Wednesday 3rd May 2017
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY PLEASE
Distinguished visitors and guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m very pleased, that in my role of Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government with responsibility for Fire and Emergency Management, I have been able to accept the invitation of Dublin’s Chief Fire Officer, Mr. Pat Fleming, to open this year’s Chief Fire Officer’s Association annual conference. This is my first time to attend the conference and I see you have a wide ranging and engaging programme ahead of you.
I very much appreciate the warm welcome I have received here this morning and in return, I would like to welcome you all to Dublin, in particular those distinguished speakers who travelled here from abroad to address the conference and I wish you all well in the discussions ahead of you.
As Minister with policy and oversight responsibility for fire safety and the provision of fire services by local authorities, my primary focus is on ensuring that local authority services are effective in achieving their objectives and are meeting their statutory obligations in respect of provision of fire services and fire safety.
Over the last decade, Ireland has experienced an unprecedented economic crisis, along with the rest of the world. Surviving that crisis has been difficult for all public service sectors. Now, however, with many people back to work and with the foundations of an economy growing again, some resources are becoming available. Deciding how best to deploy these resources at both national and local level will be a key factor in ensuring the future well-being of our Society.
External Validation Group
Since taking up my current appointment, I have been introduced to my Department’s National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management and the work it has done since it came into existence in 2009. The Directorate is, to my mind, an impressive model of central and local government collaboration around its twin objectives of fire safety and emergency management.
In April 2016, the Directorate published a report titled Fire Services in Ireland “Local Delivery – National Consistency”. This report was the first report of its kind on fire risk management in Ireland arising from the implementation of the Keeping Communities Safe national policy document. Each of your 27 local authority fire services undertook an initial Area Risk Categorisation process in accordance with KCS.
Each of you was visited then in turn as part of a new external validation process by the National Directorate. The resulting report provides a welcome and timely appraisal of the current state of our fire services.
The Report concludes that local authorities have made great strides towards delivering consistent, effective, quality and efficient fire services in Ireland. It finds that local authorities have prioritised and maintained the financial and personnel resources for their fire services, along with a comprehensive support infrastructure, at a time when resources have been scarce and significant reductions have been implemented in all other areas. Local authorities are to be commended for this commitment to your Fire Services, and this finding underlines that, despite calls for a national fire service from some quarters, it is appropriate that you remain as a local government service.
I think this point about the fit of fire services in local government is further underlined by the emergency management system that has been put in place and operated over the last decade also. I want to commend you, Mr. Chairman, for the role that Chief Fire Officers and your staff have taken on in leading preparation of the local government system and your partner Principal Response Agencies to respond to the kind of situations we have witnessed with flooding, storms, severe cold as well as the other accidents and emergencies that occur.
Of course, our thoughts are with your Coast Guard colleagues and the families who have been struck with such tragedy in Mayo recently.
However, as we begin to move forward again, it is appropriate to ask if there are better ways to achieve fire safety in this country, and are we making the most of the resources that are allocated to you? Only through constant review and reassessment can we ensure that we have a worldclass service that we can be proud of and stand over.
In the External Validation Group Report, the retained fire service model is seen as a particularly effective, flexible and efficient model of service delivery. However, the Report notes that both the retained and full-time service provision models face significant challenges into the future, including the decline of traditional response activities. Further consideration is required therefore of approaches to optimise public safety outcomes for the levels of resources being made available to you to manage.
The “Local Delivery – National Consistency” report characterises Ireland’s fire services as being in transition from a self-contained, individual focus to one where collaboration with each other and partnerships with other branches of local government and other statutory and voluntary sectors are seen as key to achieving the objective of safe communities. You, Mr. Chairman, are to be congratulated again as the CFOA are the group who are leading your services in this transition, which will benefit the safety of the Irish public, as well providing for the most effective use of current and future resources.
The EVG Report notes that services are at different stages along the road to transition, and further improvement is required in a number of identified areas. I have full confidence in the dedication and professionalism of members of this association, who hold the responsibility for managing and delivering fire safety and fire services in Ireland, to continue to progress this transition effectively and efficiently.
We know such transitions are never easy, but you have shown that through collaborative planning and action, the right results can be achieved.
