Minutes of Meeting of The Highland and Islands Fire Board held in the Council Chamber, Highland Council Headquarters, Glenurquhart Road, Inverness, on Friday 17 February 2012, at 10.30 a.m.
Representing the Highland Council:
Mrs L Munro, Mr D Mackay, Mr D Millar, Mrs G Ross, Mr I Renwick, Mrs I Campbell, Dr A Sinclair, Mr R Durham, Mrs M Paterson, Mr E Hunter, Mrs H Carmichael, Mrs P Munro, Mr D Henderson, Mr F Parr, Mr R Balfour, Mr D Fallows
Representing Comhairle nan Eilean Siar:
Mr I MacKenzie, Mr C Nicolson, Mr P Carlin, Mr M Macleod (Substitute)
Representing Orkney Islands Council:
Mr A Drever, Mr B Leslie
Representing Shetland Islands Council:
Mr A Duncan, Mr A Cooper
Officials in attendance:
Mr T Johnson, Chief Fire Officer
Mr S Edgar, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Programme Manager for the Safer Fire Fighters Programme
Mr B Wilson, Deputy Assistant Chief Officer/Head of Operations
Mr M Jenks, Deputy Assistant Chief Officer/Head of Corporate Services,
Mr S Hay, Head of Community Risk Management, Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service (HIFRS)
Mr A MacLeod, Property Manager (HIFRS)
Mr D Robertson, Treasurer’s Office
Ms M Morris, Clerk
Mrs R Moir, Assistant Clerk
Ms L Lee, Clerk’s Office
Mr S Taylor, Clerk’s Office
Mr R Durham in the Chair
1. Apology for Absence
An apology for absence was intimated on behalf of Mr N Macleod, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
2. Declarations of Interest
There were no declarations of interest.
3. Membership – Joint Consultative Group – Substitute Members
Following changes to Board Membership over recent meetings, the Board AGREED to appoint the following Members to replace Mrs MacDonald, Mr Flear and Mr Ford as substitute members of the Joint Consultative Group, to substitute for an elected Member at the latter’s request, as required:
Mr R Balfour, Mrs P Munro, Mr D Millar.
4. Minutes of Meeting of 27 January 2012
There had been submitted for confirmation as a correct record and were APPROVED the Minutes of Meeting held on 27 January 2012, subject to correction of the sederunt to include Mr I Renwick.
5. Minutes of Meeting of the Chief Officer Appointments Sub
Committee 11 January 2012: Annual Appraisal of Chief Fire Officer
There had been circulated and were APPROVED minutes of meeting of the Chief Officer Appointments Sub Committee held on 11 January 2012 (21kb pdf).
6. Service Improvement
The Board AGREED that items listed in the agenda as 6i – Service Improvement and 6ii - Safer Firefighters Programme be taken together.
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-4-12 (665kb pdf) dated 9 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer asking Members to consider, comment and provide direction on a proposed revised Service Improvement Plan, designed to balance risk to Fire-fighters with Community Safety. There had also been circulated Report No. Fire-5-12 (77kb pdf) dated 9 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer updating Members on the situation regarding the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service “Safer Firefighters Programme”.
In speaking to report Fire4/12, the Chief Fire Officer advised that, since the major upgrade of the Service that had commenced around 10 years ago, a combination of factors had led to a number of issues that now required to be addressed, including: standards of training not meeting safety requirements, arrangements for staff development and assessment of competence, command competence, supervisory command at incidents, provision of risk information, additional duties such as flood response, compliance with legislation, and medical and fitness standards.
At current staffing levels, to address these issues, an estimated additional £1.6m would be required in 2012/13, £1.986m in 2013/14, and £1.787m in 2014/15. Costs for a full complement of staff would be greater. Capital investment (excluding ongoing annual capital and maintenance costs) of £5.754m was required in property, plus £6.881m in vehicles. Given that the budget was restricted – the extreme funding pressures faced by the Constituent Authorities being acknowledged – the current structure of the Service was unsustainable in terms of safety and Best Value.
