Fire: Raising the Standard
section 5 Preventing Fires
Just as it is preferable to prevent a crime rather than to know who committed it, it is preferable to prevent a fire rather than to have to extinguish it. With this in mind HMIC and HMFSI attach a great importance to the establishment of co-ordinated and effective prevention strategies. The inspection found that although there were a few pockets of "good practice", there is still much to be done if fire-raising is to be tackled in a co-ordinated and effective manner.
Just as it is preferable to prevent a crime rather than to know who committed it, it is preferable to prevent a fire rather than to have to extinguish it.
5.2 Fire-raising and Community Safety
Research 13 has shown that fire-raising is most common in those communities already suffering from poor housing, high unemployment and social deprivation. Strategies to reduce fire-raising and other similar crimes should ideally include education, intervention and diversionary initiatives and it is recognised that these cannot be delivered by one organisation in isolation.
Threads of Success - A Study of Community Safety Partnerships in Scotland (Scottish Executive 2000) identifies the local authority, police, fire and health services' as "key players" within community safety partnerships. During the inspection it was clear that most police forces have established strong partnership arrangements to tackle crime in communities. The fire service however appear to have found it challenging to make in-roads with fire-related community safety issues.
The forthcoming Local Government (Scotland) Bill is set to further anchor the police service in the community planning process. The Bill will underpin community planning through a statutory duty on councils and key partners. It is likely that the police service will also be listed as a statutory partner. The Bill will also provide local authorities with a power to promote " Wellbeing" in their area. Consideration will be given to extending this power to police and fire boards.
The police and fire services have a vital role to play in community safety fora. However, the issue of fire safety, whilst a priority for most partnerships, is not widely evidenced as having had the same importance attached to it as fighting crime. Additionally, the problem of fire-raising has not consistently been identified as a core crime issue in the same way drugs, violent crime and theft have been. As a result the fire service needs to be more robust in persuading partner agencies of the importance they attach to fire-raising and its full effects on society.
The inspection found that fire brigade involvement in community safety partnerships varies across Scotland. Most brigades are represented at some level but the commitment varies by area. HMIC and HMFSI believe that brigades should be involved at all levels of community safety fora. Importantly, brigades should be in a position to engage with the practitioners within their areas.
Police forces across Scotland use Local Authority Liaison Officers (LALOs) to facilitate communication with councils. The officers work closely with council officials to enhance the community planning process. HMIC and HMFSI noted that Strathclyde Fire Brigade was the only brigade to have appointed a LALO - this is seen as good practice and a progressive step.
It is recommended that brigades ensure that they are represented on appropriate community safety fora at all levels. This will enable them to develop strategies with key partners and effect change through key practitioners. Brigades should also consider the merits of a local authority liaison officer.
5.3 Data sharing and the National Intelligence Model
The National Intelligence Model is a generic strategy for intelligence-led policing and it is currently being piloted across the eight Scottish police forces. The model aims to provide a basis for operational decision making which is relevant to all areas of police work, criminal activity and community safety. The model operates on three levels namely -
- Level 1 - Local Policing.
- Level 2 - Cross Border Policing.
- Level 3 - Serious and Organised Crime (National/International).
Fire-raising could impact on all levels but is most likely to be found in levels one and two of the model. For example, those concerned with commercial property fraud might be found at level two whereas those engaged in local fire-setting activity would more likely be identified at level one.
Essential to the success of the model is the ability of crime analysts to interpret timely and accurate intelligence, crime data and community information. The model is very much dependent on this information to afford analysts and crime managers the opportunity to identify "hot spots" and deal with crime at all levels, i.e. from low level local problems to national and international organised crime.
At a local level, police and fire managers should have access to as much accurate and timely information as is necessary to make operational decisions about policing and fire fighting in their areas. Where one organisation has such information it seems common sense to share it with the other.
If the police and fire services are to tackle fire-raising in Scotland there have to be clear lines of communication between the two organisations. This means that there has to be a formal process for the sharing of data and relevant information.
Earlier in the report, the variance in recorded deliberate fires between the police and the fire service was highlighted in figures 1.1. and 3.1. Several explanations were offered as to why there may be such anomalies and these examples will explain and account for some of the "gap". However, it is clear that the police are not routinely aware of the true number of "deliberate" fires that the fire service attend to and this is an issue that HMIC and HMFSI would wish addressed. The missing information is part of an overall "jigsaw" and, with the introduction of the National Intelligence Model, it is more important than ever that such intelligence is shared.
