The terrible fire which engulfed Grenfell Tower last summer reminded us all of the vital work of our firefighters to keep us safe.
Our fire services have generally been very successful in preventing fires, with Shropshire sharing in the national reduction of 40% in attendances to fires by crews over the five years from 2010/11.
We are fortunate in Shropshire to be very well served by Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service, operating from its 24 stations across the county. It has 640 staff, of whom 79% are firefighters, with 177 full time and 332 retained (part-time). All eight fire stations in South Shropshire are manned by retained officers. They attended just short of 4,000 calls in 2015/16, of which 1,234 (30%) were to fires. It is one of the smaller fire services in England with a large geography to cover, so needs to retain its pattern of tenders and firefighters to man them.
But nationally there is a whiff of change in the air, as fire services around the country are considering their future governance and organisation structures. Over the border to the south, Hereford & Worcester Fire Service has decided to merge its control room with West Mercia Police, to reduce back office costs which can then be invested in frontline services.
West Mercia's Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion, has raised the question of whether Shropshire would benefit by joining this collaboration. He has published a consultation on merging the governance of police and fire services in West Mercia to encourage closer collaboration for the fire service in Shropshire with Hereford & Worcester.
The potential changes to governance would not see any change to the identity of Fire Services or Police. Local fire crews and police officers would still serve their communities, as they do now, and each fire service would retain its own budget, ring fenced to each service and geographic area. But this proposal would enable significant collaboration across back offices, helping save an estimated £4m per year. Some efficiencies might be found through a shared control room; routine sharing of stations and other assets; shared intelligence; or combined resources when attending incidents such as Road Traffic Accidents or missing person cases.
Governance would be through a single directly elected Police and Fire Commissioner, aiming for more direct accountability and transparency in the Fire Service, as Police and Crime Commissioners have done for the Police. A combined Police and Crime panel would provide public scrutiny to any actions or decisions taken by the Commissioner. This would replace the governance role of the existing separate Fire Authorities, currently primarily comprising appointed local councillors.
The consultation into these proposals ended last month, and I hope interested local residents took the chance to have their say. At the time of writing I do not know what feedback the consultation gathered, but I am interested to see what the response will be.
Shropshire Fire and Rescue do an excellent job, and with Hereford and Worcester Fire Service already looking to combine more closely with the police, it is timely to consider whether services in Shropshire might benefit from doing something similar.