme.
At the end of that process, we hope to be able to agree with the Fire and Rescue Service what is required to get it to where it needs to be. Much work needs done to refurbish and reposition its current estate stock — some of the stations are no longer where they should be, because of how times have changed. A new training facility for the Fire and Rescue Service is needed, given that the current facility does not match need. That is part of the rigorous process in which we are currently involved.
Does any money that is accrued from the sale of vacated premises — such as those that are no longer suitable or are not in the right position to cater for a wider community — go back to a central pot?
There is always a debate about what happens to that kind of income. You mentioned the private finance initiative (PFI). We will not make a determination on that; however, generally, with such capital development opportunities, Government want to see PFI tested. If there is a prospect of undertaking a project on a PFI basis, it normally has to be part of the initial testing process. We do not yet know whether any part of the process remains suitable for PFI. It is a requirement on us and the system to ensure that it is at least part of the testing process.
I thank you for the presentation. I concur with the Chairperson’s remarks about the Fire and Rescue Service’s performance, and I am aware of the difficulties with attacks and with other despicable behaviour.
I want to ask about the policy so that we are clear that it is right. My question goes back to a recent case in which a child in County Fermanagh was killed by an out-of-control fire engine. The case received a lot of publicity and has been well aired, but the key issue is that the driver of the vehicle, despite having an earlier conviction for a driving offence, was nevertheless appointed by the Fire and Rescue Service as the driver of an emergency-service vehicle. Can that still happen?
That leads us to ask where the Department’s responsibilities begin and end. As the employer and manager of the staff member involved, the Fire and Rescue Service must take a view on that matter. In such circumstances, the Department would not normally involve itself, or interfere, in decisions taken by the Fire and Rescue Service management in relation to a staff member. However, that answer may be less than helpful.
In fairness, Tommy, this is a very emotive and personal matter. Of course, we extend our sympathies to the family. We could write to the Fire and Rescue Service and ask it to address those issues with them, if that would be acceptable.
That is fine. I simply wanted to raise the matter with the departmental representatives while they are here, but you are quite right, we should pursue it with the Fire and Rescue Service.
My understanding is that, following the investigation into that specific event and the publicity it received, the Fire and Rescue Service has critically reviewed its policies on such matters.
It would do no harm to get that in writing.
I have two questions. Will you elaborate on the costs of the damage caused by attacks on the Fire and Rescue Service and what has been done to educate youths who may be involved in such attacks? The other issue concerns the Review of Public Administration (RPA), and I am pleased to see that the Minister has indicated that he does not want the Fire and Rescue Service to be part of that process. If the Fire and Rescue Service comes under the control of local councils, there will be arguments about which council gets which type of fire engine, and whether fire engines will be allowed to cross council boundaries. My view is: "if it ain’t broke, why fix it?" Do you agree?
Yes. I can do no better than reiterate what our Minister has said. He thinks that it would be a mistake to transfer the Fire and Rescue Service to local authority control. That position has now been accepted by the subgroup of Ministers who considered which functions should be transferred to district councils. That decision is not finally past the post, as it is still, essentially, one for the Executive to take. However, that is the view that our Minister has taken, on considering the issue following the restoration of devolution. In that sense, I can agree with your position that it is difficult to see what advantages there might be in transferring the Fire and Rescue Service to local authority control.
When one receives the kind of report that we have had on the Fire and Rescue Service, one wonders what benefits might be gained from a transfer. The indications are that it is already an excellent service. I will take your other two points about attacks and their cost, and I will ask Colin to think a little about the cost issue.
It might be worthwhile to say a number of things about attacks in general. First — just to get them in perspective — while all attacks are to be deplored, the number of attacks taking place is decreasing. Statistics seem to show that there are fewer attacks now than there were some years ago. Perhaps, the initiatives are beginning to have an effect and, hopefully, we are seeing an overall trend that the number of attacks is reducing. Beyond that, it is reasonable to ask what the Department, the Minister, the Fire and Rescue Service and others can do about attacks.
The Minister and his predecessors have condemned attacks on the Fire and Rescue Service and have tried to take practical measures to address the matter. One example was the setting up of a zero tolerance group to look at attacks across the public sector, not just those on the Fire and Rescue Service, but those on the Ambulance Service and health and social care staff. It is in the area of health and social care staff that the majority of attacks take place.
