Carl Sargeant, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children
A year ago, our new National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services stated that we would explore the possibility of creating a new duty on our fire services to respond to flooding and water rescue incidents. I consulted on the detail of such a duty last autumn, and am now able to announce the outcome.
Flooding is an issue of increasing public concern. That does not just reflect major incidents, such as occurred in Beaumaris in 2015 or in Denbighshire in 2012. Climate change and increased urbanisation mean that floods present an increasingly serious risk. And while we must of course work to mitigate that risk, we also need to be ready to respond when it materialises.
For many years, that burden has fallen on our fire and rescue services. They have the skills, capabilities and equipment to deal with major floods, and to rescue people from standing bodies of water. But while they always respond to the best of their ability, they do so voluntarily. There is no requirement on them to do so, and no clarity for firefighters, other responders or members of the public. Indeed, as things stand it would be perfectly possible for them to stop this work altogether – and some Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) have actively contemplated doing so.
That cannot be right. Flooding can be just as hazardous as fire, and more wide-ranging. It can devastate whole communities, threaten widespread casualties, and destroy property and the environment. We need to be sure that our fire services will be ready to respond – and our firefighters need to know what is expected of them.
My consultation therefore proposed to create a new duty on our fire and rescue services to respond to flooding or water rescue incidents which pose a direct threat of death or injury. Such a duty already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, at least as regards flooding, and evidence suggests that it has made a real difference to the capability, readiness and organisation of the service to respond.
I am pleased that nearly all of the 40 respondents to my consultation agreed with the proposal. These responses came from a wide range of sources, and from across Wales and beyond. All 3 of our FRAs were supportive, as were the main firefighting unions, the police, the Welsh Ambulance Service and Natural Resources Wales. We also had a positive response from several FRAs in England, where no such duty exists. I was particularly pleased that the Chief Fire Officer for Norfolk – a county which is no stranger to flooding – took the time to commend our proposals warmly, and to “hope that England might be persuaded to follow where Wales leads”.
I have therefore made an order under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 creating such a duty, to come into force on 1 April. In doing so, I am largely formalising what happens now, and placing it on a firmer legal footing. Our firefighters are already trained to deal with these incidents, and do so routinely.
However, they also need the equipment to do this safely and effectively. I am therefore also pleased to announce an extra £1.8 million over this financial year and the next, to enhance and update the boats, pumps and protective gear that our fire services need. I know that our FRAs already have advanced plans to acquire this kit, and to deploy it where it is most needed.
This is part of a much wider programme of diversification of the fire service. FRAs have already succeeded in greatly reducing the incidence and severity of fire. It would be wholly wrong, as well as dangerous, to make them victims of that success by imposing cuts. Instead, we can support our firefighters to respond to other risks and needs of individuals and communities, like flooding and medical emergencies with the same bravery, professionalism and dedication that they have always shown. I am proud to do so.