CONCERNS have been raised that Scots fire chiefs are increasing risk by considering plans to dramatically cut call outs by up to 85% to ’emergencies’ including at hospitals, care homes and hotels.
The move has come as new figures show that ‘unnecessary’ blue light journeys have risen from 53,000 in 2013/14 to 57,000 now.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is consulting on plans to dramatically and “safely” slash the number of call outs to false alarms, known as Unwanted Fire Alarm Signals (UFAS).
It has emerged that through three options, involving in one case non-attendance to all automatic fire alarms to non-domestic premises without a confirmed sign of fire, the cuts to call outs sought is between 61% and 85%.
An analysis has worked out that it would help cut costs, drastically cut the hours firefighters spend on false alarms and even cut fleet carbon emissions making the service “a more environmentally sustainable organisation”.
But Scottish Care, the largest group of independent sector social care providers across Scotland, has raised concerns about the move.
A Scottish Care spokesman said: “We appreciate that there are very real pressures upon the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in responding to emergency call outs.
“The rise in unnecessary blue light call outs is alarming. We fully support efforts to reduce these.
“However, at a time of very real staffing pressure in the care home sector and in the midst of real pressures as a result of the pandemic and its ongoing management, we are concerned that the introduction of significant changes to emergency response could increase risk.
“The care sector needs to work closely with the SFRS to ensure we get the right balance between reducing unnecessary call outs and public safety, and the timing of any significant change will be very critical.
“Scottish Care is committed to continuing to work with SFRS to achieve this.”
SFRS say that most alarms are activated by faults or other causes like steam or burnt food with only two per cent actually involving a fire, most of which are put out before the arrival of crews.
One option being considered to cut attendances by 85% would see no vehicle response at any non-domestic properties where an automatic fire alarm goes off if operations control staff cannot confirm there is a fire or sign of fire through a “call challenge”.
The fire service say this would release 54,466 hours of extra time a year for firefighters “to utilise more productively”. It also says it will cut the fire services’s carbon footprint by 489 tonnes per year.
That would include what the fire service call ‘sleeping risk’ properties including hospitals, care homes, sheltered housing, boarding schools, hotels, holiday residences and prisons.
An identical option would see properties that have a ‘sleeping risk’ exempt from non-attendance. That is estimated to cut attendances by 61% and release 39,087 firefighter hours.
A third option, which would see operational staff advising callers that they will not attend unless a back-up 999 call confirming fire, or signs of a blaze are received, would cut attendances by 71%. This too would see properties with ‘sleeping risks’ exempt and release 45,495 firefighter hours.
The fire service says that currently the legal responsibility to acertain if there is a fire when an alarm goes off is with whoever is responsible for the property affected, “custom and practice” has resulted in this investigation being undertaken by fire crew.
They do not believe that the fire alarm challenges would significantly impact on call-handling times.
SFRS Assistant Chief Officer Stuart Stevens said “The advantages of getting duty holders to accept their legal responsibilities and reducing these callouts are clear. Making this change means we can free up firefighters’ time, be even more responsive in genuine emergencies and use SFRS resources more effectively.
“We can also carry out more training and fire prevention activity, as well as realising the related benefits of improving road safety and reducing our carbon impact.
“These unnecessary blue light journeys bring risks to our crews, other road users and pedestrians as well as impacting the environment with an estimated 575 tonnes of carbon emissions produced – the equivalent of heating 230 homes a year.
“Businesses will also experience less disruption as they no longer need to wait for us to attend to give the all clear after a false alarm.”
The fire service, which is consulting on their plans, admit the proposals carry with them “an element of risk and uncertainty”.
They say that any change to their response will be monitored to ensure there is not a risk to people or buildings.
They say that they would “regularly check and test” the fire safety arrangements of buildings where there is a ‘sleeping risk’ through its fire safety enforcement framework.
In an fire service analysis, there is a concession that the moves could cause “reputational damage”.
But they say: “We will ensure our final decision considers the feedback of stakeholders and reflects any significant concerns they have.
“Any changes we implement following consultation will be done through a carefully planned and managed approach, which will include working with stakeholders who may be directly affected, to ensure they are prepared for any changes we make.”
And they also admit it could pose an increased risk to firefighter safety if faced with a more developed fire.
But they believe what they call “ongoing core skills training” will ensure firefighters can safely, competently and effectively deal with that.
“We will monitor and review incidents, to ensure any lessons are learned and improvements in firefighter safety are made,” the analysis said.
“Based on vehicle accident and injury statistics relating to attending UFAS, it could be argued that road risk from unnecessary blue light journeys is greater than any risk to firefighters from more developed fires because of implementing any of the proposed options.”
Under the options where ‘sleeping risk’ properties are exempt, the plan would be to have an automatic attendance of two fire appliances regardless of the time of day, at care homes, residential homes for elderly and children, and sheltered housing that is not self contained.
An analysis states: “Residential care Homes house our most vulnerable residents in our communities. Building design and construction, numbers of staff/residents and the nature of the occupancy place these types of property in our highest risk to life category from fire.
“It is for this reason that a response of two fire appliances is maintained always.”
It would also mean that one appliance would attend between 7am and 6pm and two outwith those hours at other ‘sleeping risk’ propterties including hotels, boarding schools, homes for homeless and asylum seekers, prisons, hostels, student halls of residence, military barracks, holiday residences, and monasteries and convents.
The analysis adds: “The response to these… properties is based on suitably trained staff being present to manage a fire evacuation and investigate the cause of an automatic fire alarm ensuring an appropriate response is maintained at night when people are asleep.”
The moves have come SFRS set a target to cut false alarm call outs by 15% between 2017 and 2020 but admit they been unable to meet that.
In fact, from April 2017 to end March 2020, UFAS increased rose by 3% across Scotland.
Assistant Chief Officer Stevens said that most UK fire and rescue services now seek confirmation of a fire before attending and that “now is the time for the SFRS make this change too.”
A consultation is due to run till October 11 and a preferred option is expected to be decided by the end of the year.