In a sense, it is even more difficult when attacks take place in the community. Obviously, it is more frightening for people in the public sector who go out into the community to perform a duty to find themselves under attack there. Adopting a zero tolerance approach, which makes it clear that no attack is acceptable in that area, is one thing that Ministers have done, and the current Minister also has been keen to show his support for that approach.
Secondly, there is the question of legislation. The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 provided fairly strong powers to deal with attacks and to bring prosecutions when such attacks take place. For the Fire and Rescue Service, there is no absence of will or practical response as to how we might tackle the issue of attacks.
The Fire and Rescue Service also does a lot of work in that area. Firefighters go into communities to explain why attacks are bad and why they should not happen, and they try to encourage the youth in those communities to understand why it is important that services are allowed to get on with their life-saving duties. The service also runs a number of schemes in which it brings young people into different settings to allow them to see, in a practical situation, what the Fire and Rescue Service actually does. Our understanding is that those schemes are not only advantageous but look as though they are successful.
The last area relates to what others can do. We probably all agree that community leaders and politicians should not only condemn attacks but examine what can be done in communities to stop them. Prevention is better than any post-attack response. We must stop attacks rather than just deal with their aftermath. That said, it is also important to have the tools to deal with the aftermath.
The Fire and Rescue Service produced a document entitled ‘Youth Engagement Initiatives’. It lists the nine initiatives that it has in place for engaging with young people on issues such as the setting of fires, attacks on firemen and the effect on the community. The Fire Service has a very progressive community engagement, both at the local political level and with community workers and local youth groups, to deal with the issues that Committee members have raised.
I do not have specific information to hand about the cost of attacks. However, they fall into two particular categories: the cost of sick leave for officers who have been attacked and injured; and the typical damage done to fire tenders — which Nigel and I have seen — by rocks and bricks being thrown at them. In the past, the cost has been significant, but the fact that the community and the Fire Service are working together to reduce attacks means that those costs are coming down. I will furnish the Committee with the details of those costs.
We can provide those later if that would be helpful.
Ms Ní Chuilín:
I want to raise two points. The first relates to the Fire and Rescue Service Board. I am concerned about some remarks that Mr Carson made at the beginning of this evidence session. Correct me if I am wrong; my interpretation is that the relationship between the board and the Department seems to be as close as the board wants it to be.
I do not know if you were following the debate when we discussed certain clauses of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Many of us had concerns about transparency, accountability and openness. Yet, on the back of that debate, we have a completely different situation in which the Fire and Rescue Service comes under the remit of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but has a board that dictates how open it should be with the Department. If that is the case, frankly, it is not good enough.
If it is the case, how is the Fire and Rescue Service Board constituted? Does it comprise departmental appointees? Are the members of the board elected, or do they appoint themselves? I am not being facetious: such things have happened in the past. Is the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) represented on that board? You may have to come back to us with the answers to those questions; however, I want to flag up those concerns, particularly as there are equality issues. Please correct me if I have picked you up wrongly, but I was alarmed.
My second point —
Would you like me to deal with that point first?
Ms Ní Chuilín:
If you do not mind, yes.
I am not sure what it is that I might have said that led you to that conclusion. The Fire and Rescue Service Board is constituted under the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, so the appointment of members of the board is determined by the legislation. Beyond that point, the Department has no influence; however, the board includes four appointees from district councils, representing the four main political parties. The board, therefore, is not constructed of people who are just "tapped on the shoulder". The other members are appointed through the normal public appointments process. There is no question of the Fire and Rescue Service Board appointing itself. That board will come up for reconstitution in four years’ time.
Ms Ní Chuilín:
It is not regulated every year, then?
The process that I have outlined is the normal one for appointments to a board of a non-departmental public body. The appointments are usually for a period of four or five years. The Fire and Rescue Service Board is no different.
Do you believe that the board was less than open with the Department?
Ms Ní Chuilín:
That is what I was asking: is the board less than open? You used the phrase "at arm’s length"; what does that mean?
The expression is used to describe the situation when an organisation is not part of a Government Department. Such an organisation is constructed as part of the public sector to deliver specific services. The phrase "at arm’s length" simply means that the organisation concerned is outside the Department and has its own board and governance arrangements. The Department’s responsibility is to ensure that such an organisation has the resources it needs and understands its functions, for which we then make it accountable.
