London Fire Brigade Funding Reductions

Shutting down a firehouse is a tough decision for any fire department. It provokes strong reactions from staff, employee unions, and local communities. But in times of austerity and reduced budgets, some fire departments in the United Kingdom are doing just that.

The United Kingdom has just 50 fire departments. The largest fire department is unsurprisingly in London, the capital. The London Fire Brigade serves a population of just over eight million. It has more than 5,000 firefighters and is probably the third-largest fire department in the world.

In September 2013, the mayor of London’s political body that oversees the London Fire Brigade agreed to shut 10 of its 112 firehouses, reduce the number of fire apparatus from 169 to 155, and make other operational changes including minimum staffing levels for some specialist rescue apparatus in individual fire companies.

So how did the London Fire Brigade make the hardest decisions that any fire department could ever have to make?

Understanding United Kingdom Fire Departments

First, it is important to understand the context of the decisions made by the London Fire Brigade in 2013. Nearly 10 years earlier, the government passed the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, the first major change in fire-related legislation in more than 50 years.

Prior to the 2004 Act, there were “standards of fire cover” that set out what each fire department had to have in place to respond to fires, including speed of arrival to incidents. The new legislation allowed fire departments to determine their own response standards based on the risks they identified in their local plan, known as an integrated risk management plan. Each fire department reviews and consults on its plan periodically and, in the case of London, this has generally been done every three years.

The legislation recognized and reflected the changes in the demand on fire departments. In London, only one quarter of calls to its emergency call number are in regard to fires; in fact, the London Fire Brigade is attending the lowest number of fires since 1965, when records for Greater London began.

The 2004 Act also recognized the pressures of modern fire departments, which have to respond to nonfire incidents including car crashes, flooding, and terrorism. However, what is different from the United States is that UK fire departments still do not have an emergency medical service (EMS) function. This remains the responsibility of a separate ambulance service.

And for the first time, fire departments were required to carry out community risk reduction (more commonly called fire prevention in the United Kingdom). They were no longer purely responsive organizations as prevention and protection work is just as important.

As a result of all this change, UK fire departments have had a good hard look at their estate and resources to see how they can deliver effective and efficient services at a time when budgets are under continual scrutiny to deliver value for money.

The Impact of Austerity

The UK Coalition Government, which came into power in 2010, introduced a large-scale program of austerity measures to reduce costs across the public sector, and this included funding for fire departments. Fire departments are financed through a combination of local and national funding arrangements and are managed locally.

Within the first year of coming to power, the UK government asked the fire service nationally to reduce budgets by 25 percent over the four years ending in April 2015. To give some sense of the size of this for London, the budget in 2013/2014 was $671 million; the Brigade had already reduced its budget by $107 million in the first two years and was being asked to find a further $90 million in savings by April 2015.

Operational Modeling

For many years, the London Fire Brigade has used the services of a company called ORH Ltd. to help model how best to use its resources across London. ORH has developed a unique and powerful program to optimize the location and deployment of emergency response vehicles. Using a sophisticated mathematical algorithm called OGRE, ORH can assess millions of options for firehouse and apparatus placement across the capital city.

The modeling takes into account the location, availability, and capacity of different firehouses; the incidents attended; the resources required to meet demand at different times of day; and the time taken to get to incidents. The model is maintained with up-to-date data about the incidents attended, the policies about which fire companies to send and when, as well as other information. It also takes into account simultaneous incidents, large incidents, or incidents that require resources over many days. Factoring in the need for training is also an important part of the modeling process.

The result of all this work is a “computerized London Fire Brigade.” And it was this long-term approach that was vital to help the Brigade start the process of determining options for firehouse configuration and apparatus deployment that would minimize the impact on incident response while making the required savings.

Modeling Efficiencies

ORH adopted a four-stage approach to responding to the task set by the London Fire Brigade. First, it developed a specification. ORH worked alongside the Brigade to determine appropriate optimization criteria and performance objectives for developing potential deployment options. The approach agreed on was to minimize the average attendance times to the most serious incident types (house fires and other incidents requiring two or more apparatus), taking account of both first and second response at the local and pan-London level.

In setting these objectives, optimization runs could then be undertaken with the specific aim of improving attendance times in underperforming areas while minimizing the adverse effects associated with a reduction in front-line apparatus.