Capital Programme / Community Fire Safety / Fire Fatalities
While the delivery of fire safety and fire services is a statutory function of the individual fire authorities, it is vital that local authorities are sufficiently supported in meeting these statutory responsibilities, particularly in light of the ever-changing demands of today’s rapidly evolving society.
The Fire Services Capital Programme forms part of my Department’s strategy to support local authorities in this regard. In February 2016, my Department announced a five-year Programme with an allocation of €40 million, based on an annual €8 million allocation, to be used for the purchase of fire appliances and specialist equipment and the building or upgrading of Fire Stations.
This Programme reflects my Department’s continued commitment to the Fire Service and I look forward to working closely with many of you here today on the delivery these projects.
Another area where my Department has been working closely and sharing resources with local authority fire services is in the area of Community Fire Safety as it has come to be known. The development of “Community Fire Safety” over the past decade is a particularly welcome approach to fire risk management, recognising that fire safety in society is a shared responsibility. Although it is very difficult to measure the impacts of prevention work, I am sure that a decade of Community Fire Safety programmes are a significant contributor to the overall downward trend in the incidence of domestic fires and fire fatalities in Ireland.
In 2016, 20 persons are reported as having lost their lives in Ireland due to fire, the lowest annual toll of loss in the past four decades. This figure is all the more remarkable when you think that the population of the state was 2.98 m in 1971, compared with the 4.76 in the most recent 2016 census. That being said, there is no room for complacency as the recent fire tragedies in Clondalkin and Sligo brought home to us.
The fatality figure so far in 2017 is showing a worrying increase on last year’s all-time low. While I want to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Chief Fire Officer’s Association present here today and your staff for developing and implementing the Community Fire Safety schemes at the local level, and in particular for the work on the fire safety programme in Traveller Accommodation last year, can I ask you to re-double your efforts in the remainder of 2017 to try maintain the downward trends.
We need to continue to work together at both national and local level to further develop and enhance arrangements, so as to make sure that resources are deployed in an effective manner to keep communities safe from fire and to ensure that there is no reversal in the downward trend of fire fatalities in this country.
I mentioned earlier in my speech the value of local authority fire services working in collaboration with other service providers to make the most of available resources in achieving the objectives of keeping communities safe.
One area where I am conscious such collaboration may be possible is in the development of a proposal between the Local Government sector and the Health sector on the possible use of retained fire services to assist the National Ambulance Service in providing a first responder service to life threatening emergency calls.
As described for the first time in the EVG Report, with two hundred fire stations, the retained fire services could be well placed to assist the National Ambulance Service in meeting the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council’s response target for incidents of immediately life-threatening cardiac or respiratory arrest, particularly in the more rural areas of the country. Fire services personnel in many fire stations are already trained and equipped to a standard which would enable them to respond to life threatening emergencies.
The key information for me is that the EVG Report on Fire Services in Ireland provides real data on the percentage of the population that fire services can reach in 5 minute time bands.
While a high degree of co-ordination of emergency activity already exists among the Principal Emergency Services, there is no national framework or agreement for cross-mobilisation between the services. I know the possibility of putting an arrangement in place to build on the highlighted strengths of the fire service is at the early stages of consideration within the local government sector. However, the challenge is to show the benefits for the community, as distinct from what might be perceived as vested interests. Any such system would of course have to fit with overall health policy, and be subject to appropriate governance arrangements.
It would also have to ensure that local authority fire services resources are not diverted from their statutory fire service and fire safety responsibilities where they are providing assistance for another public body.
If an appropriate and worthwhile proposal can be developed through the National Directorate structures which demonstrates clearly the benefits to the community, you can be assured that I will give detailed consideration in my time as Minister with responsibility for overseeing fire services.
So, on behalf of the Government, I wish to express again my thanks to you, the fire service managers, and your staff for your work at the frontline of the fight against damage and loss resulting from fire and other kinds of emergencies.
I again want to acknowledge here the resources and support which the local authorities provide for fire services in Ireland.
I know that the current levels of effectiveness and reliability of your services, described in the 2016 EVG Report, could not have been achieved without your sterling efforts and dedicated work.
On that note let me conclude by commending the Chief Fire Officers Association on your conference programme and by wishing you well in your discussions and networking over the next two days.