Managing risks to prevent an incident occurring in the first place

Managing risks to prevent an incident occurring in the first place can be an effective way of avoiding disaster. Fire authorities are the latest to take this approach. Gemma Rogers writes

The UK fire service has been developing its application of risk management principles in the planning and delivery of its service for a number of years. The recent Bain Inquiry brought the matter to the forefront of the current negotiations with the FBU; many of the points at issue concern the need to base modernisation of the service on risk management principles.

The fire service sees itself as playing a key role in making communities safer from risk of fire as well as other risks, such as road traffic accidents and chemical spillages. Improving community safety means working harder to prevent incidents occurring in the first place, while ensuring the service is still able to respond quickly if they do. Such a shift will require effective engagement with local communities and the development of partnerships with a range of agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

The current national standards for providing fire cover are some 50 years old and are heavily weighed towards property protection. Areas are categorised as A to D: – A being a busy area with a concentration of commercial or industrial premises, and D an area of low-density residential accommodation. Fires in A risk areas should get two fire engines in five minutes and a third in eight, while fires in D risk areas should get a single appliance within 20 minutes. The same standards apply at any time of day.

There are a number of problems with this approach. First, risk changes as people move around. For example, the risks in the City of London during the day are very different from those posed in the small hours of the morning. Second, many of the buildings in A risk areas now have in-built fire detection and suppression systems (as part of modern building design), which ensure that people can leave the building safely if a fire does break out. Also statistics show that the highest risk of people dying from fire is while they are at home at night, particularly in areas of high-density lower quality housing.

A modernised service would look at how it can work with local communities, including the business community, to reduce the risks of fire breaking out in the first place. It would also develop a more flexible emergency response, which would be targeted where risks of death or injury from fire are highest. This response would direct resources at the residual risks, adjusting them as risk changed with the movement of people.

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) endorses these measures, believing that the changes reflect the views of many that the fire service needs to become more proactive. Prevention work will extend from its current focus on fires to address the other risks in the community where fire service involvement can make a difference and save lives.

In many cases prevention work could become more effective by improved targeting of those groups in society most at risk. Most deaths in fires are people over the age of 60, so LFEPA will be developing a robust strategy to reduce the risks older people face. An infirm elderly person with restricted movement might be unable to dial for emergency assistance from the fire service. In such a case, it does not matter how close the nearest fire engine is, nor how quickly it could arrive. However, advice and preventative measures might have prevented the fire in the first place.

LFEPA aims to allocate resources using an integrated risk management approach to protecting local communities, with risk reduction strategies focused on the identified risks. The move will require major changes within the service – particularly to its culture and ethos – and greater flexibility in its development and training of staff as they are asked to acquire new skills. It will also require the Government to ensure that legislation and guidance consistently reflect risk management principles and that adequate finance is available to support such changes.

Equally important will be consultation with local people and key stakeholders in the public and private sectors, to explain the reasons for the proposed changes in the pattern of fire service provision on the ground and to demonstrate that such changes will actually make things better.

LFEPA acting commissioner Roy Bishop says: "Integrated risk management is the way forward in improving our services, and informing people of the dangers of fire will raise confidence levels and help us spread our resources more effectively. We need to get the message across that prevention is better than cure."

Everyone likes the comfort and security of knowing that there is a number to call at any time of the day and night should an emergency occur, and that teams are on standby to respond. While the emergency response function will remain a critical safety net, the fire service will now seek to change its balance of investment between prevention and intervention.

The 'fighting the fire before it breaks out' approach can be applied to any discipline – not just the blue light services. Effective risk management will reduce the number of incidents occurring in the first place.

Gemma Rogers wrote this in association with ALARM, the national forum for risk management in the public sector, Tel: 01395 223399, .