The Board would need to take decisions based on sound, objective criteria. In this regard, plans were being developed to assess community and Fire-fighter risk, and a report would be brought to the Special Board on 2 March 2012 suggesting criteria against which the Board could assess the sustainability of stations.
The Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Programme Manager for the Safer Fire-Fighters Programme summarised report Fire5/12. The Safer Fire-fighters Programme was used across Scotland. Community and Fire-fighter safety were paramount. The Service had carried out over 8,000 training events in the past three years and was now developing a more focussed and accelerated training programme to build and maintain capacity in staff. The first courses would commence the following week. Other areas, such as Personal Protective Equipment, fitness and risk critical information would also be progressed. This would significantly reduce risk. A gap analysis was being carried out and would inform what was required in terms of support from the Peer Support Team (PST). Engagement with key stakeholders, including the representative bodies, was ongoing.
Bringing Fire-fighters up to the required standard was a priority. A report would be brought to the 2 March meeting providing information on what training was required, and the timescales and costs of this. In response to questions, Members were advised that professional trainers were being contracted from other organisations; a training register recording individuals’ training records was kept; gaps in knowledge and skills were in the process of being identified - training would be tailored to meet needs; and costs of training would be re-charged through the requisition process to the Local Authority in which the costs were incurred.
In discussion, Members recommended that, in order to assist Retained staff to attend training, as much notice as possible should be given. However, where retained Fire-fighters repeatedly did not attend training, it was suggested that some form of sanction should be applied. Members were advised that the introduction of self-booked training should assist in arranging training at times which Fire-fighters could attend. It was also pointed out that not all Fire-fighters had failed to meet the required standards; many staff were highly trained and competent, and Members considered it important that this message should be sent out, to reassure communities.
Members questioned whether experience at real-life incidents was necessary, or whether training was sufficient – airport crews, for example, rarely had to deal with an aviation incident. The Chief Fire Officer responded that this matter was open to question. However, if national guidance were introduced, it would be likely to impose standards which would be difficult to meet in remote/rural areas. He therefore proposed to bring a report to a future meeting which would ask the Board to determine what level of operational competence should be attained by Fire-fighters in remoter areas. All Fire-fighters had to meet the required fitness standards, whether in rural or urban stations.
Members raised a number of questions relating to stations being suspended (“off the run”). Clarification was provided that taking a station being off the run did not mean a station had been closed; nor should it be taken to imply that it would be closed. Whilst the Chief Fire Officer had operational responsibility to take a station off the run where it was unsafe, station closures required a Board decision. The Chief Fire Officer explained the process when a station was taken off the run: an assessment was made of the reasons the station had been suspended. The time taken to return the station to the run would depend on the reasons for its suspension. For example, if there was a training issue, additional training would be given immediately to bring Fire-fighters up to the required standards and return the station to its operational role quickly; however, if the problem lay in low crew numbers, this could be more challenging to address. The aim was to return the station to its active role as soon as possible. The Chief Fire Officer confirmed that four stations were currently off the run. Crews continued to be paid a retaining fee. Should neighbouring stations be declared “off the run”, every effort would be made to bring at least one of the stations back into early operation. The Board would be kept fully informed, and Local Members and communities advised, should any crews be taken off the run.
The Convener emphasised that the Board had not agreed the closure of any stations. The Chief Fire Officer would bring a report to the Meeting on 2 March 2012 putting forward a range of options, ideas and models from which the Board would be asked to agree the criteria against which any restructuring would be assessed. The criteria would be based on a number of factors, one of which was training, and an assessment of training requirements was being made. The Board would be provided with operational information, to which Members would apply a political perspective. In response to Member challenge that the Chief Fire Officer must already know which stations were under threat, the Chief Fire Officer stated that, until the criteria were agreed, no assessments could be made. Once the criteria were agreed, he would apply them and bring the results to the Board for consideration.
