Firing imaginations

12th October 2012


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IEMA

the environmentalist finds out how Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service is engaging its staff with protecting the environment as well as saving lives

Manchester has the largest fire and rescue service outside London, covering 10 local authorities and 500 square miles. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) runs 41 fire stations and employs around 2,500 people, most of whom are firefighters.

Fire and rescue services face some unique environmental challenges as well as those faced by other, more typical large organisations. For example, a fire service has to operate around the clock, which has implications for energy use. And the bedrock of its service is the operation of an extensive fleet of fuel-hungry fire engines that constantly carry a big tank of water – GMFRS has 66 of these vehicles in its fleet.

As GMFRS’s environment manager Sam Pickles explains, the organisation’s first priority is saving lives and some unavoidable environmental impacts flow from this imperative, such as the use of water and the potentially contaminated “run off” that is produced from the site of a fire or other incident after firefighters have dealt with the emergency.

Sustainability has, however, been high on GMFRS’s corporate agenda for years. “The effects of climate change – such as more wildfires – have a direct impact on our service and so there is strong corporate recognition and leadership on sustainability issues in the organisation,” explains Pickles. “Our key challenge is balancing operational performance and saving human life with our desire to improve our environmental performance.”

GMFRS is making significant progress in reducing its environmental impact and places innovation at the heart of its efforts to realise its sustainability goals. The steps taken by the organisation to achieve its goal of a 25% smaller carbon footprint by 2014 combine a range of operational changes, partnership working and creativity on the part of firefighters and staff.

Operational changes

Over the past 10 years, the service has operated an active programme of upgrading and improving the energy efficiency of its buildings to reduce its use of natural resources.

It has installed building insulation, double glazing and draught proofing to all sites and some have received energy-efficient technologies. Many have passive infrared occupancy controls to switch off lighting in communal areas when unoccupied and, in 2009, the organisation began introducing smart meters to remotely read electricity and gas use on all of its sites.

Although most of these changes are typical of many organisations’ sustainability programmes, other innovations by GMFRS are unique to its existence as a fire and rescue service. For example, historically, emergency services respond to all incidents under blue light or “two tone” conditions – combined flashing lights and sirens. But now the service has introduced a policy of “drive to arrive”, which allows its response teams to judge whether an incident requires a full emergency response or can be attended at a slower pace.

To support this policy, all of GMFRS’s new engines have been fitted with automatic speed restriction unless under emergency blue light conditions. This not only helps to increase the safety of its vehicles on the road, but also improves overall fuel efficiency and the associated carbon footprint.

Other operational changes have arisen through the implementation of an environment management system (EMS) across GMFRS – the organisation was the first fire service to reach level three of the Acorn scheme and is on target to achieve ISO 14001 certification by the end of 2012.

An example of how the EMS has fostered change is in the storage of large quantities of the foam used to extinguish fires. The foam is an extremely hazardous substance when stored undiluted. Implementing an EMS alerted GMFRS to the need to store the foam in one central, controlled location rather than in several across the county.

The service’s building infrastructure is another area GMFRS is proud of when it comes to its environmental performance. The organisation has just completed the second of three new fire stations that have been designed to achieve the BREEAM “excellent” rating.

Bury Community Fire Station (pictured above), for instance, has impressive environmental features incorporated into its design and operation, such as rainwater collection, which meets a significant proportion of demand for vehicle washing and toilet flushing. The building also boasts 30 square metres of solar photovoltaic panels which, combined with solar thermal provision, meets one-third of the station’s demand for hot water and more than half of its energy needs.

Also, about one-fifth of the station is built from recycled materials. When the third new fire station is built, the three buildings will collectively reduce GMFRS’s carbon emissions by at least 3%.

Sustainable travel

Reducing the carbon footprint of GMFRS’s extensive fleet and staff travel arrangements is a major focus of the organisation’s sustainability efforts. In the last financial year (2011/12), GMFRS reduced its fuel consumption by 35,000 litres and associated carbon emissions by 7% compared with the previous year. Total fuel use has decreased by 23% compared with a 2008/09 baseline.

GMFRS has taken a holistic approach to fleet management, reducing direct and embedded CO2 emissions at all stages of the vehicle life cycle, from construction to day-to-day use and final disposal. For example, the organisation is pioneering the use of 100% recyclable polymer bodywork on new fire engines.

One-third of the existing fleet and all new vehicles are now built from this non-corrosive and recyclable plastic, which is more durable than steel; it also reduces the weight of the heavy vehicles by three-quarters of a tonne and fuel use by 6–7%.

