Half of all fire victims could have been saved

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The Independent Online
Many people are dying unnecessarily each year and thousands are maimed and injured because the fire service is hampered by pre-war practices. A damning report by the Audit Commission says half of all fire casualties could be avoided if the service switched emphasis from cure to prevention.

The blame is not with firefighters, who are "justifiably proud" of their record in fighting fires and saving lives, the report says. It lies with the Government which has failed to make fire prevention a priority and - through "perverse" funding arrangements - deters brigades from undertaking preventive work.

One brigade which has run a major fire prevention campaign - despite the costs - had reduced casualties by 70 per cent. But outdated Whitehall controls and rigid national standards dating back 40 years mean forces have little flexibility in tackling local need, the report says.

The system for assessing fire risk - and consequently the location of stations and equipment - is still heavily influenced by 1936 concerns about "fire storms and area conflagration". In many areas it takes no account of shifts in population, the fallingrisk in a commercial centre at night or changes in building design. As a result the United Kingdom now has a high and growing rate of fires, deaths and injury compared with most other developed countries.

The 54 brigades in England and Wales deal with about 900,000 incidents a year costing about £5bn. Deaths in fires have remained at about 600 a year for the past 10 years but the number of casualties has grown steadily to 12,268 in 1993 - an increase of 45 per cent.

Further, the fire service is also facing a financial crisis in what the report calls "a pension time-bomb". Unless urgent action is taken in a few years about £1 out of every £4 of the fire service budget will be going on the pensions of its retired workforce.

The Home Office yesterday dismissed the claim it had failed to act on calls for fundamental change. Lady Blatch, the Home Office Minister, said: "This report is radical, interesting and challenging. However it should be seen in perspective. The fire service has an excellent record ... due in part to excellent local fire safety initiatives and the success of the smoke alarm awareness campaign".

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