Fire service now ‘best prepared in UK’ to deal with terror attack, CFO says

Reporter: Ethan Davies, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 08 March 2024

Seven years on from Greater Manchester’s darkest hour at the Manchester Arena, the city’s fire service is ‘the best prepared in the UK’ for a terrorist attack.

That’s the belief of Dave Russel, the Chief Fire Officer for GMFRS, speaking after the latest inspection scored the service ‘good’ in 10 out of 11 areas.

One area, on fire survival guidance, was ‘adequate’ because it used a paper-system, but has since been moved to electronic records - meaning it’s thought GMFRS would now score ‘good’ in every department, Mr Russel added.

The Chief Fire Officer, who joined GMFRS in 2020, added that firefighters in the region respond to incidents ‘faster than the national average’.

But one of the biggest turnarounds is in its ability to respond to terror attacks.

“We’ve also significantly improved our ability to respond to a terrorist or mass casualty event,” he said.

“I believe we have the best-prepared, best-trained, best-equipped, most resilient capability anywhere in the UK.

“The guarantee I can give is that we have a fire service that’s prepared, it’s capable of responding, it will intervene, and it will do so in a way to maximise saveable life.”

That has been achieved by revamping the way terrorist-capable firefighters respond to incidents, Mr Russel went on.

“What we’ve done in Greater Manchester is to move a singular specialist team,” he continued.

“I was of the view we needed to deliver significant step change and what that entailed was about putting that capability on all our frontline fire appliances and investing in the equipment.

“What we set upon was a really extensive and robust training programme, not training in isolation but with Greater Manchester Police and North West Ambulance Service.

"What we have today is the capability to respond to a known attack but also, as we have seen across the UK, the capability of what might be a rising tide event - where we’ve been mobilised to a road traffic collision and that transpires to be something other than that. 

“It might be a marauding terrorist attack, so our capability now sits across all of those 50 fire appliances.”

This is in sharp contrast to the service Mr Russel joined in September 2020, when it ‘didn’t have any capability at that point, as even the specialist team had been stood down on the back of what had been a difficult period with the Fire Brigades Union’, he revealed.

Relations with the union have improved, leading it to ‘play a really big role in the improvement’ in GMFRS.

And that’s not the only organisation involved in the service’s terrorist capability.

Mr Russel explained: “Where we continue to maintain a really, really strong focus is you’ve got to train really hard and exercise well and debrief well. 

“We have a really ambitious and extensive multi-agency programme of training with our partners to ensure that not just us, but other blue lights and the system as a whole, that - heaven forbid the city-region is faced with something in the future - we are able to respond.”

Overall, inspectors found GMFRS was ‘good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies’, in its probe last autumn.

They also found ‘it considers a wide range of learning to support its ability to do so… [including] the Manchester Arena Inquiry report, with the service making improvements, such as the introduction of its new terrorist response capability’.

That led Michelle Skeer, His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services to conclude she was ‘pleased with the performance of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service in keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks’.

“The service has improved how it targets and evaluates its fire prevention work and continues to provide an effective response to incidents,” she added. 

"The service has also successfully implemented its new terrorist response capability, ensuring that all stations and fire engines are now equipped and ready to respond to terrorist attacks.

“Overall, I commend the service on the changes it has made and expect it to continue working to resolve the further areas for improvement we have identified.”

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