... it is clear that the police are not routinely aware of the true number of "deliberate" fires that the fire service attend ...
HMIC and HMFSI recognise that reaching an agreement in relation to the sharing of data can be difficult. Several hurdles exist, e.g. the Data Protection Act, existing IT infrastructures and information accuracy. A co-ordinated approach will be required by both organisations to determine the best way to overcome these hurdles and deliver long-term solutions.
In section 6 of this report, several memoranda of understanding are highlighted as "good practice". These documents illustrate a commitment by the two services to work together when investigating serious crimes. The concept of data sharing could be tackled in a similar vein.
Accordingly, HMIC and HMFSI recommend that ACPOS and CACFOA make formal arrangements for the sharing of data and intelligence.
5.4 Datashare pilot project "case study"
Datashare ( www.datashare.org.uk) was a pilot project led by the City of Edinburgh Council and funded by the European Community to provide information for strategic planning within the city. The project obtained data from a number of different sources, e.g. the Health Authority, the Fire Brigade and the Education Authority, which was then overlaid on a Geographic Information System (GIS) to produce a visual image of computer data.
The database has the potential to be a powerful decision-making and planning tool, especially when seeking to justify resource allocation and expenditure. In the future HMIC and HMFSI would foresee this type of database providing valuable, timely and accurate information to service personnel and the general public about the area in which they live.
Figure 5.1 below illustrates the concept of "datashare" and shows the type of information that can be presented to assist in decision-making and policy setting. In this example the deprivation index of each area is shown by a colour with fire casualties represented by coloured dots. By adding additional layers of other data the image can be used as a powerful planning tool.
Figure 5.1: An example of how statistical data can be illustrated using geographical imaging software
5.5 Fire-raising of stolen and abandoned motor vehicles
A major factor in the increasing number of malicious fires recorded by the fire service has been the dramatic increase in malicious vehicle fires. Since 1994 the number of deliberate vehicle fires in Scotland has more than doubled to 4,239 incidents. Figure 5.2 illustrates the rising trend in deliberate vehicle fires. Current recording methods make it difficult to analyse the data in great detail. However, stolen motor vehicles are often set alight by the perpetrators to conceal evidence or for other criminal reasons such as fraud. Additionally, vandals will often set fire to vehicles after the thieves have abandoned them.
Figure 5.2: Fire-raising in motor vehicles 1990-2000
Since 1994 the number of deliberate vehicle fires has more than doubled to 4,239.
In recent years there has also been a dramatic downturn in the value of scrap metal - this along with more stringent environmental requirements means older vehicles are now often abandoned. When abandoned, the owners are sometimes known to set the vehicles alight themselves or they are set alight by vandals.
The removal of abandoned vehicles is the responsibility of the local authority and there are a number of problems that they face, e.g. tracing the vehicle owners, trying to act quickly within a tight legislative framework and co-ordinating the police, fire and other services to assist in dealing with the problem. Like fire-raising in general, abandoned motor vehicles are visually detrimental and often a catalyst to crime. Adopting a co-ordinated and swift approach to the removal of vehicles authorities could make a real difference to the environment in the areas worst affected.
The DTLR are currently considering changes to the current legislation as a result of a consultation exercise that ended in January 2002. The proposals, which would apply in Scotland, include:
- Reducing the notice periods before a vehicle can be removed and destroyed.
- Allowing local authorities to use DVLA powers to remove unlicensed vehicles.
- Enabling local authorities to access information from the DVLA database more quickly and easily.
- Changes to current vehicle licensing rules to tighten procedures on the transfer of ownership of vehicles and on the fiscal responsibilities of the last known keeper.
At the time of going to print the DTLR were unable to comment on what changes, if any, might be considered. The DLTR published on 13th December 2001 a directive that assists authorities in England and Wales to tackle the problem. A similar circular from the Scottish Executive is planned and will assist forces, brigades and local authorities by providing some direction on how best to tackle the issue.
During the inspection HMIC and HMFSI noted some good practice in this area albeit there remains a lot of work still to be done. Grampian Police, along with some other forces, have developed a policy and action plan for the rapid removal of vehicles. This is to be commended.
It is recommended that forces, brigades and local authorities work together to address the issue of abandoned and stolen motor vehicles. Efforts should be focused to identify long-term solutions and cognisance should be taken of the legislative review currently in hand.
