Hertfordshire County Council's Fire and Rescue Service

"Resource Plan" generates false information and creates uncertainty.

In July 2005, Chief Fire Officer Roy "I'm a London Boy - I don't know anything about retained" Wilsher presented his 'resource plan' to Hertfordshire County Council's Cabinet, requesting permission for it to be included in the 2006/7 Fire & Rescue Service Draft Community Safety Plan. This 'resource plan' proposed to close 2 Retained Fire Stations (Bovingdon & Radlett) to make a saving of approx £200,000, remove Watford's second fire engine at night (saving £300,000), change Royston (a 7 days a week day crewed station) to retained at weekends (saving between £75,000 & £125,000 - the reason for the range was because they hadn't worked out how many firefighters they could get rid of, only that it would be 3, 4 or 5) & reduce Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead & St Albans by 4 Firefighters each (saving £300,000 but to be reinvested by forming a Community Safety Task Force with these 12).

There were no details available to the public until the the 12 week consultation period, which ran from 1/11/2005 to 31/1/2006, with the decision to take place in February 2006. Getting information out of Herts Fire & Rescue was like trying to get blood from a stone (so much for the threat of the Information Commissioner).

The 'new' attendance standards had evolved since Cabinet agreed they could be included in the Draft Community Safety Plan - instead of applying to all fire incidents, the Draft Community Safety Plan stated they applied only to fires involving buildings, although it then went on to state they applied to all property fires (fields of standing crop are also property fires). Either Cabinet didn't notice (in which case, CFO Wilsher should have informed them of the amendment to what they'd previously agreed) or they knew but didn't care.

As my husband works at Royston Fire Station we, along with our two children, live in a Fire Service house, therefore, if he was one of those removed from the station, we would no longer be eligible to live in the house & would be served a notice to quit. I e-mailed CFO Wilsher asking various questions about the consequences of his proposals, one of which was what notice would we be given to vacate the property. For reasons best known to himself, his only response on the subject was that we would be given the statutory notice - whatever that was, as he failed to tell me.

Herts CC established a Topic Group to (allegedly) scrutinise the proposals - what a farce that process was. The CFO was present at each meeting, therefore had the opportunity to respond to anything the other witnesses (action groups for each station & the Fire Brigades Union) said. For some reason, the Topic Group allowed the CFO the opportunity to refute what these witnesses said (or rather, spin some yarn to discredit them) but chose not to give these witnesses the opportunity to counteract his spin.

In order to add weight to his argument, CFO Wilsher was selective when he referred to the previous reviews of Fire Cover (carried out in 1993 & 1997, but were no longer relevant as those reviews were while the former National Standards of Fire Cover were in place, but these were repealed in 2004 to be replaced with each Fire Authority able to choose whatever standards they saw fit), claiming that these previous reviews found that Bovingdon wasn't needed (as a result of requesting copies of these reviews, I discovered it was actually one of 4 retained stations identified as not needed to meet the Standards of Fire Cover at the time). He also claimed the previous reviews found only 41 fire engines were needed to serve Herts & that one of them was Watford's second engine but the entire truth is that the 1993 review found 39 fire engines were needed but didn't specify which ones weren't as there were several to choose from. By 1997, the situation had changed in that the number of fire engines needed had increased to 41, again, not specifying which ones weren't needed due to there being several to choose from - if he'd told the Topic Group that, they may have questioned why the number needed in 2005 remained the same rather than increasing as it had previously. However, the CFO at the time of the 1997 review, as an example, stated that reducing the number of fire engines by two could be achieved by removing Watford's second one together with closure of Wheathampstead Fire Station & that if the councillors chose to close any retained stations to achieve this reduction his preferred option was that they be chosen in the order they were listed - which was Wheathampstead, Much Hadham, Bovingdon, Markyate & lastly, possibly Bushey following the relocation of Watford (relocation of Watford still hasn't happened). Had he told the Topic Group that, they may have questioned why he'd chosen to close Bovingdon & Radlett. Likewise, if he'd told the Topic Group that the 1997 review established that, in order to counteract the Service's failure to reach South Oxhey within the prescribed 8-10 minutes, 2 fire engines should be sent there (the standards only required one), they may have questioned why he was proposing changes at Watford before it had been relocated (it's due to be relocated in order to be able to reach South Oxhey within 10 minutes).

