A look at what Fire and Rescue Service Data reveals

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) reported £1.3 billion of property insurance claims due to fire being paid out to customers in 2018. The Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 has created a comprehension of fire safety problems that need to be addressed, as work continues with the Building Safety Regulator to define the risks. Increases in insurance premiums have resulted and some insurers have taken a very risk adverse perspective, whilst others have pursued a view balanced more toward proportionality.

A key factor in assessing fire risk has been the need to get the data and analyse it. The United Kingdom has a mature approach to open Government data and the publishing of information about fire service activities. The London Fire Brigade is the largest in the United Kingdom and leads the way in providing detailed data and initiatives to use the data for the common good. Balkerne has analysed this London Fire Brigade data set and held informal discussions with Fire Service professionals to gain additional insights.

The London Fire Brigade data is available from 1 January 2009 to the present. Over the past 13 years, London has continuously grown particularly from constant housing and commercial developments. There has been an increase in residential flat developments and high-rise commercial office blocks, which both bring a greater complexity of fire incident and of course more challenges for fire service resources to identify and reach the source of a fire with the necessary equipment. The density of a traffic and traffic calming measures are other factors to be acknowledged, making it more difficult for the Fire Service to drive through the streets at speed.

In the Financial Year 2010-2011 there were 20,755 fires in non-dwelling buildings in England. In the Financial Year 2020-2021, that number had declined to 11,916 fires. Over that decade, both the population and number of properties grew but the reduction in fires can be attributed to an improvement in fire prevention measures have improved, higher building standards, better enforcement of legislation, improved knowledge of the population on mitigating the risk of fire, reductions in the number of open fires in homes and better electrical manufacturing and safety standards. The latest London Fire Incident Data, shows that incidence of house fire from candles and other combustible material is becoming more prevalent. Furthermore. battery fires of e-bikes and scooters and fires from various electrical chargers are a relatively new and notably growing phenomenon. It is possible that the overall trends for fire indicate that in the future, there will be less fire but the fires which do occur, will be bigger fires. On a wider scale across London, there have been successive cuts in the number of fire stations and the number of fire fighters.

From the data that London Fire Brigade produces, it has become far more involved in the provision of responses to events such as road traffic accidents, flooding incidents and even incidents of people getting stuck in lifts. There is a lot more traffic on the roads, climate change has brought more frequent periods of torrential rainfall in a more developed urban environment and there are a greater number of buildings that operate lifts. The provision of equipment and training for responding to special services has become notably more significant.

Takeaway and Fast-Food Shops, together with Restaurants are subject to the highest number of primary fire incidents. The main causes of fire at these premises are electrical equipment failures, cooking equipment misuse and insufficient and infrequent maintenance of ducting, leading to a buildup of combustible waste. All of these issues are clearly manageable, whether by more frequent, detailed and auditable checks and by improving the training of personnel. Usually, the bigger high street brands are able to establish comprehensive processes and have more internal resources to achieve these requirements. The smaller, independent premises are more likely to be viewed as being more of a risk.

Across all Fire Services in England, the Home Office issues annual statistics for each service on the practical aspects of the time to attendance, which consists of the time taken for the call to be handled, crew turn out time, followed by the time taken for the fire service resources to drive to the location of the fire. The time taken to get to a fire is of significant consequence as the Fire Brigades Union has often commented upon. The rate at which the size of any fire grows itself increases with time. This rate of growth can be slow, medium, fast or even ultra-fast, but the point is that growth is occurring, and the result can be that one extra minute in attendance time does not result in just worse fire damage of ‘one minute worse’ it could well be much worse, possibly even the point of a conflagration.

Across Fire Services in England in 2021 the average response time to primary fires at any location was 8 minutes and 35 seconds. This time obviously differs by Fire Service and their circumstances of being rural, urban or metropolitan. Naturally, the Metropolitan Services like those in Greater Manchester and Greater London have the quickest response and the latest figures show an average response time to a primary fire of 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

For effective fire prevention, knowledge of the hazards is fundamental. It is perceived that the London Fire Brigade has achieved a lot of success by visiting commercial premises to conduct surveys and explain actions that should be taken to reduce the risk of a fire. Several Fire Brigades also provide freely available advice on their websites on how to conduct a survey, so it is not always necessary to have the physical presence of the Fire Brigade. For companies with a number of locations geographically dispersed, it is important that surveys are conducted consistently, and information structured in a common format, that allows their Head Office to better understand the nature of risks and be empowered to make decisions, such as procurement or policy in pursuit of best mitigating the risk of fire.

For Fire Protection measures it very much depends on the size of the property and its usage. The inclusion of sprinklers into buildings has proven to be very successful and where they have activated in a fire incident, there has been a measurable reduction in fire damage and injuries. For any location there needs to be a pragmatic approach to fire protection and that will always involve a mix of measures, like fire doors, fire extinguishers, fire blankets and such. There can never be reliance on just one method.

A review of the London Data shows that Fire False Alarms due to apparatus faults are declining in frequency which represents an improvement in standards of fire alarm apparatus. However, there will always be locations which are responsible for far too many false alarm call outs due to a malfunctioning system or possibly human error. The data shows that the morning hours of 6 to 9 are the peak for false automated fire alarms. Potential examples of human error include staff entering premises first thing in the morning and get on with the tasks for the day, for example, the turning on of electrical and gas items, like cookers and ovens for baking. There might be residue from the last use of the cooker or oven which was not cleared away and this becomes combustible, or the individuals are in a rush or perhaps still waking up and some form of human error occurs. With Primary Fire Incidents, the busiest times are linked to human activity of cooking and possibly to a certain extent, keeping warm, represented by the greatest frequency of primary fires around meal times and in the evenings in winter.