All of the service’s fleet cars and vehicles are designed to run on biodiesel blends of up to 5%, with newer vehicles capable of receiving blends of 30% or more. However, in recognition that biodiesel crops tie up land that could be used for food production, the organisation does not rely solely on this fuel source and is actively promoting alternative power options, such as converting the fleet’s five vans into hybrid form.

Also, all fleet drivers receive fuel-efficiency training and, to back it up, vehicles are being fitted with what Pickles describes as a “very good innovation” – a technical gadget that talks to the drivers, telling them how efficiently they are driving.

On top of these sustainable travel initiatives, GMFRS runs a highly successful cycle-to-work scheme that has had more than 30% staff take-up. In 2008/09, employees cycled 780,565 miles, saving more than £100,000 in individuals’ fuel costs and easing their impact on the environment to the tune of 170 tonnes of CO2.

Dampening down water use

Water is, of course, crucial for fire and rescue services to carry out their core role of putting out fires and saving lives, but this doesn’t mean that cutting water use is off the agenda. Pickles says that, although optimising water use cannot become a distraction from GMFRS’s central task, the service fully recognises that water needs to be used responsibly.

In 2008, GMFRS introduced a remote fire-engine pump telemetry system, which contributes greatly to its goal of monitoring and, where appropriate, reducing water use. As well as accurately identifying the available water pressures and volumes at an incident, it tracks the source of the water. Although fire engines carry a huge tank of water that is initially used to help put out the fire, they also plug into local water hydrants. “This means the service can now gauge whether we need to call a second appliance to an incident,” explains Pickles.

Meanwhile at fire stations, vehicle washing is by far the most significant use of metered water. Traditionally, vehicles have been washed at the end of every watch, resulting in large volumes of unnecessary water use.

After trialling pressure washers to reduce water and detergent use, cleaning staff came up with a simpler solution – to clean fire engines and ancillary equipment on a “needs only” basis. The roll-out of this practice across the service has reduced water consumption and detergent use by about 75%, resulting in an annual cost saving of more than £500 per fire station.

Championing the cause

Promoting more positive sustainable practices across GMFRS is seen as the key to achieving the organisation’s environmental aims. To this end, the organisation operates a network of about 120 environmental champions who are viewed as the “eyes and ears” of the sustainability team.

The champions, all volunteers, are engaged in monitoring environmental performance and encouraging resource-efficient behaviour. They carry out weekly checks at their station or site, and take part in quarterly reviews to help ensure compliance with environment legislation.

To support these local environment activists, GMFRS partnered with other fire and rescue services in the North West to develop an “environmental champion’s handbook”. It provides guidance, tips, case studies, checklists and tools to help champions fulfil their role. The organisation also operates a sustainability working group to implement actions and respond to suggestions and feedback from staff.

Although a key part of their role is to respond to emergencies, including transport accidents and chemical spills, firefighters also spend a great deal of their time promoting fire safety in the community. One of the simplest but most effective ways of doing this is carrying out home safety checks, usually targeting some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Through fire prevention and partnership with the police, local authorities and other agencies, GMFRS has achieved a 39% reduction in the number of building fires in the past five years. This, of course, has a positive effect on carbon emissions. In the past year alone, there has been a 9% reduction in the carbon footprint from fires in Greater Manchester – from 11,301 tonnes of CO2 in 2010/11 to 10,297 tonnes in 2011/12.

Award winners

There is a healthy level of competition between the service’s many sites, a dynamic that the sustainability team turns to its advantage through its “green hose” awards.

Each station is given a green list of tasks to carry out over a six-month period on which they are graded. Bronze, silver and gold medals are awarded to the best-performing stations. “It is considered a big accolade by staff to be ranked the greenest fire station in Manchester,” says Pickles.

Staff are also encouraged to come up with innovative projects themselves to help reduce the organisation’s environmental impact and a new scheme offers resources to support ideas with a clear business case. So far this has delivered nine new sustainability projects or technology trials including micro wind turbines mounted on one station’s 15-metre drill tower, beehives, LED lighting and rainwater harvesting.

The sustainability team plans to capitalise further on the competition between fire stations. “Our next step is to use the automated metering we have installed at sites to publish and compare the levels of energy used by each shift or watch, to see which uses the least,” says Pickles. “Firefighters would definitely rise to that challenge, especially if we offered prizes like a meal for everyone at the site prepared by a celebrity chef using locally-sourced ingredients.”

This latest employee-engagement initiative is typical of the innovative nature of much of the sustainability work at GMFRS. It is the many different innovations, both big and small, that will help the organisation to realise its long-term environmental goals.

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