Chris Kirby – Area Manager Service Delivery, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service
Like most people who joined the Fire and Rescue Service 20 years ago, I thought my role was predominantly about responding to emergencies. But the modern role of Fire and Rescue Services is much more than that. Over the last 20 years, the number of fires (and resulting deaths and injuries from fire) has significantly reduced. Although the detailed analysis of how this has happened is too detailed for this blog, it must be recognised that the move towards prevention and early intervention work that the Fire and Rescue Service took in the 1990s has had a significant impact.
When the NHS Five Year Forward View of Mental Health highlighted how the NHS needs a far more proactive and preventative approach to reduce the long-term impact for people who experience mental health problems, Fire Service leaders started to question how their success in early intervention and prevention could help. At this stage, I need to be clear that it is the intention of Fire and Rescue Services to supplement (not replace) the existing work of health and social care. This is not about competing. With that in mind, one simple question to ask is ‘could the Fire and Rescue Service be seen as a trusted partner and a wider public health workforce?’
It will come as no surprise that the people who are vulnerable to fire are very likely to have health and wellbeing issues such as loneliness, physical impairment, smoking, alcohol or drug use and poor housekeeping. But it also likely, from fire fatality research, that those who die in accidental dwelling fires are likely to suffer from poor mental health.
The NHS has committed to working better with other community services and local authorities to ease the increasing demand being placed on the system. People now live longer and have more complex care needs. This is causing significant concern for the NHS. The development of a broader approach to community-based health and wellbeing is how Fire and Rescue Services have got more involved in recent years.
I lead on Service Delivery at West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and in April 2016, we brought together a group of key health and social care partners from across the 5 districts in West Yorkshire. The discussions and work that followed have resulted in a fundamental change to the way we deliver our prevention services. Developing a better understanding of the risk profile across our communities requires better sharing of data and intelligence and with this, we can then focus our resources of risk and vulnerability. We used to visit large numbers of people in the hope that we would come across someone vulnerable to fire. Now, we have refined this approach so we focus effort on those who need us most. Our traditional fire prevention home visiting programme (home fire safety checks) has also evolved into a more comprehensive ‘Safe and Well’ check which looks to encompass a broader assessment of health and wellbeing in the home, including an assessment of vulnerability to:
- Social Isolation
- Winter Cold
These were all agreed by key partners (and members of the public) as areas that the FRS can help with. For us, it is also worthwhile as these are all things that increase someone’s risk to fire. It’s a win-win scenario and our firefighters and prevention staff, who deliver around 20,000 home visits every year across West Yorkshire, are now being trained to provide simple advice and prevention messages for each of the areas above. When we spot that someone is vulnerable, we can either signpost to local community support services or refer them to support agencies if we feel the occupant is in need of more support.
The move towards ‘Safe and Well’ is a positive step in the way that public services collaborate and one that may help those within our communities to receive help before they get to the point of crisis.
After all, don’t they say that ‘prevention is better than the cure’?