The Topic Group was prevented from considering the results of the Public Consultation process (loaded survey in Herts Direct being one of the ways the public was consulted) by virtue of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee agreeing a scoping document which was written by David Moses (Officer of Hertfordshire County Council, Head of Scrutiny). This Scrutiny should have been carried out by the Adult Care & Community Safety Scrutiny Committee, but in the Scoping Document, David Moses advised the Overview & Scrutiny Committee that the AC&CSSC had 'an intense programme of work during the Autumn period in responding to a number of Health Service Consultations and the scrutiny of Community Safety' but I can find no evidence of this 'intense programme of work'. Furthermore, health isn't within the remit of the AC&CSSC - I am convinced David Moses purposely gave the O&SC (both Chair & V-Chair are members of the administration) wrong information in order that they would make the recommendations, rather than the AC&CSSC (Chaired by Labour).

The only proposal to be amended during the Topic Group process was the Royston one, in that Royston would be reduced by only 2 Wholetime Firefighters (as opposed to the 3, 4 or 5 stated in the Public Consultation, making a saving of only £50,000 instead of the minimum £75,000). No explanation was given for this amendment, but I had previously pointed out to the CFO that his proposal was impossible with only 7, 8 or 9 Firefighters & that 10 were needed - maybe that's the reason for the amendment.

The decision wasn't taken in February as planned, due to the Buncefield explosion, yet for some reason, they didn't feel the need to extend the Public Consultation Period because of it (they extended the previous year's IRMP Consultation Period due to Harrow Court). They failed to do what the Scoping Document said they would do, which was to hold a hearing in Public & for the O&SC to receive the recommendations of the Topic Group within the Public Consultation Period. They seemed to change things as they went along - 4 Focus Groups due to take place at Cheshunt, Harpenden, Hatfield & Letchworth were cancelled on advise from MORI (allegedly) due to 'the proximity of the groups in relation to the Buncefield incident' - well, they couldn't have the whole of Herts turning up at these meetings could they? The O&SC only received a draft Final Report of the Topic Group, complete with 'errors' (David Moses was the author of this document also & had changed some of the evidence before putting it in the report - these changes were where the CFO's evidence had been proven to be wrong, but there are no caveats added to explain the amendments) - they never received the Final Report, the changes of which only occurred as a result of my pointing them out to David Moses.

In his report to Full Council & Cabinet on 28/3/06, CFO Wilsher made a false statement regarding Royston (done, it seems, with the intention of persuading any waverers), despite my informing him of it prior to the meeting - perhaps he didn't feel the need to amend it as every councillor had been informed that it was false via an e-mail from me. However, all but 2 of the Tory councillors present voted for all the cuts, with a further 3 taking the NIMBY approach - it obviously didn't matter to them that the CFO had, in my opinion, lied in his report or that the majority of respondents to the Consultation were against the cuts.

