Questions and answers: Fire Authority meeting, 10 February 2016

Question from Councillor Zoë Nolan (Loughton and Shenley Ward, Milton Keynes Council): 

Great Holm Fire Station is only 26 years old. Demolishing it is providing very poor value for money for the taxpayer whether from local or national taxes, especially given some fire stations can last well over 100 years and no school or doctors' surgery would be replaced after only 26 years. Given that you are saying the overall number of incidents have reduced, why do the Fire Authority think that in an age of austerity this waste of resources is acceptable?

Answer from Mick Osborne, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service: 

This proposal is actually better value for the taxpayer and is a much more financially sound and sustainable proposition, both for now and into the future. Furthermore, this project provides for considerable revenue savings over the next 10 years, which would just not be achievable by maintaining the status quo.

The sites at both Great Holm and Bletchley require significant short- and medium-term investment if we are to remain where we are, and these costs would have to come directly from this Authority’s budget.

For example: Great Holm would require £215k and Bletchley £350k of short-term investment for what can be described as essential work, with a further £2m to £3m investment in refurbishments in the medium term, just to maintain the current standards across both sites. 

In respect of the pure current operating costs and other aspects associated with this proposal, savings over the first 10-year period for the taxpayer will be in the region of £6m.

The business case in this financial respect is therefore irresistible. Furthermore, as you will hear, the number of fire engines between the two sites and our current excellent response standards will still be maintained by being much more flexible in our approach to responding to incidents.

Question from Councillor Nolan:

So many people are worried about increased response times, especially for west MK, from your proposals. We are told that fire engines do not spend a lot of time in fire stations and that they spend most of the time travelling around. However, your own data says that they are out in the community for only 22 per cent of the calls received across MK, i.e. they are in the station for 78 per cent of the calls received. (See page 139 of your pack for the meeting). Do you agree then the location of fire stations is crucial to safety?

Answer from Deputy Chief Fire Officer:

What these figures show is that over a relatively short period of time, which was six months from when the new automatic vehicle location technology associated with our new Thames Valley Fire Control Centre was available, that 22 per cent of mobilisations to incidents were received while appliances were out and about in our communities.

What this suggests is that we need to continue to review the times as to where and when our appliances are out delivering the vital life-saving prevention and protection safety services in our communities, based upon our risk and demand modelling and of course identifying and targeting those most at risk.

We have maintained throughout this consultation, and indeed since, that the number of fire engines between both Bletchley and Great Holm, along with our current excellent response standard which we achieve and exceed, will be maintained across Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire for all life-threatening and indeed other incidents.

I therefore cannot agree that the pure location of fire stations is crucial to safety, as fire stations do not put out fires, rescue people from traffic incidents or carry out vital life-saving home fire risk checks and other safety services. Our highly skilled firefighters on fire engines do that as part of a package of measures designed to keep those we serve and protect safe. 

We have the ability and capability to move our resources around, as we do on a daily basis, to meet our risk and demand and furthermore to continue to drive down risk through this blend of prevention, protection and response measures. We have been doing so, extremely successfully over a number of years now, as is borne out in the statistics.

Question from Councillor Nolan:

I raised earlier that very little attention had been paid to on-call (retained) firefighters in the proposals. How will on-call fire fighters, many who live near existing fire stations, manage to get to West Ashland within the required time to be able to meet reasonable response times, and how will it be managed on a match day?

Answer from Deputy Chief Fire Officer:

We have developed and are continuing to develop a different approach in respect of our on-call firefighters across Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes, which takes into account different response and resilience models. This approach doesn’t always necessitate the traditional five-minute response from an on-call firefighter and we have systems and processes which can support this model.

For example, we have a staff bank system and an operational pool of firefighters which is managed centrally, ensuring that we have the right numbers of fire engines and firefighters available across Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes at any given time to meet our day-to day-demand and in addition how we get bigger when we have large or protracted incidents which are thankfully very rare but do need to be planned for. 

This approach incorporates all of our on-call firefighters and looks at how we can best utilise all of our resources based upon their own availability and location. 

Just to demonstrate how successful this has been within Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire, by utilising our firefighters and resources in a different way, despite a reduction in the numbers of on-call firefighters over the past five years (which is a similar story across the UK), the availability of our appliances across our areas has actually increased. This is a fact that was used in evidence at a recently-convened Public Accounts Committee following a National Audit Office report into the financial sustainability of fire and rescue services and heralded as best practice.

In respect of the match day aspect, we already engage directly with our partners at the MK Dons and indeed other emergency responders as required under the Safety of Sports Ground Act to plan for these 30 or so events throughout the domestic season. This will continue and the aspect you raise if this proposal goes ahead will take our on-call staff and resources into account.

Question from Councillor Matt Clifton (Loughton and Shenley Ward, Milton Keynes Council):

Regarding the closure of Great Holm Fire Station, what impact have the views and concerns of the people living in Great Holm, Loughton, Shenley, Crownhill and Stony Stratford had on your proposals?

Answer from Deputy Chief Fire Officer:

We have of course considered the views of all respondents to this consultation, as we have done in the past in respect of other consultation, including that of our Public Safety Plan that was agreed last year and which covers our strategic approach to managing risk over the next five years, and of course we understand and take into account the concerns raised.

We now have the ability to be more flexible in our approach to managing and responding to risk. Part of this is that we can now dynamically locate and mobilise fire engines to emergency incidents in order to meet our excellent response standard.

Of course, our proposal inherently takes all of these views and concerns into account and our approach to community risk reduction by way of a blend or prevention, protection and response measures has proven extremely successful and as ever we continue to strive to improve further.

This particular question mentions specifically the closure of Great Holm Fire Station, I must point out that this is actually a relocation of the assets from two sites, which includes the fire engines and indeed the firefighters, to a new state-of-the-art facility to co-locate with our blue-light partners.

Concerns have also been raised in respect of some residents around the Great Holm site, not just during this consultation but over a number of years in relation to the noise from the day-to-day operation of a fire station, which has had the effect of restricting our activities on a daily basis which is not conducive when operating a 24/7 dynamic service. These comments again have been factored into this proposal.