Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 March 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Fire Service

10:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. Last weekend marked the 125th anniversary of Dublin Fire Brigade's dual ambulance and fire emergency response service. The fire brigade obviously plays a crucial role in keeping the people of this city and county safe and I pay tribute to the immense professionalism, commitment and care that firefighters give to their work every day of the week.

It is important that we acknowledge there has been very significant progress with regard to training standards and facilities in recent decades. We also must acknowledge there are very significant and real concerns among firefighters at this point about staffing shortfalls, the condition and age of the vehicles they have to work with and, most significantly, the failure to progress plans in this city to undertake pre-fire intelligence surveys of buildings across the city. The staffing concerns are such that over the past three months, there were 27 days when fire trucks could not have been deployed if they had been needed because right now, firefighters are facing shortfalls of up to 20 staff per day across the fire stations in Dublin city and county. We expect we will see the retirement of almost one third of firefighters in the next two years. There is a very serious recruitment issue.

While the responsibility is, first and foremost, with Dublin City Council to ensure there is a sufficient number of firefighters, I have to say to the Minister of State that the buck also stops with him and his Department. In ensuring a smooth recruitment process, it falls to the Public Appointments Service to be able to undertake the recruitment competitions. We saw two years ago and are seeing now again that there are systemic and capacity issues with the Public Appointments Service as it tries to take on those competitions. Those issues are leading to delays and what happened two years ago, which was an outsourcing of that competition. Frankly, it is not good enough. We have a serious recruitment issue but what I really want to ask the Minister of State is what work is being done by the Department to advance the undertaking of pre-fire intelligence surveys here in Dublin and in the main urban centres across this country.

It is now five years since the fire in the Metro Hotel in Ballymun. Dublin Fire Brigade faced challenges on that occasion because it was a high-rise building and there was a lack of information about water points and the structure of the building. A commitment arose from that fire to the effect that an organisational intelligence unit would be established within Dublin Fire Brigade to map out the city, identify its water points and have a basic structural outline of the buildings in the city so that if a fire breaks out, Dublin Fire Brigade can respond in the most time efficient manner possible. Frustratingly, we have seen glacial progress on these long-promised fire intelligence surveys in the city. I understand that only approximately 12,000 buildings have been surveyed to date when there is a total of approximately 45,000 buildings across the city that need to be surveyed. This really matters. It matters so we can have efficient response times and greater safety for the public. It also means greater safety for the firefighters themselves. They are really anxious because while they have had these promises for a number of years, they have not seen any progress. This is a very serious issue for the city.I do not believe it should be just left up to Dublin City Council and Dublin Fire Brigade to push this process. It also very much needs to be driven by the Department. It is not just about Dublin but all of the country. It is about ensuring that fire services in the Republic of Ireland match what is available in the North, which has a pre-fire intelligence service so that if a fire breaks out, they are able to type into the technology within the truck and see exactly what the structure of the building is. That is available in the North, in London and in most other European cities, yet it is not available here. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an cheist seo a ardú. The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. The Department supports fire authorities by setting general policy, providing the legislative framework, running a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects.

In June 2017, a devastating fire claimed the lives of 72 people at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, London, a truly tragic event. Fire tragedies in non-domestic buildings of that scale were last witnessed in Ireland in the years 1979, 1980 and 1981, when the Whiddy oil terminal, the Bundoran Hotel and the Stardust nightclub fire tragedies occurred.

In response to the Grenfell tragedy, the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government directed the national directorate for fire and emergency management to convene and co-ordinate a high-level task force to lead a reappraisal of fire safety in Ireland. My Department published “Fire Safety in Ireland”, the report of the fire safety task force, in 2018. Among the recommendations contained in that report is that fire services should undertake an assessment of significant premises and buildings to complement current area risk categorisation. The report recommends the assembling and integration of “operational intelligence”, that is, information accumulated on buildings, which is seen as vital for effective pre-incident planning, into the fire service response. Identifying specific premises, familiarisation with the hazards presented and the preparation of pre-incident plans, PIPs, are essential to delivering a safe and effective response to fires and emergencies.

Section 10(3) of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003 provides that a fire authority shall, in the exercise of its functions, have regard to the nature of fire hazards in its functional area. In February 2023, good practice note 5.5 on “Pre-Incident Planning” was approved by the national directorate for fire and emergency management board and issued to all fire services. While the majority of fire services had pre-existing pre-incident planning programmes, this guidance was developed to standardise the approach and to support a review of existing programmes.

GPN 5.5 outlines that each fire station area should identify significant premises and assess the nature and extent of issues or hazards presented to responding crews. Steps taken for pre-incident planning and for developing links between pre-incident planning, operations, training and fire safety may include: identifying premises and gathering the appropriate information; gathering additional and associated societal, environmental and economic data; integrating a risk management plan; preparing PIP cards, preferably in digital format, to be made available for responding crews; co-ordination between local fire service operations, training and fire safety; and reviewing and updating PIPs, as necessary.

Site visits are undertaken by local fire officers to gather or confirm information for the preparation of a PIP card that provides a standard layout and technical summary of premises for the crew and incident commander. If pre-incident planning identifies specific issues of concern in relation to a premises, a chief fire officer may consider designating specific predetermined attendance, setting out the number, type and order of despatch of fire appliances in the event of an incident.

I will come back with a supplementary response on the issues around recruitment. There is no doubt there are recruitment challenges across the labour market but it is a matter for the authorities.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response. He set out what should happen but we do not have any detail as to how the Department ever follows up with the individual fire services, how comprehensive the preparation of PIP cards is, whether that information in any way exists within the Department or whether there are reporting mechanisms for fire services internally or to the local authorities. Ultimately, if the public is to have confidence in its fire services going forward, particularly in Dublin, where the city is transforming before our eyes given the number of buildings that have gone up in recent years, we need to ensure there are reporting processes in place. It is one thing having a plan and guidance for fire services but that is very different from enforcement and follow-up. I am not hearing that from the Department at this time and I strongly suggest that the Department ensures those reporting mechanisms are put in place. It is insane in this day and age, in 2024, six years on from when the fire safety task force was set out, that we do not have those pre-fire intelligence surveys at a comprehensive level within fire services across the country. I ask the Department to do something about it.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Under section 22(4) of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003, a fire authority may require owners or occupiers of buildings to provide building information to support the preparation of PIPs, such as plans of buildings, hydrant locations, number of persons day and night, both ambulant and non-ambulant, evacuation plans, a list of hazardous materials stored or processed and contact details. Fire station training programmes include sessions on site familiarisation and pre-incident planning, including the application of an appropriate risk assessment methodology. On-site visits to specific premises are valuable as familiarisation training for responding crews and serve as quality assurance for PIPs. The preparation and ongoing review of PIPs are an important step in underpinning the risk management-based approach of the Irish fire services.

I am conscious that, in my response, I have not given the Senator all of the detail that she required so I will ask the Department to revert to her. I know she asked about recruitment challenges and there is no doubt that, as I stated, there are challenges right across the labour market. In terms of the broader reporting mechanism that she sought information on, I will ask the Department to revert to her.