This morning the Fire Authority's performance management and community safety panel met to review how the Brigade are doing against their key targets.
The long trend downward in the number of fatalities was ended in 2009 with the tragic Southwark fire. This incident prompted a one off review of deaths in accidental dwelling fires over the last decade.
52% of victims were over 60 years old and 75% were white, with an equal male / female split. In half the cases there was no working smoke alarm which indicates that there is still work to be done in getting the message across that smoke alarms save lives and they should be checked regularly to ensure they work. I have personal experience of this:
At the end of a stressful day in London Government, I like to relax in a warm bath with scented candles flickering on the window sill. One evening last year I blew them out before retiring to bed but some smouldering sparks must have remained. At two in the morning I was woken by a loud bang from the bathroom followed by my smoke alarm creating a racket that could not be ignored. I discovered a small pot of candles well alight which had cracked in the heat - hence the bang. Controlling my panic I soaked a towel and threw it over the flames, then filled the bath with cold water and dumped the whole bundle in it, opened the window to let the smoke out and returned to bed. The smoke alarm did its job, not just for me but for the neighbouring flats too.
Well I digress, but note that 9.5% of fatal fires are started by candles and matches, although very few start in the bathroom...
The most common cause of fatal fires is smoking - responsible for 38.9% of deaths. Much of the problem is caused by smoking in bed, and alcohol can play a part too. Fatal fires are more likely to start at night and 32% start in the bedroom, which is usually where the victim is. During the day fires usually start in the kitchen - with cooking the main cause - but these are less often fatal. Smoking in bed should always be avoided.
Over the decade the boroughs with the highest number of fatalities per 100,000 population were Camden (0.93), Lewisham (0.91) and Hackney (0.91). Our local boroughs were both in the lowest five with Redbridge (0.4) and Havering (0.39) only outperformed by Barking & Dagenham with (0.27) - not that all is rosy in that borough as we discovered later.
Automatic Fire Alarms
The Brigade has a particular problem with automated alarm systems that malfunction, leading to repeat false alarms. The new policy is to seek confirmation that there is a real fire before dispatching fire crews to the scene, usually by speaking to the occupants or managers of the building. If there is no sign of a fire an investigator is sent initially to establish the cause of the alarm, followed up by fire crews if necessary.
The Brigade is agreeing a memorandum of good practice with the Hilton Hotel group in London but work is still needed on other sites, with the NHS posing a particular challenge because of the size and complexity of the capital's hospitals.
The aim is to save time and money, allowing firefighters to be sent to incidents where their skills are actually needed.
Stuck in Lifts
Another unnecessary drain on Brigade resources is caused by calls from people who have become stuck in lifts. Last year the Fire Brigade decided to adopt a policy of checking by phone before attending. In the first instance the responsibility for getting people out of lifts now rests with the maintenance engineers and managing agents of residential blocks.
The new policy met with some criticism at the time, but it is applied sensitively and urgent cases, including those involving people who are seriously unwell or in imminent danger, still get an emergency response. If the maintenance engineers cannot be contacted the Brigade will attend but will not treat the incident as an emergency.
From November 2009 a charging policy was introduced. In cases where there have been ten attendances within twelve months the building's owners will now be charged £260 plus VAT for each subsequent call out. Quite an incentive to properly maintain the lifts, or so one would think...
However, since November four locations have already used up their ten 'free calls' and are into charging territory. Standing out from the list is Barking & Dagenham's very own 'tower of shame', Hawkwell House. They have been charged for an amazing seven call outs in addition to their 'free ten' since November!
By my calculation that's £260 X 7 = £1,820 plus VAT that the council has shelled out in less than three months. Someone should tell the voters.