Dismore questions Fire Chiefs over post Grenfell implications for Fire Brigade

At today’s London Assembly plenary session on the London Fire Brigade, Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Andrew Dismore AM, deputy chair of the City Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee led the questioning of London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton and Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, Fiona Twycross AM.

Mr Dismore asked the Fire Commissioner and Deputy Mayor:

‘What are the London Fire Brigade’s future priorities, and does it have a sufficient budget to meet them?

‘The consequences of Grenfell led to your submission to the Mayor seeking additional £6.2m capital and £5.8m revenue funding, which the Mayor agreed to fund as the Conservative  Government  refused to help. How much of that is featured in next year’s budget, and how much is being pushed forward to future years, as some of the equipment, for example the extended duration BA and taller turntable ladders, will take some time to procure; and fire safety inspection officers need to be recruited and trained? Bearing in mind your extra funding bid was in the immediate  aftermath of the fire, what additional funding demands has experience and your High Rise Task Force shown to be necessary since then, for example in greater numbers of  inspections and fire safety visits, public reassurance, advice and guidance, and operational training- I understand for  example that the Grenfell Tower Investigation and Review Team of 30 personnel is currently funded from reserves?

‘The London Plan, if approved in its present draft form, includes a number of fire safety requirements for the construction of new developments in light of the Grenfell fire. This will create extra demands on the Brigade for example for fire safety inspections and advice. What extra resources will you need to cope with this; and from when will this be reflected in the budget?

‘This year’s LFB budget submission to the Mayor, before any application of reserves or new savings proposals, indicates a budget gap of £0.3m in 2019/20, rising to £19.0m in 2020/21, £22.5m in 2021/22 and £24.5m in 2022/23. The Budget Flexibility Reserve will enable the gap to be bridged to 20/21, but after that from 2021 onwards there is a significant and growing black hole. How do you see that being filled?

‘In light of the Grenfell Tower fire, how are you reviewing and amending command and control procedures to avoid confusion at major incidents; as well as addressing the IT inadequacies and failures on Control Units, which failures predated Grenfell according to evidence given at the inquiry?

‘What changes are you making to procedures for handling large numbers of fire survival guidance calls and for better communications between Control and fireground commanders during major incidents like Grenfell ?

‘How can you assure people that ‘stay-put’ is still the right advice; in what circumstances and how would that advice be changed; who makes the decision; and when and how is that communicated to and by Control, and to residents?’

The Fire Commissioner Dani Cotton said that:

The priority is to support the Grenfell investigation, and committing the resources needed to learn the right lessons. For example the quality of operational risk information fell below the standards expected. New equipment such as fire hoods is being rolled out, the drone trials have been successful, improving situational awareness, thermal imaging equipment was used recently and successfully at an incident at a school. These enable us to fight fires effectively, but also minimise disruption. The brigade aims to be more open, and there has been improved outreach through open days to open the big red doors up more.

On Grenfell, her thoughts are with service personnel, those who survived and those who lost their lives. Work continues with Dame Judith Hackitt and changing regulations.

There were a number of factors in the money the LFB had asked for, such as extended height aerial ladders, and the budget reflects the pattern of spending, such as recruiting fire safety apprentices, but also to support changing the way we work. The cost of Grenfell in time and work on the internal team is high, but they were committing the resources needed to complete the internal investigation and police inquiries.

The brigade faces major cost pressures, such as the need to spend £57 million over 4 years on the fleet, £14 million for a new training centre and £5 million on Plumstead Fire Station. The Mayor has allocated £20 million and there will be £19.6 million in reserve drawdowns to manage priority spend. The Brigade have resources for now, but there are serious questions going forward.

The London Plan should not mean a need for more fire resources, as the quality of buildings and fire resilience improves. They are however concerned about the competencies and skills of professionals in the design and development of new buildings.

The LFB are looking at how to improve communications, through reviewing policies and procedures, especially at the fireground, but also through improved IT. New technology such as Bluetooth should improve the communications interface. Control needs improvement, especially to the fireground and with other emergency services, which they are addressing as part of the Control Unit fleet replacement.

On fire survival guidance there is a review of information and policies. This is being tested in Control Units and being trialled at Merton Control Centre. The key to success here is training.

“Stay Put” advice is predicated on building structures resisting fire for 60 minutes, which is long enough for the fire brigade to come and put out the fire. Some buildings still have cladding, where stay put advice is no longer appropriate, but the location of these buildings is known, and measures are in place. They have enhanced high rise attendance with 10 pumps and an aerial unit dispatched. Unfortunately, the majority of buildings are single staircase, which is difficult during an evacuation, as those exiting the building get in the way of firefighters entering it.

Deputy Mayor Dr Fiona Twycross AM added:

A problem with Grenfell was that previously identified savings such as day crewing and alternate crewing are no longer palatable, so they are looking at other ways to manage the budget gap. However, it is difficult to maintain frontline services and there are no answers yet to the long-term budget gap.

Mr Dismore continued:

‘I’d also like to ask about some of the recent written statements to the inquiry. Assistant Commissioner Mills referred to the number of sickness absences, due to stress. What has been the impact operationally, while the Brigade has been below establishment? How is this being addressed?

‘Firefighters in their written evidence have been very complimentary about you, Commissioner, they recognise your attendance at the fire, which helped break down the historical “us and them” culture between management and firefighters, and the change in the way they are supported by the Brigade and the way the Brigade looks after staff. Stress and anxiety can be very debilitating, so how are you supporting people to return to duty, and given scrutiny of the Brigade’s sickness levels, will you show separately Grenfell related absences?

Commissioner Cotton replied that:

It has been challenging to maintain the operational establishment, for which we have had to use overtime. This is not ideal, but once we have establishment back up to strength, that will help. On sickness and absences, she was glad people are able to speak about it, and that it is being recorded, which would not have happened in the past. They are doing proactive work on health and wellbeing to reduce sickness leave, and the provision of an in-house counselling team. But if they do need to be absent we support them. They are also tackling the stigma of mental health issues and encouraging people to talk about depression and anxiety.

Grenfell is often a contributing factor but is often not the only cause of ill health. The HR team is monitoring the situation and recognise this is something that will change over time.