Rethinking the emergency services split

January 25, 2016

The incidents emergency services must deal with rarely fit neatly into one of the traditional remits of the three separate emergency services. One person might think another individual is being aggressive and threatening (a Police incident) when actually that person is having a mental health crisis (which might require an ambulance). The paramedics that go to help someone who is injured may themselves be attacked and, because they have no power of arrest, they need to call in the Police.

If you were designing how to respond to incidents of crime, fire and health emergencies you would arguably not create three different emergency services. Instead, you might design your service delivery based on whether the intervention was to prevent something taking place (crime prevention or fire inspections) or to respond to it once it occurred (sending a team to a fire or to stop a violent crime in progress).

We can see from the Government’s reforms that they have decided to adopt a gradual approach that encourages the existing emergency services to collaborate more. Responsibility for the Fire and Rescue Service passed from DCLG to the Home Office in January 2016 so both services will answer to the same department. In the Spending Review, the Government promised to bring forward legislation “to enable PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services, subject to a clear business case and local support”, which will, in some areas, give both Fire and Police the same local overall boss. By 2017, the Spending Review promises that there will be a new statutory duty for the emergency services to collaborate on issues such as procurement, vehicle maintenance and new stations.

We welcome these reforms because they build up the PCCs’ role as a single local democratically accountable figure with the power to coordinate local public services. Policy Exchange argued for the creation of the post of PCC in our first report as a think tank in 2003 entitled: ‘Going local: Who should run Britain’s Police’. One of the many benefits of having the role of PCC is that these individuals can pressure local services to collaborate and try new ways of delivering services and the lessons learned can then be used by other PCCs.

Integrating different services at a local level is better than the regional approach, which is often favoured by the fire and police services. Regionalism seeks to merge County forces of the same service and this is popular with the individual services because the Police in different Counties differ less with each other than either does with the equivalent local Fire or Ambulance service in the way they operate. The “savings” can be achieved without having to rethink what services are provided and by whom. Instead, they just strip out a layer of management from the same basic service. Often this creates huge unresponsive services that are very inefficient and new layers of management are added later on to ensure the new structure can actually deliver. It is more difficult to deliver real efficiencies because these derive from working out how to provide better services by doing things differently, and more effectively, and this is disruptive and unpopular among staff.

The Government reforms are quite modest – they do not propose redesigning the three services, splitting the different functions they perform and creating new combined teams to deal with specific issues. For example, fire prevention and crime prevention are not being joined up to create a single local prevention team, perhaps led by teams from the Fire Service which has had considerable success at prevention. The wage, pension and rank structures differ according to which emergency service an individual is employed by and, because pay is determined nationally, PCCs will find this difficult to change. Each service trains its employees separately and the trade unions very stringently police what tasks the personnel for each service are assigned so switching tasks and personnel between the different services will not be easy.

The merger of local Fire and Rescue Services and the Police under the control of a PCC relies on “local fire services providing the necessary information for PCCs to develop the business case”. Individual Fire Brigades have a smaller budget and less personnel than their equivalent Police forces and they will fear being taken over by the Police. Fire and Rescue Authorities will be abolished in areas where a PCC does take charge of overseeing the local Fire Brigade so local Councillors will not like these reforms. It will mean Councillors losing their positions on the Fire and Rescue Authorities and others will lose the power to appoint people to these authorities. These reforms will have few local political friends, apart from some PCCs, even though they make clear policy sense and will save taxpayer money.

It is not clear if PCCs will be empowered to fundamentally redesign how local emergency services are provided with local pay arrangements, new rank structures and the ability to more easily merge and split teams from the respective services. The Home Secretary’s letter to all Chief Fire Officers in England, which announced that control for the Fire and Rescue Services would be transferred to the Home Office, referred to the lessons that the Fire Brigade can learn from the Police on “workforce reform”. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) will interpret this as a warning shot, signalling that there will be attempts to change pay and working conditions for their members, and they have already condemned the Government proposal for PCC’s to assume responsibility for overseeing local Fire and Rescue Services.

Asking each of the existing services to collaborate more seems like a smart move because it works within the structures that already exist. However, it may be better to empower PCCs to totally rethink how they provide local emergency services. Whichever option the Government choose they can bet on opposition from the unions and some figures in local government. It would be better that the current battles to reform public services create a new structure that makes more sense rather than modestly improving the existing structure which does not.

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