In answer to questions raised, the Chief Fire Officer advised that Community Response Units would be included in the assessment against the criteria, and also that it was possible that the Board might have to consider closing stations it had previously upgraded. The view was expressed that no closures should take place purely on financial grounds, and that other avenues must be explored first. The Board’s approach should be to identify the capability required and the resources needed, then to seek additional finance from the Scottish Government. The Highlands and Islands had a unique geographical area and unique requirements, and service provision applicable elsewhere did not necessarily offer an appropriate response within this area. At the same time, there was recognition that rural areas had suffered a series of closures - rural schools, police stations, clinics and banks – and that the same fate might have to befall some fire stations. However, the way in which this was done was important and communication was vital, with all parties needing to work closely together. Confirmation having been given that recruitment effort at stations with low crew numbers was ongoing, the Chief Fire Officer undertook to check the Service’s website to ensure that all current vacancies for Fire-fighters were being advertised.
Members commented on recent media coverage which, in their view, had lacked clarity and had caused alarm. Communities needed to be reassured as to what was happening, and a press release should be issued clarifying the process the Board would follow. Communication with communities, staff and the representative bodies was of great importance. In response to questions as to whether the closure of 40 stations, as reported in the media, was accurate, Members were advised that this was an outline figure arrived at through matching current resources to the estimated costs of addressing the issues facing the Service. However, until the assessment criteria had been agreed and applied, and until the training needs assessment had been completed, no firm figure could be given.
A number of Members expressed some dissatisfaction that more information was not being given at this time and that their questions were not being more fully answered. The Chief Fire Officer reiterated that more work was needed before he could firm up any proposals.
Members accepted that the Board was responsible for scrutinising Service performance and for ensuring Fire-fighter safety and therefore at risk should an incident occur. In response to questions, Members were advised that immediate action was being taken to address the problems identified. The Peer Support Team had been put in place and £2.9m had been allocated to training; however, it could be around two years before risks were mitigated. Following discussion, the Clerk undertook to seek clarification on the Board’s and individual Members’ liabilities under Health and Safety and related legislation, and the legal consequences should an incident occur.
In response to a Member assertion that the Fire Brigades Union had previously raised concerns regarding competence levels with management that had not been addressed, the Chief Fire Officer gave an assurance that communication with the representative bodies was an ongoing process and that established mechanisms for this were in place. He confirmed his confidence in his management team. The Convener ruled out of order an attempt by a Member to suggest seeking the secondment of a retired Chief Fire Officer to lead the Service for the next year. Attention was also drawn to the cost to the public purse of having an enlarged management team.
Members sought information as to how the Board had arrived at its present position. Copies of national and internal audits had been forwarded to Members as agreed at the January Board meeting, but these had not indicated that training was an area requiring such urgent attention. The Convener reminded Members that the training situation had come to light early in 2011, when, following a national Health and Safety Executive report, the Service had carried out its own audit of Fire-fighter competence. The findings had been reported to then Chief Fire Officer Wynne and the Senior Management Team in February 2011, and a report brought to the Service Improvement Working Group in May 2011. The minutes of that Working Group meeting and a report had been taken to the August 2011 Board meeting.
Members commented that the move from volunteers to retained Fire-fighters from around 2002 had seemed a positive move at the time. However, the model had proved to be unsustainable, at least in part due to changed circumstances such as additional Health and Safety legislation and the introduction of new duties (e.g. flooding response). It was recognised that a difficult legacy would be handed on to the new Board following the May 2012 elections; Members regretted this and would work hard to correct matters as far as possible prior to the elections.
While any formal decision-taking would take place in public at the Board’s next agreed Special Meeting on 2 March 2012, Members indicated that they wished the informal Seminar scheduled for 24 February 2012 to go ahead, providing an opportunity to apprise Members of background information relating to the assessment criteria, and, following a motion by Mr F Parr, seconded by Mrs P Munro, that the representative bodies be invited to attend that Seminar. Should confidential issues arise, the continued presence of the representative bodies could be considered at that time.