5.6 Common areas in flats and tenements
Fires in common areas of blocks of flats and tenements are a constant problem for the fire service. Rubbish and unwanted household items left in stairs and storage areas provide an easy target for fire-raisers.
Household waste has a high plastic content and produces large volumes of thick toxic smoke - a single incident can endanger the lives and health of many residents. Larger items like beds and armchairs present an even greater risk as they can contain enough energy to spread fire to other parts of the building. A common stair is often the only means of escape from affected properties; therefore residents may be trapped in their own homes, which can quickly become filled with smoke.
Household waste has a high plastic content and produces large volumes of thick toxic smoke - a single incident can endanger the lives and health of many residents.
Section 93 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 gives the fire authority the power to remove items from the common parts of shared property that present a fire hazard to occupants or obstruct egress from the building.
Good practice was noted in Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade where it was evident that the powers were being used effectively 14 and on a regular basis to deal with reported incidents. Worried residents can contact the brigade and a fire safety officer or fire crew will attend at the earliest opportunity and take action to have the item(s) removed.
HMIC and HMFSI view this type of preventative work, using existing powers, as a statutory duty. Accordingly, HMFSI will undertake to monitor compliance with this statutory duty as part of the annual inspection process. A copy of the statutory notice used by Lothian and Borders is attached at appendix D.
A sustainable strategy involving the use of these powers requires a robust partnership arrangement with the cleansing department to ensure that items, posing a serious hazard, can be removed quickly at any time, day or night.
HMIC and HMFSI take the view that given the substantial proportion of budgets being used up responding to deliberate fires, it is surprising that more preventative work is not being carried out in schools. Most brigades have well established education programmes, yet all primarily focus on accidental fires and personal safety. Whilst this is an important aspect of the education process HMIC and HMFSI would like to see more education on the dangers of fire-raising. Almost all the fire-raisers of the future will pass through a brigade education programme and the opportunity should not be missed to sell the message on the dangers of deliberately starting fires.
The inspection also found that forces and brigades each have different policies and commitments to education provision. Whilst other brigades, e.g. Lothian and Borders, have a well-established and structured community education programme others are only able to visit schools by invitation.
One particular piece of good practice was noted in Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade. The brigade identifies "hot spots" of deliberate fire setting and targets their community and school education at those areas. Of particular note is their policy of engaging secondary school pupils in this process.
HMIC and HMFSI recognise that brigades are active in schools delivering fire safety education and that most brigades in Scotland have a programme to deter young fire setters (see paragraph 5.8). However, it is felt that fire-raising should form part of inputs that are provided and that consideration should be given to including secondary school pupils when tackling fire-raising in "hot-spot" areas.
It is recommended that forces and brigades incorporate fire-raising into their education programmes. In addition, brigades should give consideration to addressing secondary pupils, if appropriate, when tackling fire-raising in specific areas.
5.8 Fire-raising and young people
Children and young people who misuse fire outside the home are often difficult to identify and, as a result, it is not easy for authorities to halt and modify their behaviour. Their anti-social activities contribute significantly to the overall degeneration of communities.
Most fire brigades in Scotland run programmes, referred to as young fire-setter schemes, to help change this damaging behaviour. Children and young people can be referred for counselling if they are thought to have an unhealthy interest in fire. Fire officers meet with parents and the young people to discuss the dangers of fire and as a result they seek to modify their behaviour. A large proportion of those individuals on young fire-setters schemes are referred by worried parents or guardians following incidents in the home. In the main, the schemes are successful at addressing the behaviour of these children.
However, the schemes are not as effective at targeting the children and young people who misuse fire outside the home. Even where parents or guardians are aware of other fire activity outside the home, they may be reluctant to report them for fear of police involvement.
HMIC and HMFSI support the continuation of young fire-setter schemes across the country. However, as a useful intervention tool the schemes should be developed to encompass those young people that are involved in regular fire-setting behaviour outwith the home.
It is therefore recommended that the Scottish Executive consider the provision and success of young fire-setter schemes in Scotland. This exercise should act as a catalyst to a more consistent and effective national approach to targeting chronic fire-setting behaviour.
The prevention of deliberate fire setting requires a co-ordinated series of actions that address:
- the education of those young people with unhealthy tendencies towards fire;
- the removal of abandoned vehicles and rubbish from buildings; and
- the identification and targeting of high risk areas through data sharing.