One key input was that the Brigade was able to identify 28 firehouses that were particularly valuable, enabling officers to put in place plans to protect them from any future closures. The Brigade made these decisions based on the strategic importance of certain sites, recent investment in the estate, the condition of the buildings/yard, and other local factors. The flexible modeling approach enabled these “fixed” locations to be incorporated into all solutions developed by ORH.

The next phase was iteration. Many optimization runs were undertaken by ORH to draw out preferred solutions taking account of varying levels of financial constraint and the competing demands on the Brigade. Initial optimization runs were based purely on providing optimal cover to incidents with only the specified 28 firehouses considered fixed. In total, more than 3,600 different deployment options were assessed for the Brigade, with variation in the numbers of both firehouses and apparatus.

Although many such options would have required an impractical level of upheaval, the optimal configurations that were identified could be individually evaluated and compared to the current locations, ultimately allowing for more firehouses to be fixed. Therefore, through an iterative process in which Brigade officers were constantly involved, solutions were developed that addressed the financial pressures and met the attendance standards set by the Brigade.

Preferred solutions were worked on during the testing phase, evaluating them using ORH’s simulation software to quantify the performance impacts of potential solutions. In particular, this involved monitoring attendance performance against the existing standards of six minutes for first response and eight minutes for second response across London, reporting at local and pan-London levels.

ORH could then take this performance information about attendance times and see what impact it would have on particular areas of London (for example, densely populated areas of housing or sites of historical importance). The tests would determine if there were perverse outcomes or disproportionate impacts that weren’t immediately obvious.

And the final phase was the results. Initially, 12 firehouses were identified for closure. However, as a result of public consultation over a six-week period, the London Fire Commissioner responded to the consultation by finding savings from changes to the staffing of specialist rescue units. This allowed two stations originally identified for closure to remain open.

The consequent reductions in the number of apparatus generated the bulk of the savings required. It also allowed existing local and pan-London attendance targets to be maintained. The first apparatus would reach an emergency within an average of six minutes and the second, if required, would be there within eight minutes (from the time of request).

The Reaction

The draft London Safety Plan for the period 2013-16 went out for public consultation (including public meetings) with proposals based on the ORH modeling work. The proposals for firehouse closures and the removal of apparatus met considerable resistance from many parts of the community.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who funds the London Fire Brigade, speaking to the BBC in September 2013, said, “You have to make difficult decisions for the sake of good financial management in order to have a proper modernized fire service which can continue its fantastic work of driving down the incidence of fire and death by fire.”

There was a legal challenge to the firehouse closures and the removal of apparatus brought by seven local government bodies in London. The modeling work carried out by ORH was found to be sound and in December 2013 the group of local government bodies lost its legal challenge in the High Court. The closure of the 10 firehouses and removal of the associated apparatus went ahead in January 2014.

One Year On

Since then, the impact of firehouse closures has been seen in different ways, but in such a short period of time there is only limited information available. The Brigade has however analyzed data for the eight month period of January through August 2014, and the results of this analysis were published in November 2014.

London-wide response times are generally in line with those predicted by the modeling. However, the arrival time for the first apparatus is slightly faster than expected and for the second apparatus is slightly slower. These differences are most likely associated with other operational changes that have occurred since the closures of the 10 firehouses but were unknown at the time of the modeling.

Fire deaths are lower than the comparable period the year before, but the numbers are so small that no real statistical conclusions can be drawn from this; the same goes for injuries.

The Brigade report concludes: “This data suggests good outcomes for Londoners, although it should be noted that the data focuses on a period of only eight months and over the longer term there is the potential for aspects to improve or get worse.”

They are right to be pragmatic in their conclusions. Shutting down firehouses and removing apparatus from frontline deployment are not trivial and have consequences. These are seen in raw data terms (negative and positive) but also in the public’s perception of public safety as they draw comfort from having a local firehouse. This was clear from the public response to the consultation on the London Safety Plan and from the legal battle that emerged at a local level.

There is, of course, the impact on staff morale, which isn’t covered here but could be seen in media coverage as frontline staff left closing firehouses in tears. There were raw emotions on display at the 10 firehouses that closed. This was London’s response, but it could have been found at any firehouse in the United States facing the same situation.

Closing firehouses is the hardest decision. London made it and it will take time to emerge from this period. The evidence-based approach used by London working with ORH helped make and then defend difficult decisions because sometimes there just isn’t any other way to balance the budget.

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