After discussion, having AGREED that the word “agree” be removed from recommendation 7.1 of the report, the Board acknowledged that the report reflected the professional recommendation of the Chief Fire Officer and NOTED:
i. the report, including the corporate risks to the organisation as set out in
this and previous reports;
ii. the commitment to consult with staff and the appropriate representative
bodies regarding the implementation of the proposed Service restructure;
iii. the previously agreed exercise of operational autonomy by the Chief Fire
Officer in making decisions on Fire-fighter safety and competence, including
the potential to suspend the operational activity of stations presenting the
greatest risk to the Board and Service;
iv. the Chief Fire Officer’s assurances that
• where a decision was taken to suspend the operational activity of a station,
Local Members would be informed
• the Service’s website would be checked to ensure that all current vacancies
for Fire fighters were being advertised
• consultation with staff, the representative bodies, communities and the
Board would continue; and
v. that the Chief Fire Officer would bring a report to a future Board asking
Members to determine what level of operational competence should be
attained by Fire fighters in remoter areas.
The Board AGREED:
i. to hold a special meeting on 2 March 2012 to consider criteria against which
the Board could assess the sustainability of stations, in recognition of the
urgency of resolving the challenges faced by the Highland and Islands Fire
and Rescue Service;
ii. that a review of the Service’s structure be progressed based upon the
conclusion of the IRMP review process;
iii. that the Clerk seek clarification on the Board’s and individual Members’
liabilities under Health and Safety and related legislation, and the legal
consequences should an incident occur;
iv. that a Members’ Seminar be held on Friday 24 February 2012, and that the
representative bodies be invited to attend;
v. that decisions as to actions required to reduce risk be taken by the full
Board rather than a Working Group (Minutes of 24 November 2001, item 4i
vi. that a report be presented to the meeting on 2 March 2012 providing
information on a detailed training programme to bring all fire-fighting staff up
to acceptable operational standard and including all budget implications over
the duration of the programme; and
vii. that the Clerk, in consultation with the Convener and Vice Convener,
respond to letters from the Chief Inspector of Fire Services and request
that he clarify statements made therein, in particular in relation to the
“sustainability of operational provision”.
The Board also APPROVED:
i. progression of a review of the Service’s structure based upon the conclusion
of the IRMP review process; and
ii. the initiation of the Safer Firefighters Programme in the Highlands and Islands
Fire and Rescue Service.
7. Capital Budget 2012/13
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-6-12 (58kb pdf) detailing the Service’s capital budget for 2012/13, and the need to focus resources to key areas that had been identified by the Service Improvement Plan.
The Deputy Assistant Chief Officer/Head of Corporate Services drew attention to the main points in the report. He emphasised the importance of linking capital investments to risk, and prioritising projects on this basis. The Board had agreed earlier in 2011/12 to realign the capital programme in response to increased training requirements.
The total capital allocation for Scottish Fire and Rescue Services from the Scottish Government for 2012/13 had been reduced by 1% from 2011/12. No top slice funding was expected to be available. The capital allocation for the Service for 2012/13 was £1,820,000, which, with anticipated income from sales of assets of £100,000, gave an estimated budget of £1,920,000. This was £1,488,000 less than the total capital funding received in 2011/12.
It was planned to use the funding as follows: Buildings - £634,000; Vehicles -£1,140.000; Communications/IT - £146,000.
During discussion, Members advocated delaying the purchase of replacement fire appliances until decisions had been made with regard to the operational network, in order to avoid the equipment being found to be surplus at the year end. In response to questions as to the capacity of the vehicles in terms of water and crew, Members were advised that smaller vehicles offered efficiency savings and were generally allocated to stations with low crew numbers. The type of vehicle allocated to a station was determined using the Highlands and Islands Fire Cover Model.
The Board NOTED the content of the report and the assumptions being adopted in the 2012/13 draft capital budget; APPROVED the draft capital budget for 2012/13; and AGREED that the Chief Fire Officer delay purchase of the six replacement fire appliances until later in the financial year.
8. Revenue Monitoring Report 2011/12
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-7-12 (54kb pdf) dated 9 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer setting out the Service’s revenue spend as at 31 December 2011, together with projections of expenditure to the year-end.
The Deputy Assistant Chief Officer/Head of Corporate Services drew attention to the main points in the report. An overspend of £45,000 (0.2%) was anticipated, attributable to increased staff and training costs, higher than expected running costs and changes in pension rules. The projected outturn incorporated a number of estimated costs and the final outturn could therefore differ from that indicated in the report. It was intended that reserves of £1,255,000 would be carried forward to 2012/13.
