Inspector’s concerns over how Greater Manchester’s fire service prepares for terrorist attacks

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Overall the latest inspection is a somewhat mixed picture for the organisation, with some progress made but areas still to improve on.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service needs to improve its responses to major incidents such as terrorist attacks as well as get better at preventing fires and protecting people from risk, inspectors have said.

A new report found the service needs to do more to keep the public safe and is also unprepared for a ‘marauding terrorist attack’.

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Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said that since its last report the fire service has improved how it looks after people and is now good at this.

But there are a number of areas where it still requires improvement, the report said.

However, the inspectorate has itself come in for some criticism in the city-region, with complaints that the findings put out to the public do not match the overall tone of the report.

What did the inspectorate find?

The inspectorate judged that Greater Manchester’s fire and rescue service requires improvement at effectively and efficiently keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks.

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It identified protecting the public through fire regulation and responding to multi-agency, major incidents as areas that could get better.

It also identified a new risk around being under-prepared for a marauding terrorist attack.

This was spotted by the inspectors at the same time the fire service was taking part in the inquiry into the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena.

Emergency services arrive  close to the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England.  There have been reports of explosions at Manchester Arena where Ariana Grande had performed this evening.  Greater Manchester Police have confirmed there are fatalities and warned people to stay away from the area. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)Emergency services arrive  close to the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England.  There have been reports of explosions at Manchester Arena where Ariana Grande had performed this evening.  Greater Manchester Police have confirmed there are fatalities and warned people to stay away from the area. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
Emergency services arrive close to the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England. There have been reports of explosions at Manchester Arena where Ariana Grande had performed this evening. Greater Manchester Police have confirmed there are fatalities and warned people to stay away from the area. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images) | Getty Images

In 2019, HMICFRS identified three causes of concern about Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service’s performance in looking after its workforce, which have now been resolved.

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It said the service is now good at looking after its people.

However, it also wants to see other changes, including ensuring the service makes the best use of its resources and is effective in preventing fire and other risks.

The inspectorate did say, though, that the service is good at understanding fire and other risks, and at responding to fires and other emergencies.

What did the inspectorate say about Greater Manchester’s fire service?

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Andy Cooke said: “Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service is good at looking after its staff and at responding to fires and other emergencies.

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“It has responded to the recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, and I am pleased at how much progress the service has made in terms of improving equality, diversity and inclusion.

“However, there are several areas where the service needs to improve its effectiveness in keeping people safe – including preventing fires and protecting the public through regulation of fire safety.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service tackling wildfires on moorland near Stalybridge. Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty ImagesGreater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service tackling wildfires on moorland near Stalybridge. Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service tackling wildfires on moorland near Stalybridge. Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images | Getty Images

“How the service responds to, and trains staff for, marauding terrorist attacks is a cause of concern.

“The Manchester Arena Inquiry was taking place at the time of our inspection, and while I can see that staff have confidence in the new leadership team, the service needs to make sure it is prepared to form part of a multi-agency response to any future terrorist incident.

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“The service needs to provide this response in an efficient way.”

What has the reaction been in Greater Manchester?

Authorities in the city-region have accepted the report’s findings as fair and detailed and said the scrutiny of the service is welcome.

However, local responses could not help pointing out what they called a contradiction between some of the headlines sent out by the inspectorate and the overall tone and content of the full report.

The fire service said further improvements to handling serious incidents such as terrorist attacks are being made and expressed hope that the overall direction of travel would reassure the public.

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Chief fire officer Dave Russel said: ”It has been stated that the Inspectorate has identified concerns regarding ‘the service’s ability to respond to major incidents’. In fact, the report praises GMFRS as being ‘well prepared for major and multi-agency incidents’ and that these plans are ‘well understood by staff’.

“HMICFRS goes on to acknowledge that here in Greater Manchester we have our ‘own specialist Marauding Terrorist Attack (MTA) response’ capability, which is an important part of this city-region’s emergency services picture.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service at a blaze in Manchester city centre. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty ImagesGreater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service at a blaze in Manchester city centre. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service at a blaze in Manchester city centre. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images | AFP via Getty Images

“To further reassure the public, in October we submitted a business case and implementation plan with associated governance on creating a permanent MTA capability to the Inspectorate.

“In recent weeks we have made further progress following positive discussions with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

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“While those discussions are ongoing, we are confident they will deliver a positive outcome that will significantly improve the service’s capacity and capability to respond to a terrorist incident.

“Overall, this inspection report shows we are a Fire and Rescue Service improving at pace. Keeping the people of Greater Manchester safe is our most important job and the public should be reassured that the Inspectorate concludes that GMFRS is Good at ‘understanding fires and other risks’, Good at ‘responding to fires and other emergencies’ and has clear ‘arrangements in place to respond to major and multi-agency incidents’.”

Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester Bev Hughes said: “This disconnect between what the inspection report says versus how the Inspectorate has chosen to present its findings does GMFRS, its hardworking staff and the Greater Manchester public a disservice.

“The people of Greater Manchester should be reassured to know that HMICFRS finds that GMFRS ‘has effective means of declaring a major incident, and of responding to such incidents’ .

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“To have an effective Fire and Rescue Service you first need the best staff in the right roles delivering a service to the best of their ability. I am pleased that since CFO Russel joined GMFRS just over a year ago, we’ve seen a positive shift in our service in terms of leadership and culture, which is recognised by today’s report.

“GMFRS is a good employer full of hardworking people, and increasingly we represent the diverse communities present across all 10 Greater Manchester boroughs.”

What else has been said?

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has claimed Greater Manchester’s service was suffering from the effects of austerity.

Ed Burrows, FBU regional secretary for the North West, said: “Tory austerity since 2010 has been a disaster for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue.

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“Between 2010 and 2019 more than £20million was removed from its budget, and since 2010 nearly one in three of Greater Manchester’s firefighters have been cut. That’s appalling.

“Unsurprisingly, this is having a real impact when it comes to the service the community receives. The report says that the service needs to improve at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks, with some particular areas of risk specifically mentioned. This is a clear indicator of the impact of austerity.

“Ultimately, the government should not be surprised at these findings. It is their decade-old project to cut public services working exactly as expected. They need to put back the money they have taken, and end austerity.”

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