So Cabinet decided to accept the CFO's proposals, the FBU issued their Trade Dispute - and then the 'bartering' began. The first proposal Hertfordshire County Council compromised on was the Watford one - they agreed to keep it's 2nd fire engine 24/7 but to reduce the number of Firefighters there by 4, thereby saving only £100,000 instead of the promised £300,000. This made me suspicious as the CFO, in his evidence to the Topic Group, wrongly claimed the proposal would leave 48 Firefighters at Watford instead of 40 - I think he was getting confused with what Hertfordshire County Council claimed they were proposing for Watford and what they were actually proposing. Furthermore, if a compromise worth £200,000 was to be made, wouldn't it make financial sense to keep 2 cheap-to-run fire engines available 24/7 than spend it on keeping one expensive-to-run one available for 14/7? Further compromises were made but they wouldn't budge on closure of Bovingdon & Radlett - they proposed to make savings totalling £1M but ended up with only £200,000. The trade dispute was settled on 16/6/06 yet 4 weeks earlier, proposals for the new Watford Fire Station were presented to Hertfordshire County Council's Development Control Committee, stating there would be 48 Firefighters there - I think this is further proof that they never had any intention of taking Watford's 2nd Fire Engine away at night & that this proposal was just a bargaining tool to get what they really wanted, which was closure of two of their unfit for purpose properties. Bovingdon was supposed to be rebuilt at another location years ago & £1.23M had been allocated for it but had been allowed to slip each year due to an alleged inability to find a suitable location, even though a report from September 2002 that I have obtained states a suitable location had been found (The Mount), that Bovingdon was 'location critical' & that it was needed to meet a 10 minute response time to the then 'C' risk areas - strange that CFO Wilsher preferred to refer to previous reviews that were at least 10 years out of date where Bovingdon was concerned, when he had this far more recent report he could have referred to. Even stranger is what has happened to the £1.23M - last year's year end Budget Monitor listed it as an underspend pending the outcome of the trade dispute but this year's makes no mention of it.

As settling the trade dispute meant my own station was no longer threatened (and therefore, the worry of being evicted was lifted), I put my efforts into gathering evidence to prove Hertfordshire County Council were dishonest in their proposals for Bovingdon & Radlett.

I requested information from Herts Fire & Rescue under the Freedom of Information Act; that information shows the reasons stated in the Fact Sheets to justify the closures - those being 'The demographic information contained within the FSEC toolkit indicates that the Radlett & Bovingdon areas are predominantly of a very low residential risk.' and 'This is supported by our empirical data.' - not only apply to other stations but in some cases, more so. I have been researching the process that resulted in these proposals for over a year & have discovered that these two stations are two of Hertfordshire County Council's 'unfit for purpose' properties & as such, Hertfordshire County Council has proposed in its Property Performance Plan to 'improve, replace or dispose' of. I have therefore reached the conclusion that Hertfordshire County Council are using the IRMP process (& in the case of schools, their Primary Reviews) to dispose of their unfit for purpose properties, thereby achieving their target of 95% of properties to be fit for service delivery by 2020 without it costing anything - & if they own the properties, gain from the sale of them.

It would appear this scoring system using the demographic info within FSEC is something HFRS developed to suit their purpose. However, it is wholly unreliable as this info is based on Output Areas. As station ground boundaries in Herts often go through these output areas, the risks within them can not be allocated to a particular station & therefore, these output areas' scores have been included in more than one station's score - in one case, an output area straddles 5 stations' boundaries. This results in a centrally located station 'borrowing' output areas from other stations - e.g., by counting all the output areas around Hemel's ground only once, it leaves Hemel with a total of 181 output areas of VH/H/M risk & a score of 935 instead of the 220 areas of VH/H/M risk & score of 1,027 stated in the DCSP. Furthermore, the text on the Screen Captures of the FSEC obtained from HFRS claims Markyate has 4 output areas of medium risk yet shows only 2 - 1 extends into Harpenden's station ground, the other extends into Redbourn's. Likewise, the text on the Screen Capture for Redbourn claims it has 7 output areas of medium risk yet shows only 5, one of which is the one shared with Markyate. This results in these 2 stations' risk scores being higher than than should be. According to DCO Yates 'the determination of the allocation of output areas for each station ground was made by the professional judgement of the officer conducting this aspect of the research' - either this officer can't count or this was done purposely so that elected members and the public wouldn't question too much why these two stations were not closed instead. It is worth noting that the Executive Member responsible for F & R at the time (David Lloyd) lives halfway between these two stations. However, I would like to point out that I am not suggesting these two stations should have been closed - I am just demonstrating that HFRS must have had other reasons to close Radlett & Bovingdon, rather than the ones they claimed were behind the closures. One of the things I asked for was a map showing the isochrones of all stations - this map shows the overlap of fire cover is far denser in other areas. What is also interesting is that it shows the area covered by Ware Fire Station within 10 minutes is largely overlapped by Hertford - the only area that isn't is around Cold Christmas. And who lives there? David Beatty, the then Deputy Leader of Hertfordshire County Council (but following the death of Robert Ellis, he became Leader) & Executive Member for resources.