In response to questions raised, Members were provided with additional information on energy efficiency works, and were advised that (i) following the Board’s decision in November 2011 not to proceed with Single Status, evaluation of posts was progressing internally, and (ii) HM Revenue and Customs’ had challenged the widely-used methods for calculating employers’ National Insurance. This issue had not yet been resolved and could have implications for the Board.
The Board NOTED the content of the report and the information given.
9. Capital Programme Update
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-8-12 (56kb pdf) dated 9 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer providing Members with: a summary of expenditure and income relating to the Highland and Islands Fire Board capital programme as at 31 December 2011; a summary of progress against major capital projects; and recommendations to review options on some of the capital projects.
An estimated underspend of £746,000 (18%) was anticipated for 2011/12, resulting from changes to the buildings programme previously agreed by the Board in response to identified Fire-fighter training and safety requirements. The Programme would be further reviewed as required. Expenditure on vehicles and equipment was on target and IT projects were progressing well.
The Property Manager summarised the position at each of the stations identified in the report and provided a correction relating to Torridon, where planning permission had been applied for rather than approved. Informal indications were that a short term extension to the existing temporary permission would be granted on condition that a permanent site was progressed in the near future.
The report proposed that construction for a number of projects where contracts had already been awarded should be deferred. This would give the Board time to review its capital programme against the criteria to be agreed at the 2 March 2012 Board, but would incur costs. These would vary according to developer outlay at each of the sites, but were likely to be higher the further the build had progressed. Discussions would take place with developers over the coming week and a cost/benefit/risk analysis for each project would be brought to the 2 March Board.
A number of concerns were expressed as to the foreseeable impacts of the projects identified in the report not proceeding, including St Margaret’s Hope and John O’Groats and, in particular, Fair Isle. For this latter station, it was suggested that a tri-partite agreement between The National Trust, Shetland Islands Council and the Fire and Rescue Service could provide a way forward and should be explored. During discussion, several Members expressed support for continuing provision at Fair Isle. The Board faced similar issues across its remote and rural areas and the full picture must be considered. Mr A Duncan, seconded by Mr A Cooper, moved that recommendation (iii) of the report, that the Board authorise the Service to enter into negotiations with the main contractor to defer development at Fire Isle pending the outcomes of the Chief Fire Officer’s Report to the June Board, be withdrawn and Fair Isle added to the list of stations in recommendation (ii). There was no amendment and the Chief Fire Officer confirmed that he was content to accept this change to his recommendations.
In wider discussion, Members sought information on the level of provision of basic facilities at stations (water, toilets, etc.), pointing out that lack of such facilities could act as a disincentive to recruitment, particularly for women.
The Chief Fire Officer emphasised that no conclusions must be drawn from the report. A review of projects was to be carried out once assessment criteria were agreed by the Board, and the outcome would be brought to the Board in June 2012. Community engagement would be carried out as appropriate as the process moved forward.
After discussion, the Board NOTED the content of the report, including that planning permission had been applied for rather than granted at Torridon, and that the capital programme update to be brought to the meeting on 30 March 2012 would provide information on progress with projects at Stornoway and Thurso; AUTHORISED the Service to enter into negotiations with the relevant contractors to defer development at John O’Groats, St Margaret’s Hope, Whalsay and Fair Isle until the Board had considered the Cost Benefit and Risks report which would be brought to the 2 March 2012 Board meeting; APPROVED the suspension of the projects at Bonar Bridge, North Ronaldsay, Uig and Walls, pending the outcomes from the Chief Fire Officer’s report to be submitted in June 2012, and AGREED that a report be brought to an early meeting providing information on the facilities (water, toilets etc) available at each station.
10. Best Value Audit
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-9-12 (718kb pdf) dated 8 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer advising Members of the publication of Audit Scotland’s Best Value Audit of Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service. The summary to the Audit would be prepared by the Accounts Commission in the coming weeks. A national report would be published later in the year.
The Chief Fire Officer drew attention to the Audit’s recognition of the challenges facing the Service and the improvements made by management and the Board in recent years, but also the concerns identified in relation to emergency cover. The Service had started to address the points raised: additional information had been included in budget reports to the Board, the capital programme had been realigned, and improvements to IT were being made. However, a number of challenges remained.
