Industrial revolutions and the 15 minutes rule: following the decline in UK manufacturing and the move to integrated risk management, the role of industrial fire brigades is under threat as never before. However, our correspondent argues that any business considering closing its works brigade could be courting disaster.(Industrial Firefighting)

THE INDUSTRIAL FIRE BRIGADE is an institution that has been written off more times than the Longbridge car plant. Indeed, the slow decline of brigades mimics the loss of the UK industrial base first to the 'Tiger' economies of the Far East and now to a rampant China and India. With the loss of manufacturing, the question, is can brigades survive in today's "just in time", "outsourced" and "lean" organisations? As the saying goes: "When the going gets tough, the tough go downsizing". And just like other peripheral activities--health and safety training and culture, pension schemes etc--the internal fire brigades become vulnerable.

Undervalued Role

The problem is that while industrial fire brigades make a significant but often unrecognised contribution to the prevention of fire and losses, the lack of profile (a parallel can be found in the work of fire safety work in the public sector) leads to an undervaluing of their role. The current record levels of fire losses of over 1 billion [pound sterling] in the UK, set to increase as the impact of Buncefield is clarified, may be in part attributable to the decline of the industrial fire brigade.

The number of industrial fire brigades have never been comprehensively quantified but during their peak in the 1950s, the British Fire Services Association (BFSA) had over 7,000 members from industrial and private fire services compared with 10,000 from public fire services. By any definition industrial firefighters were a substantial body, properly recognised for their worth.

Research based upon historical evidence had shown that fires tackled within the first 15 minutes from ignition were prevented from becoming a major financial loss. The almost immediate attendance by a 'works' brigade, particularly in the suburbs and in semi rural areas undoubtedly saved many factories from destruction. In the interests of business continuity, most large industrial concerns including all the major British car makers, engineering firms, pharmaceutical and food manufacturers had their own fire brigades. …

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