Firefighters are used to saving lives; in fact, their work in prevention has led to a massive reduction in the amount of fires they fight.
They might even be said to be victims of their own success. With fewer calls on their core service, what should a full-time fire service do to ensure it is there when we need it and continues to offer taxpayers full value for money?
As we investigated this, the answer became obvious: firefighters are the new frontline in health and social care delivery. Fire and rescue services (FRS) have proven their worth at preventing fire and rescue incidents, with a 40% drop in calls over the past decade. At the same time, prevention and early intervention are in vogue, with the NHS, social care and many other local government services looking to manage demand.
While it’s clearly important to maintain a highly trained firefighting force that can respond to emergencies, there is scope for firefighters to broaden their work substantially. Given their skilled fire prevention expertise and the trusted nature of the fire service’s brand, they could go further in enhancing community wellbeing.
Cutting firefighter numbers is not the answer to the financial cuts and service improvements the public sector needs. The savings would be minimal and it would be a backward step for efforts to improve services.
Instead, firefighter numbers should be maintained, not only to ensure that the FRS can cope with fire and rescue incidents, but also so they can provide support to other public services.
Some fire services are already beginning to widen their prevention work and have run very successful pilots.
Greater Manchester FRS has developed the community risk intervention team (CRIT). The team works with police, ambulance and social care services to respond to incidents including concerns for welfare, falls in the home and cardiac arrests. It also completes home safety assessments and makes adjustments in the home to reduce risks to health and wellbeing.
Essex FRS runs a ‘fire break’ scheme for 10- to 24-year-olds that aims to reduce the risky lifestyle choices of some young people and raise awareness of fire.
In Humberside the fire service installs cold alarms in the homes of elderly patients who live alone. When the temperature falls below 16˚C, an alarm is triggered and a response team will check on the person.
Projects like this have the potential to reduce demand on social care, A&E and acute health care services. By reinventing fire services as broader health and wellbeing services, we can improve outcomes for vulnerable groups.
To do this, councils and fire services need to work together, tackling local needs, joining up care and enhancing community health and wellbeing. This is a vital opportunity to develop local areas’ early intervention agenda, which both fire services and councils must grasp.
Claire Mansfield, head of research; Mette Isaksen, research assistant; both at the New Local Government Network