In discussion, the Convener highlighted a number of areas within the Audit report which he felt were a cause for concern, including the lack of detail to support content, such as the statement that there had been poor leadership in earlier years. Whilst the Audit had recognised that the Service operated in a very challenging geographical area, statistics provided as to cost of the service per head of population had been compared against national figures without qualification, leading to an inference of poor management. The Board’s responsibilities to its communities were part of its decision-making process within the Best Value ethos.
Referring to earlier satisfactory Audit Scotland reports, Members queried how that body’s evaluation of the Board and Service had come to deteriorate to such an extent in recent years and questioned the consistency and rigour of the audit process during that time. The Board would need to demonstrate by its actions that the Audit’s doubts as to the Board’s “appetite” for taking “difficult decisions” were unfounded. Mr B Leslie, seconded by Mrs L Munro, moved that, in view of the serious issues raised in the Best Value Audit and the references to scrutiny failures by the Board, a detailed enquiry should be undertaken into the sequence of events, actions and exchanges that had led to the present deficiencies in the HIFRS. In this regard, the Clerk and Treasurer of the Board should prepare terms of reference for such an enquiry, identify a suitable and independent body to undertake it, provide an estimate of the costs that would be incurred, and present proposals to the Board on 2 March 2012. There was no amendment.
In discussion, views were expressed that:
• whilst such information might provide comfort, the Board’s priority was to
move forward and address the issues it faced
• such a review ran the risk of causing acrimony with no gain to the Board
• the review would provide answers to questions which many people were
asking, and provided transparency.
The Clerk reported that the Accounts Commission would be seeking a meeting with Members to discuss the Audit. In discussion, Members were of the view that this meeting should take place with the full Board, rather than a sub-group.
After discussion, the Board NOTED the contents of Audit Scotland’s Best Value Audit of Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service and that the Accounts Commission would be seeking a meeting with Members to discuss and review the actions recommended following the Audit; and AGREED that:
i. the Clerk progress the requested meeting with the Accounts Commission,
with all Board Members invited to attend; and
ii. in view of the serious issues raised in the Best Value Audit and the
references to scrutiny failures by the Board, a detailed enquiry be
undertaken into the sequence of events, actions and exchanges that had
led to the present deficiencies in the HIFRS, with the Clerk and Treasurer of
the Board preparing terms of reference for such an enquiry, identifying a
suitable and independent body to undertake it, providing an estimate of the
costs that would be incurred, and presenting proposals to the Board on 2
11. Fire Reform - Update
There had been circulated Report No. Fire-10-12 (31kb pdf) dated 8 February 2012 by the Chief Fire Officer providing information on the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill and the Service’s involvement in the reform process.
The Chief Fire Officer summarised the main points of the report. In response to questions he advised that the Service did not have sufficient resources to participate in Pathfinder activities for all four Constituent Authorities, but was in discussion with Highland and Shetland Islands Councils with regard to participation in their Pathfinder projects, with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Orkney Islands Council having a watching brief.
Members again raised concerns at the small size of the proposed national Fire Board, and the lack of democratic accountability. It was imperative that remote and rural areas were represented on the national Board. This should be brought to the attention of Ministers.
Following discussion, the Board NOTED the content of the report and the information given, and AGREED that the Board’s recent evidence to the Scottish Government Finance and Justice Committees be forwarded to Highlands and Islands MSPs.
12. Scottish Fire Conveners’ Forum
The Board NOTED a briefing note from the Scottish Fire Conveners’ Forum held on 27 January 2012 (37kb pdf).
13. Corporate Governance – Scheme of Delegation
The Board NOTED that its Scheme of Delegation had been updated to reflect the establishment of an Industrial Action Sub-Committee.
14. First Meeting of New Board
The Board NOTED that arrangements were being made to hold the first meeting of the Highland and Islands Fire Board following the May elections on Thursday, 7 June 2012.
Having adjourned for lunch at 1.00 p.m. and reconvened at 1.50 p.m., the meeting ended at 3.20 p.m.