Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist in Ealing.
The local councils’ trades union, otherwise known as the Local Government Association, put out a ludicrous press release recently talking about how firemen are tackling dementia, cot deaths, childhood obesity and other public health issues.
What? Councils are very well funded to take on this new responsibility and they should be working with the NHS and their social services arms to make this work rather the co-opting the fire service.
There is a clue in the piece as to what is going on here. Lib Dem councillor Cllr Jeremy Hilton inadvertently gives the game away when he says:
“Fire and rescue services have proven just how effective they can be by halving the instances of fire over the last decade … “
It seems that our firemen have been doing such a good job with fire prevention, backed heavily by regulatory pressure persuading you and me to fit smoke detectors and businesses to take fire safety much more seriously, that they are rather short of work.
According to the latest statistics the total number of fires is half what it was a decade ago.
Meanwhile fire deaths have been on a downward trajectory since the Eighties and are only a third of what they were then.
Fire services have been doing a less good job at responding to this good news with leaner organisations and cleverer ways of working.
The only paper to pick up this story was the Daily Mail whose headline writers correctly identified that this was evidence of ‘underused firefighters’.
So it looks like there should be some kind of ‘peace dividend’ or saving to be had out of the fire service subject to it not letting up on its all important fire prevention work – every time a fireman has to break off from teaching primary school kids about smoke detectors to fight an actual fire that is a failure.
If there is some spare capacity in the fire service then there are two priorities. One is to take out some savings. The second is integrate all of our emergency services more closely, maybe following the French Sapeur-Pompiers model where fire and ambulance services are integrated into one service (which is 80 per cent volunteers, by the way). The right answer is not to have firemen acting as public health evangelists.