“Grab a kebab” and other lessons in prevention and behaviour change from the fire services

Although not widely recognised across the rest of the public sector, Fire and Rescue Services have arguably gone further in terms of demand management and service prevention than any single public service body. Over the past 10 years the fire service has overseen a substantial reduction in the level of demand for its services. This blog explores how this has been achieved and what lessons there might be for other public service providers. Further, it is also worth exploring whether this capability and skill within the fire service could be harnessed to support demand reduction on other public services.

There are a number of reasons why the fire service has been so successful in reducing demand and specifically reducing accidental dwelling fires. These are summarised below:

Legislation – across the nation the fire service has for many years been actively pursuing policy and legislative change that will reduce the likelihood of serious injuries (or death) from fires or even fires starting in the first place. This might range from tighter standards around furniture manufacture, to the banning of smoking in indoor public places, to tighter building controls to legislation around implementing smoke detectors on private and public landlords.

Education – across the UK different Fire Brigades have invested significant resources in all forms of education. This ranges from traditional delivery means, such as promoting fire safety in schools (in Essex in over 80% of schools, every child will have heard a fire safety message from the Fire Brigade at least three times before the reach 16 – over 117,000 children were seen last year) to far more subtle delivery means, which have more to do with “behaviour change” than outright education. For example, Essex runs a campaign using the strapline “Grab a kebab” – i.e. if you’ve had a few beers grab a kebab on the way home rather than cranking up the chip pan.

Taking advantage of Fires – the fire service is proactive in a way that very few other agencies are when an event happens. There are two aspects to this, firstly after a fire a significant effort goes into understanding what caused the fire and educating the impacted party about how not to have a fire again in the future. More importantly though, the Fire Service do not let a 999 call go wasted. After an incident most fire authorities run an AIR (After Incident Response), which is an event where after a fire every house within an agreed radius of the incident is visited to say “Did you hear about the fire at no. 19? We are just using this as an opportunity to check on neighbours and see if you need any help around making your home safer.” What better time to get a message across.

Data Analysis – The fire service has a very good understanding about who the most vulnerable groups are. They have a built an increasingly accurate picture of who is likely to have fires and where they are likely to happen. This approach allows them to be both targeted and very effective in landing their prevention messages.

Using capacity – by design (not by accident) the fire service has overseen a reduction in demand for its services. Rather than responding to this by simply reducing the hours of available fire fighters in fire brigades across the country, the fire service has pursued a shift in its work-load from response to prevention. Increasingly the Fire service is not about fighting fires, rather it is about stopping them from happening.

So what can other public service providers learn from the Fire Service?

The majority of the work of the fire service is focussed on prevention, but there are increasing examples of the fire service playing a significant role beyond firefighting and prevention. As an asset the fire service has some extraordinary capabilities, which if better understood by partner agencies, could play a role in preventing all manner of other public services. The people that the fire service see as being vulnerable are very often the same people that are seen as vulnerable by many other service providers: those with drug and alcohol issues, the elderly living alone, single parents, the unemployed (they tend to be at home for longer periods), people with disabilities and hoarders, to name a few. So if the fire service can be effective in preventing demand from these groups for a fire response, how could this capability be applied to other services? Many services are already supporting these agendas and are forcing their way into these areas because they know that chaotic and complex lives of vulnerable people often have a multitude of needs that can only be met by a collaborative response.

The reality though is that most commissioners tend to take a deficit-based approach to commissioning i.e. “I see your need and I’m going to address that by deploying the resources over which I have direct control”. How many public service commissioners are aware of, or consider the “assets” of the fire service when commissioning services? So what are these assets?

Below are four aspects (or assets) of the fire service that could be of significant value to other public sector providers.

Firstly, as explored earlier, the Fire Service are experts in prevention and much could be learnt by other agencies about the deliberate approach that the fire service takes to prevention. Does the ambulance service do anything similar to an AIR? If you visit A&E how much focus is given to ensuring the accident or event won’t happen again rather than dealing with the issue? How many school children get advice on how to identify risks relating to slips, trips and falls that an elderly person might be at risk of?

Secondly, the fire service has a valuable brand. Whilst this will be very carefully protected by the fire service, there may be ways to tap into this brand. Could fire fighters help mentor children at risk of becoming NEET? Could the fire service, through passing on some of their values such as discipline and teamwork, support back into work people who have been unemployed for a long time? Could the fire service carry out checks in houses that go beyond looking for fire risks? These and many other examples are already being carried out up and down the country but is there the potential to do more?

Thirdly, by design the fire service has capacity and whilst this capacity is there for a reason, is there a way to work in partnership with local community fire stations to explore how this capacity could be used for community benefit? In Essex, every fire watch is encouraged to allocate a proportion of the watch to community work – how many commissioners in local public services are mindful of this capacity when commissioning services?

Fourthly, the fire service has a local presence. There are over 1,300 fire stations dotted around the country. Many of these have meeting rooms, gyms, kitchens and other facilities that could potentially be made available to local communities. There are examples of this happening already, such as gyms being made available to people recovering from cardiac arrests or kitchens being used by community groups, but in most cases these are exceptions rather than the rule.

Clearly, careful consideration needs to be given to how assets such as these are accessed but in general terms there is real appetite from the fire service to play a far broader role in the communities in which they are based.

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