The north of England seems to see more collaborative public services than the south. This is a great example from Northumberland.
Putting together fire services with small children may not be the most obvious public service collaboration. But the pay-off has been considerable for Northumberland council.
Northumberland, which runs its area’s fire and rescue service, has 13 stations that host Sure Start services. The two services have built up their relationship in the area over a decade.
Alex Bennett, acting chief fire officer for Northumberland fire and rescue service, said the arrangement had enabled new combined fire station and Sure Start centre to be set up at Rothbury, a small inland town near the area’s national park, converting a former ambulance station.
“If we’d had to build new, it would never ever have happened,” he told the Guardian’s Public Procurement North conference in Manchester recently.
The combined building, which opened in June 2009, costs £3.84 to run each hour, compared to £21 an hour for the old fire station – which was also “riddled with asbestos” and had no facilities for women firefighters, as it was built before there were any, Bennett said. It cost £500,000 to convert, compared with at least £1.6m for a new fire station and £300,000 for a basic children’s centre, and the fire service received £200,000 for selling its old station.
But the advantages of co-location go far beyond the financial, according to Jan Casson, Sure Start locality manager for north Northumberland. As the station relies on retained volunteer firefighters who are part of the community, it has helped Sure Start get in contact with two-thirds of local parents with children under four years old – difficult to do for a centre that covers 756 square miles.
Casson told the event that the messages Sure Start wants to get to parents fit very well with those promoted by the fire service. Both services are trying to reduce smoking, Sure Start focusing on the health risk to young children, the fire service aiming to reduce house fires, with similar synergies on preventing other accidents in the home.
She said similar co-operation elsewhere in the county has seen significant reductions in children under three attending accident and emergency. “We’re in this together,” she said.
The room used for children has a window onto the fire appliance’s garage, so they can, in complete safety, see the firefighters leaving in emergencies.
Bennett said that his fire service is also sharing premises with the north-east ambulance service at five locations, including one which saved an ambulance station from being built; the North East Equality and Diversity charity; the Northumbria Probation Trust, which is based at one of the service’s stations; and have started discussions with the local NHS and looking at how it can work with mountain rescue, police, community wardens, highways, the Environment Agency and other potential partners.
Fire stations work well as locations used by other services, including sensitive ones, as people may visit them simply to buy low-cost safety equipment – which can provide cover for those visiting sensitive services.
Bennett said that financial savings from co-location may accrue to another part of the public sector rather than to the fire and rescue service, but this was not an argument against it.
“There are some things you can’t put a figure on, which is a moral responsibility,” he said. “We are responsible for protecting our communities,” and any opportunity to improve that protection should be taken up.
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