Friday, 24 January 2014

Some very good news on the job front this week with unemployment now down to 7.1%, the lowest it has been for some time. Whilst this has to be welcomed by all those who are looking for work, we still need to create more jobs, especially for the young. That's why I was also pleased to see that the Supreme Court has rejected the appeal against the HS2 railway from London to Birmingham. Major infrastructure projects should provide lots of job opportunities and I would hope that when contracts are let, they include the requirement for apprenticeships to be provided for young people. I do agree that the proposed line is going through some wonderful countryside in Bucks, a county I lived in for many years, but much of the track will be in tunnels and there is still an awful lot of green in the Home Counties.
Previously I have been persuaded that Gatwick had a good case for a second runway, and this country desperately needs more airport capacity. However, recent experiences at Gatwick have not endeared me to the companies that run the business.  Earlier this week I went to Gatwick Railway Station which was a scene of chaos, if you were in a bit of a hurry to get a ticket, with long queues in the ticket hall and self-service machines. Someone needs to get a grip as places like Gatwick are often the first place visitors to the UK see, and they cannot be very impressed.  But they present great opportunities for job creation, so on balance, a second runway at Gatwick would be great for jobs in our part of the South East which often seems to be at the back of the queue in terms of new infrastructure investment. W hilst I think about it, isn't it about time the A27, A22 and A21 were made dual carriageways right across East Sussex. 

Good to see discussions continuing between Fire Minister Brandon Lewis and the FBU on the current pensions dispute, with a meeting earlier this week and a further meeting set for next Tuesday. We remain hopeful that the two sides can resolve the dispute with no further industrial action.  Had a fantastic letter from a local family who were full of praise for Red Watch Crowborough, Hailsham and the animal rescue team who rescued the family's much loved show jumping horse Zebedee. All the family signed the letter and sent in pictures of Zebedee back in full health; well done to Bob Beard and the crews; the family think you are just wonderful!
My week:
  • Visited the Sussex Control Centre in Haywards Heath now that the building work has been completed and was extremely impressed with the facility; a really spacious mobilising suite, with training rooms and offices as well as a major incident room which will double-up for training and administration. A nice gym shared with the firefighters and a server room, which looks like it could provide power for the whole of Southern England, just goes to show how complex a modern mobilising and control facility is. We are now waiting for Remsdaq to complete the system with factory acceptance tests due to take place and still on target to 'go live' this summer.
  • Discussed with the CFO of West Sussex FRS, potential collaboration on training and what other options we could look at for closer working between our two Services.
  • Worked with colleagues from NHS and College of a Policing on our cross-sector programme which we have now advertised to our respective Services as well as the Civil Service, Local Government and the voluntary sector.
  • Dialled into a telephone conference organised by the Fire Minister Brandon Lewis, to discuss finance, budgets and Council Tax. I registered to ask the Minister a question about freeze grants and was disappointed that the Minister did not take my question. However,  taking advantage of social media, I went on to Twitter to send a message expressing my disappointment about not having the chance to put my point before the wider audience and pleasingly Brandon Lewis replied, and gave some reassurance, which indicated that if a Fire Authority does take the freeze grant it will be built into base budgets going forward.
  • There is an external Peer Review taking place in ESFRS this week with a team led by Cllr. Stuart West (Shropshire) and CFO Dave Webb (Leicestershire). Many staff will have met the team who are looking at a number of key aspects of our organisation, as part of an Operational Assurance process. The team will give a presentation back to the Fire Authority and Officers on Friday and follow this up with a formal report.
  • Had a coaching session with a senior clinical manager from the NHS who is one of three NHS staff I am coaching, as the coach I gain a lot from the experience and staff in ESFRS will also benefit, as we have a 'quid pro quo' arrangement whereby our staff can be coached by staff from the NHS and Police.
  • Monthly meeting of Principal Officers where we discussed a number of key issues including preparations for the budget next month, the medium term plan linked to Service transformation, proposals for any public consultation (once the Fire Authority have reached their decisions) latest information on government grant which is linked to Council Tax limits and freeze grants, meetings with Sussex Police and the potential to re-locate to Sussex Police HQ, the future of the Eastbourne HQ. What I will say is that no decisions have been made on any of these matters and we will keep staff informed of all developments, but there is a lot going on!
  • Went out to Herstmonceux Community Fire Station and met Watch Commander Sean Wright and his crew; a really good discussion with the firefighters who were keen to talk about some of the issues that I had been discussing earlier with POs. Also talked about training for RDS staff, future opportunities for wholetime recruitment and potential migration, the challenges of RDS recruitment and whether we would be considering alternative crewing arrangements and duty systems for RDS staff. Tthere was also a fabulous cake in the middle of the table which everyone was too polite to eat when I was there, but it was gone quicker than Eden Hazard skipping through the Man Utd defence, once I had stopped talking!
  • Was interviewed by the Peer Review Team who wanted to know about our medium term plan, the link with IRMP, what plans we had to deliver our savings, when we were going to implement these changes, what barriers there were to change and the approach the Fire Authority were taking to leading these changes. T he team also met Fire Authority Group leaders and during the week, visited fire stations, training centre and met some of the external partners we work with.
  • Went to the national pensions committee where we looked at the overall cost of the pension scheme, how we would deal with future costs that exceeded the 'cost cap', employee contribution levels and the role of a board to advise the Secretary of State on the scheme and any proposed changes or amendments.
  • Met with the peer review team lead officer for a mid-week update to ensure they were able to find out the information they wanted, whether they wanted any additional meetings or whether they wanted to look at other areas of ESFRS.
  • Was invited to a meeting of East Sussex County Council on their budget proposals for the coming year, how they wanted to work with partners such as ESFRS, what options we had for working together, delivering efficiencies, supporting the local health agenda and delivering community focused services.

