Capital’s fire service feels the heat

AD HOC training.

No strategic development plan for the last five years.

An imminent senior management vacuum on the horizon. Severely limited basic operational information.

Budgets that are not targeted at necessary frontline needs. Both staff and the public at risk of a “significant safety event”.

And, worst of all, a genuine fear that a detailed list of what action is needed to resolve these concerns could ultimately be edited, avoided or ignored.

Some issues need careful explanation before their seriousness can be taken on board, but others just stare you in the face.

Ireland’s largest fire service sector, the Dublin Fire Brigade – which offers life-saving expertise to more than a million people – is one of those cases.

A leaked internal review of the service obtained by the Irish Examiner has highlighted a list of crisis points damaging the work carried out on a daily basis by the emergency service.

Commissioned by Dublin City Council in February and drawn up by Ken Knight, Britain’s chief fire rescue adviser and an internationally respected expert in the field, it has catalogued a series of ongoing problems at all levels of the capital’s fire brigade.

Unlike other reports the issues outlined are not vague, theoretical problems. They are literally life and death.

The internal document has warned that Dublin Fire Brigade’s training programme is ineffective, that the service cannot be sure of its own statistics on which this training is based, and that there are question marks over the value of current public awareness campaigns.

Worse still, it has confirmed that due to significant internal career development issues in the service, the senior management tasked with addressing these issues are unlikely to exist within the next 18 months as most will have retired and no clear, qualified successors are in place.

As a result of these concerns, the internal document has detailed recommendations and a specific timeline for how they can be resolved, including:

Within six months:

* New senior manager candidates must be identified as a matter of urgency.

* A new three-year stategic plan aligned with a medium-term financial plan.

Within three to nine months:

* Reform of current data-holding practice.

* Safety audit and health and safety review to identify “critical gaps and liabilities”.

* Quality assurance programme to be introduced.

* Clarify whether existing policy documents are “fit for purpose”.

Within six to 12 months:

* New inspection programme for all premises considered at “highest risk” of fire.

* New staff number requirements “based on evidence”.

In a statement responding to the report findings, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said the service was working to implement these recommendations as soon as it was feasible.

The local authority, he said, had “proposed to proceed” with implementing the findings “in the order of priority set out”, while “a structure to ensure the greatest level of consultation on the implementation of the recommendations is currently being put in place”.

It is important to note that there was no mention of additional funding to help this process along the way.

As Minister for State at the Department of Environment, Michael Finneran, told the recent Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) meeting that value for money was the new name of the fire-fighting game, it can be assumed Dublin Fire Brigade has a new motto: make hay when the sun shines, and don’t stop when it rains.

It could be argued that this is the reality a country in recession has to face, but such a situation was not the case in 2002.

Eight years ago, at the height of the Celtic Tiger, a similarly damning report on fire services throughout Ireland by Farrell Grant Sparks Consulting was commissioned. That earlier report also gave a lengthy list of concerns, and how they could be resolved.

It identified a new Fire and Civil Protection Authority to help modernise the service and provide strict safety and training guidelines for the 37 separate fire brigade services which were operating independently of each other.

This new authority was expected to cost an estimated €3 million a year to run, at a time when state finances were there to implement the necessary changes. Yet most of the 2002 report’s recommendations were not fully implemented.

There are clear implications of this non-action: official nationwide fire fighter figures show that on average more than 40 people die in fires every year.

Many more deaths of those still alive are just as avoidable, provided the Ken Knight report is allowed to be fully implemented.

Fire fighters perform a vital emergency service for this country. They also provide preventative steps to ensure blazes do not erupt in the first place.

But what the latest report shows is that glaring, gaping holes are apparent in the existing system – at least in the capital’s brigade.

That service is just one out of 37 in the country. While a baseline study of staff numbers, location and their specific training is with the Department of Environment, it is currently unknown whether similar issues are apparent outside of Dublin.

It is not too much to ask that, this time, the issues raised in a damning report are not just taken on, agreed with and then ignored, but are in fact addressed.

Dublin City Council says the recommendations will be acted on.

But Ken Knight’s own view on whether this will happen is not based on promises. History, he noted, “would tend to suggest recommendations rarely come to fruition”.

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