The board has a good relationship with the Department. We could not ask for a better relationship with a non-departmental public body board, and we have no misgivings in that sense, so I apologise if I have used the expression in a way that has caused confusion.
Ms Ní Chuilín:
My second point is about the integrated risk management plan. I have met the Fire Brigades’ Union Northern Ireland (FBU Northern Ireland) and individual firefighters, and they have raised significant concerns about 2007 and 2008. I assume that you are aware of those.
Ms Ní Chuilín:
Is the Department in regular, ongoing contact with FBU Northern Ireland, independently of contact by the board?
Yes. We know that the plan caused a public stir when it was produced, and a large part of that was due to deliberate, or unwitting, misunderstanding of what the plan said. It concerned the proposal to review the use of second appliances in 12 towns. The proposal was to review the use of the second appliances, not to remove them, and it was simply to look at whether it would be better to replace second appliances in some of those towns with smaller or different appliances. It was, and is, the case that there will be separate consultation in the areas concerned before a decision to change or remove the second appliance.
The final part of the jigsaw is that any decision to change an appliance will come back to the Department and to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety before it is made. Therefore, there will be a number of safeguards. From the Department’s perspective it seemed that the proposal was misinterpreted to make it appear to be something it was never intended to be. The intention was only to review second appliances, not to remove them.
One of the issues highlighted in the Bain report was the recruitment of firefighters in rural areas. What has the Department done to address that?
Mr Mc Minn:
We are aware that around 50% of the Fire and Rescue Service comprises retained firefighters. There are no specific difficulties in maintaining the retained fire service, but the management team is aware that, as towns change and become sleeper towns — where people travel to other towns to work — the recruitment of retained firefighters could become an issue. The management team is drawing up recruitment policies to address that, and to be proactive before it becomes an issue. At the moment, the recruitment of retained firefighters is not an issue and the service has a very good working relationship with local employers who release their staff in the event of an emergency.
What is the potential for greater co-operation between the Fire and Rescue Service here and that in the 26 counties? Is there potential for more resource sharing in border areas?
There has always been a memorandum of understanding between Donegal County Council and the Fire and Rescue Service to provide for cross-border fire cover in that area.
In those emergencies where firefighting resources must be deployed on either side of the border, the border, in effect, does not exist. Resources are shared on both sides. Chief officers co-operate in such sharing, particularly along the border corridor. More widely, senior officers in the Fire Service of Northern Ireland meet regularly with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
In the past, there have been problems with radio compatibility between the Fire Service and other emergency services. What is the present position on that?
The PSNI has introduced the TErrestrial Trunked RAdio (TETRA) digital radio system. It has been fitted to all Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service vehicles, and it is in the process of being introduced to the Ambulance Service. At present, I am not sure when the different services will come together and be able to talk to one another. However, the rolling-out of the technology for the project is at an advanced stage. The Police Service has already put it in place, although training must be carried out in how to use the system. Progress has kept to the timetable.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
Has a date been set for the completion of the project?
As I have said, at present I do not know the date. However, I can find out and let the Committee know.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
What level of paramedic training is given to firefighters?
When you say "level", do you mean what percentage in the Fire Service have received such training?
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
Is there a firefighter on each appliance who has received paramedic training?
Not on each appliance, as far as the Department is aware.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
Is a firefighter who has been given paramedic training sent out to each emergency?
That is not normal procedure. At present, the Ambulance Service is involved in a programme to train firefighters to first-responder level, so that they can provide first aid until trained paramedics arrive on scene. There are plans to introduce that to the Fire Service. It is not the plan to train firefighters to paramedic level, but to train them to first-responder level.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
It is the first-responder training that I am trying to probe. How advanced is that plan? What level of training do firefighters get? How compatible is it with the paramedic training that is given to ambulance crews?
It is not to the advanced level of training that ambulance crews receive. Paramedics are trained to provide a much more intensive level of emergency healthcare. Firefighters are trained to a lesser level. However, they are trained to offer first aid and to preserve life.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter:
Will there be someone who is trained to that level on every fire engine that is called out?
No. I believe that that assumption is going too far.
Undoubtedly, the long-term aim is to provide that level of service. However, it is not yet at that stage.
Rev Dr Coulter is the last member who indicated that he wanted to ask a question. Thank you, gentlemen, for your attendance. You have been helpful and informative. No doubt we will meet again soon.