This week, firefighters from Bexhill, The Ridge and Bohemia Road responded to a fire in a flat on the top floor of a three-story building. Crews wearing BA entered the flat and used compressed air foam to extinguish the blaze; two occupants were treated by paramedics for the effects of smoke inhalation.  Crews from Hailsham and Eastbourne were called out to a fire in a property in Stanier Street last Thursday. F ortunately neighbours heard an alarm sounding and called ESFRS, with crews wearing BA using a hosereel to extinguish the fire.  This was a timely reminder of the benefits of having a working smoke alarm and also the quick thinking of neighbours to dial 999 when they heard the alarm sounding. Lewes crews were called out to a chimney fire in Ringmer where they used the chimney kit and a hosereel to extinguish the fire, also checking there was no further fire spread by using a thermal imaging camera. This also proves to be a further reminder for householders to ensure that their chimney has been swept and to take general fire precautions using a fire guard and ensuring hot coals or logs cannot fall out of the fire grate.  Eastbourne and Pevensey crews responded to reports of smoke coming out from flats above a parade of shops. Crews found a fire in a food and wine shop, with crews wearing BA, using hosereels to extinguish the fire. 
You may notice the increasing use of social media to provide safety messages, advice and information to the public and ESFRS are making good use of Twitter to provide information and advice to the public; over the next two weeks we will be providing advice on testing smoke alarms and asking others to re-tweet this and other fire safety messages and I must congratulate all of our staff, volunteers and partners who have really helped to make our community safer by installing 22,710 smoke alarms across East Sussex and Brighton and Hove, in the 12 months from December 2012; a real success story!
With the weather still pretty autumnal rather than winter, I'm looking forward to my first glimpse of snow at the Sochi Olympics. I am envious of all of those who have been away skiing already and pleased that the ESFRS 'ski pack' returned safe and sound from their trip to the French Alps. The UK team are hopeful of gaining some medals at these Games although I'm hoping we unearth another 'Eddie the Eagle'. I also have some candidates in mind that I would be happy to send down the 60 metre ski jump, with the BMW driver who tried to take my bonnet off when he took a very late left turn on the A27, my first nomination!