It would appear from the claims made by DCO Yates in responding to my Freedom of Information request that a full review of fire cover was not carried out, which brings me to the issue of measurement of attendance times.

In his e-mail of 1/2/06 to Cllr Jane Hobday, CFO Wilsher stated: ‘our intention was, and always has been, to introduce a standard of one appliance in 10 minutes, to be measured exactly as always has been the case, in accordance with DCOL 12/93. The second attending appliance would be similarly measured as per DCOL 12/93, to arrive in a maximum of 13 minutes.’ He then went on to state: ‘The isochrones, as always stated, show predicted attendance areas, it does not say this is how the times will be measured. With hindsight it would probably have been better not to include the words ‘including call handling’ as this has obviously caused confusion.

The above contradicts what was previously stated:

  • ‘Time of Call’ stated in CFO Wilsher’s report to Cabinet 11/7/05
  • ‘An improvement of the existing standard by including call handling. The previous standard was measured from the time pumps were assigned/alerted not* from time of call’ stated in DCO Yates’s letter of 4/8/05.
  • (*this emphasis is on the part of DCO Yates)
  • ‘Time of Call’ stated in CFO Wilsher’s Powerpoint presentation to the Topic Group 18/10/05
  • ‘Time of Call’ stated on page 36 of the DCSP.
  • ‘Actual average appliance response times’ in the Fact Sheets measured from time of mobilisation, stating call handling & crew response time to be added, therefore, measured from time of call.
  • ‘Time of Call’ stated in the Forward Look Annual Efficiency Statement 2005/6, which was signed by CFO Wilsher & the Chair of the FRA 1/12/05 & submitted to Central Government.
  • I forwarded a lot of the info I'd received to Hertsmere Cllr Leon Reefe; as a result of this, I was invited to be a witness at their scrutiny meeting - CFO Wilsher & Leader of Hertfordshire County Council David Beatty declined their invitation to attend but Hertfordshire County Council gave a written response to questions posed to them by Hertsmere (see here http://www2.hertsmere.gov.uk/democracy/mgConvert2PDF.asp?ID=7950&T=10&J=5).

    However, CFO Wilsher then wrote to the Borehamwood Times stating '...on measurement of attendance times. This has been measured from the time a fire engine is assigned to a call at least since 1993. The draft plan stated this as time of call. This admittedly caused confusion as some people thought this to be the time of the first 999 call into fire control.' (see here http://www.borehamwoodtimes.co.uk/haveyoursay/display.var.1263862.0.fire_facts_are_under_dispute.php). This prompted a member of the Bovingdon Action Group to write to him, pointing out DCO Yates' letter of 4/8/05 to the then FBU Secretary (which she discovered when viewing the consultation documents). CFO Wilsher responded:

    '...Taking your first point about the letter to the FBU from DCFO Yates in August 2005, a letter, coincidentally, never responded to by the FBU. When referring to ‘new’ attendance times DCFO Yates’ letter clearly states that the previous standard was measured from time the pumps were assigned/alerted. It appears you have no issue with this fact. The letter does then go on to say ‘An improvement of the existing standard by including call handling’. This was incorrect based on information provided to the Deputy for this letter. The Service was in a consultation period when issues of accuracy could be clarified before the final plan came into place.'

