A transformation of the firefighter’s traditional role is well underway at the UK’s West Midlands Fire Service, which serves 2.7 million people at the heart of England. The brigade, which is the country’s second biggest outside London, is establishing itself as one prized by its diverse communities for providing a range of services which go far beyond emergency response.
WMFS has led the way in reducing call-out demand from emergency ‘999’ calls, through its prevention and protection activities. Response work now accounts for just 10 per cent of its 1,322 firefighters’ time.
However, a public commitment to providing a five-minute response to life or property-threatening incidents remains central to WMFS’s Service Delivery Model. A focus on operational excellence means that training accounts for just over a third of a West Midlands firefighter’s time on duty.
And 40 per cent of their time is now dedicated to the prevention and protection work that the service sees as crucial in enabling its communities – people and businesses – to be safe, confident and aspirational. West Midlands Fire Service believes that:
- Assertive firefighting makes a difference
- Resources should be located according to risk
- Its five-minute attendance target should be maintained and improved
- Response should be tailored to risk
- Prevention and protection – ‘upstream firefighting’ – are an integral part of a firefighter and fire and rescue service’s role
- Staff should be enabled to continually improve and develop.
The West Midlands has a diverse and multi-cultural population, spread across 350 square miles. It includes areas with the highest risk in England outside of London, presenting a range of socio-economic and health and well-being challenges.
Situated in the middle of England and the UK, the area has a busy road and rail network and large swathes of heavy industry. Birmingham is home to one of the UK’s biggest international airports.
WMFS’s Service Delivery Model takes account not only of such local risks, but national risk data as well. The service must be ready at all times to cope with a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive (CBRNe) emergency. It also shoulders demanding national resilience responsibilities.
Its 38 fire stations are distributed to support its risk-based, five-minute response standard. They are home to 41 standard fire engines (otherwise known as Pump Rescue Ladders or PRLs) which are complemented by a new fleet of smaller, more agile 4×4 Brigade Response Vehicles (BRVs).
The brigade has dispensed with the historic ‘one size fits all’ approach to response. It now works to match response to the risk posed, and dynamically increases or decreases the resources deployed to an incident as information is received.
This is achieved through:
- A varied vehicle fleet
- Varied equipment provision and flexible crewing levels
- Gleaning as much information from the caller to understand the incident being responded to
- Aligning the number of people sent to a prevention or protection activity with actual need.
Chief Fire Officer Phil Loach was born and bred in the ‘West Mids’. He joined the service he now heads in 1994.
He said: “The role of a modern-day firefighter is evolving rapidly and becoming more and more technical. Training to be operationally excellent is critical. When we respond to incidents, we want to do so safely, effectively and assertively. That requires having excellent, highly-skilled and professional firefighters with behaviours to deliver meaningful outcomes.
“Our firefighters train and undertake personal development on a daily basis, and we complete more than 100 large, multi-agency exercises every year. Thanks to our training being distributed throughout the brigade area rather than at one central location, crews can train and yet still be available for emergency calls.
“We make the West Midlands Safer through effective and targeted actions. We strive to reduce risk and to limit the severity of an incident. Risk can be immediate or longer term in nature, so our decisions are evidence-based and regularly reviewed.
“We place great emphasis on maintaining and improving our frontline service delivery because we know that our communities expect us to offer the highest possible attendance standards. And we know, from our research, that safe and assertive action when we get to a scene are paramount.
“There are many ways to measure success, and a key factor is how often we prevent a fire or incident from escalating. When we restrict a fire to the room where it started, a family can remain in their home. It can also be measured by how often the fire is limited to the item that first catches light. In our delivery area, the average is three square meters of fire damage in a domestic property.”
Recent research by WMFS shows that more than 71 per cent of homes where there is a fire are fitted with smoke alarms, and that survivability depends on:
- a closed door between the fire compartment and the person (prevention)
- a working smoke detector (protection)
- fire crews’ attendance time (response)
Achieving the fastest response time possible is evidentially important to survivability – and not just for fires, says WMFS. It asked 20 doctors if its five-minute attendance standard was key to victims surviving serious road traffic collisions, and the vast majority strongly agreed.
Added CFO Loach: “Our operational readiness and excellence go hand in glove with the wide range of prevention and protection activities we undertake. But these aren’t optional add-ons. They are essential if we’re to maintain our track record of reducing emergencies, vulnerability and risk in our communities.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising developments in WMFS’s recent history is its growing reputation for tackling health inequalities as part of its prevention agenda.
The brigade is the first and only organisation to be endorsed by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London. Sir Michael, who is also President-Elect of the World Medical Association, specialises in the social determinants of health – the factors which affect whether someone lives a long and healthy life.
He has praised WMFS for clearly recognising the links between people’s risk from fire and the conditions in which they live. The organisation now incorporates the so-called ‘Marmot Principles’ into its wide-ranging work making the West Midlands safer – with a focus on vulnerable residents and communities.
In its report ‘Improving Lives to Save Lives’, WMFS highlights its strategic commitment to prevention and well-being, recognising their key role in measurably reducing the number of house fires and fire-related deaths.
Sir Michael said: “I am delighted to endorse the work of West Midlands Fire Service in tackling health inequalities, and privileged to have them as a partner. They clearly recognise the link between the need to keep local people safe and the impact of poverty, deprivation and health inequalities.
“They use their trusted brand to work across the whole community, delivering a wide range of programmes, from inspiring young people experiencing difficulties to engaging with frail elderly and disabled high-risk householders.
“Fires and ill health occur in the more deprived areas, involving people at the bottom of the socio-economic gradient – the homeless, or those living in poor quality housing, whose circumstances have led them to take up unhealthy life styles.
“WMFS deliver home fire safety checks to the most deprived and high-risk householders. They engage with members of the public of all ages and from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. They not only attempt to prevent fires and keep people safe, but are also involved in leading on prevention programmes from home safety to road safety.
“Their firefighters’ special and trusted role in society places them in the perfect position to deliver interventions that are designed to encourage the development of confident, healthy and resilient communities.”
CFO Loach added: “We now do so much more than putting out fires and rescuing people from car crashes, and our prevention work is about much more than simply fitting smoke alarms. Sir Michael recognises this, and we are extremely proud of his endorsement.
“The same West Midlands crews who turn up on blue lights and sirens when you crash your car or have a fire are the same you’ll see delivering our crucial prevention work. We’re often the envy of other agencies for our ability to be able to get a foot through the door.
The trust that people place in our firefighters means they’re now also immersed in delivering health and well-being messages. A healthy West Midlands is a West Midlands much less prone to fire. By continuing to drive down emergencies, vulnerability and risk we can keep delivering the five-minute emergency response that our communities value so highly.
“Sir Michael’s endorsement is a testimony to the dedication that our staff display every day in making the West Midlands safer.”
A video showing how WMFS works with vulnerable people such as the elderly and homeless can be viewed on its YouTube channel. The brigade tweets via @WestMidsFire, and CFO Loach is @PhilipLoach.
For further information, go to www.wmfs.net