    I assume CFO Wilsher is of the opinion that the local FBU officials should have questioned the claims made by DCO Yates in that letter - as DCO Yates also enclosed the Fact Sheets with that letter, they wouldn't have any cause to. It should be noted that the FBU did respond to this letter & this is confirmed in DCO Yates' letter of 4/11/05 to the then FBU Secretary Andy MacClean.

    Following CFO Wilsher's claim on 24/1/06 that attendance time will be measured from time of assign, it was obvious to everyone that he was just moving the goalposts because the Action Groups had proved the times couldn't be met from Time of Call. I couldn't understand how he & the other officers could have made such an error but have recently discovered why the error occurred. The copies of incidents logs found in the skip outside Bovingdon Fire Station show the new Vision system went live in February 2004. The Fact Sheets show HFRS only used one year of call data - year 2004/5 - to establish the attendance times. However, the new system for the most part of the year 2004/5 was logging the wrong time as 'time of call' - it was logging the time the incident was created (which is after the location of the incident has been established) instead of logging the time the new incident key was pressed. Bovingdon's Ex Station Commander also recollects there were some teething problems with the system when it was first introduced. Somebody at HFRS must have noticed this as the logs from March 2005 onwards show the correct time of call being logged. It would therefore appear that the previous incidents had not been amended & that the person or persons responsible for that part of the research failed to notice that for the most part of the year used to establish attendance times, the 'time of call' was only a second or two earlier than the 'time of assign'. But instead of admitting the error, CFO Wilsher claimed they had always intended to measure attendance times from time of assign - he never stated at any time during either the public consultation process or the Topic Group process that 'time of call' actually meant 'time of assign'. Only once the stations were closed & there was little time left for anybody to do anything about it (it is my understanding that complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman - not that he's independent - have to be made within 1 year from the date the decision was made) did he make this claim. However in doing so, he forgot that in his answer to the Topic Group, he clearly states 'time of call' as the time control get the call. But that's the trouble when one doesn't tell the entire truth in the first place - from that point on, one has to continually bend the truth, which is what he is doing. A member of the Bovingdon Action Group has responded to his response to her, pointing out the statements he's made in which he is referring to the time control get the call when using the term 'time of call', but he's done what he usually does when he's proved wrong - ignored her.

    I know all these IRMP's around the country are just cuts - but I'm not aware of any brigades that have been so dishonest as Herts has been. I have reached the conclusion that Hertfordshire County Council issued information that was biased, misleading or false with the intention to result in Radlett & Bovingdon becoming surplus in order that they could dispose of them, thereby gaining financially - I'm their report on 'Investigating Potential Disposals' would make interesting reading.

    The more I research Hertfordshire County Council, the more evidence I find of Officers breaching the constitution by only telling the Members what they want them to know - although I am sure certain Members are well aware of this. I tried pointing it out to my own (Tory) County Councillor, who asked me to supply him with questions on the issues that concerned me & he would endeavour to get answers to them. However, weeks went by & I hadn't heard from him, so sent him a gentle reminder which I received a receipt for. Another week went by & I still hadn't heard from him, so sent him a not-so-gentle reminder - he did a complete U-turn, telling me not to expect him to get answers to questions that I wanted answering! I personally think he'd been got at.

    So what do I do? There's no point in going to the Ombudsman as it seems he is obviously as dishonest & corrupt as it appears Hertfordshire County Council are - A member of the Bovingdon Action Group has tried, but even though she's listed all the things Hertfordshire County Council have done wrong, the Ombudsman evaded stating whether or not they constituted maladministration, reaching the conclusion that there wasn't a material injustice. So as long as the injustice is - in the Ombudsman's opinion - immaterial, it doesn't matter if Local Authorities lie.

    And what about the FBU? I don't trust them at National or Regional level & to some extent, at local level. It was the Assistant General Secretary's intervention that got the Trade Dispute settled, which resulted in all the proposals concerning Wholetime Stations being amended - as far as I'm aware, the FBU Head Shed are all ex Wholetime Firefighters.

    Author's name withheld.

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