So just yesterday (on the 9th January 2014), the London Fire Brigade closed ten fire stations in London, so I thought it would be quite apt to write some of my opinions of this after writing a dissertation analysing the incident calls of the LFB. In the dissertation I decided to write quite objectively and in a way more focused on using methods to visualise the incident call out data set and not to probe too much in the political and socioeconomic factors. It was more of a starting point for a “before and after” study which would capture the existing conditions, some relevant contextual information and to build some form of visual analytical tool to make some form of logical assessment of what it was like before policy had been applied. A lot more could of been done, but I have a habit of optimising my results according of effort needed (in other words I did what I felt was enough and I was holding down a part time job at the same time as writing the dissertation).
My actual personal opinion of the policy to close stations, is in terms of social implications to society as a perceived risk. The driving assurances the government, the London Mayor and the LFEPA is that because incidents are falling we require less firefighters and stations, if it was a simple allocation task I wouldn’t really of thought much about it but when its a spatial allocation task…. well that’s not so simple. This works on one important problem, getting to a fairly random location from set station sites. Statistically speaking if you need to dispatch emergency response from a set of 4 stations in comparison to 3 stations, you will receive a better response from the set of 4 stations, this makes absolute sense to anyone regardless of your level of understanding for spatial complexity, so when you are met with this statement:
“With ten London fire stations set to close this Thursday, 9 January, the Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA), James Cleverly, said today that Londoners will continue to be safe and receive the fastest emergency response in the capital, if not the UK.”
This seems unlikely to me, the only real case I would submit to that being plausible is if the remaining stations each were equipped with fire trucks which were so smart and faster that they could better reach incidents then it might be workable (or better yet squadrons of fire helicopter trucks). Let alone the latter part of the statement, “receive the fastest response in the capital, if not the UK”, well to be quite frank if that is relative to the capital of just London then if you had one station in the London that would still be the fastest response because it is the only response! As for most parts of the UK, those towns and cities have a lower density of fire station to coverage area and if the capital had 50 station it would probably still have a faster response than other towns and cities in the UK. The truth of this statement holds but in actual consideration of before and after, you will get a slower response than before.
Now, let us analysis the initial reasoning that the fewer incidents means we need fewer stations and pick at this idea for a moment to see if this is understated and actually would work. The easiest way to do so is to think in terms of two monthly scenarios where:
First Month we have 400 call outs addressed by 4 stations.
Second Month we have 300 call outs addressed by 3 stations.
Does it make sense that the average response time in the first month is the same as the second month? It seems on the face of it, in relative ratios that 400 calls to 40 stations = 100 calls per station and 30 calls to 3 stations = 100 calls that well most of it stayed the same so does this mean we have a better or as good a service in this case? The answer though is no, as we do not consider that the size of the spatial area covered by these stations are the same as before. The second month was not covering 75% of the area of the first month, so the response rate is actually going to increase on average. We also ignore the actual network placement of each station in our example here as there isn’t any particular spatial optimisation going on, a true restructuring to best minimise the effect of station closure of a set number of stations will be better served by redeploying station sites to make up for the missing stations as shown below. This will help to optimise how long it takes for a call out to be reached by the emergency response.
What happens though is that when we close a station without optimising, a quadrant of the first diagram will become an area which will have much weaker response as well as possibly causing greater queues when station resources are the same or less (in reality there are less total fire trucks than before!). These are problems of spatial allocations which actually mean that by decreasing number of sites, even if you maintain the full number of trucks and firefighters as before, the average response will always increase as long as the stations are not operating at full capacity 100% of the time (which they are not).
So….. it won’t be any surprise to those with some level of spatial comprehension if our emergency response time will increase. So what happens then….? Will it be the case that stations be reopened or that new ones be built to replace those when response times increases? Well that will likely be a political problem rather than a spatial one, as was the criteria of the initial proposal for policy change to reduce spending.
My response obviously seems to be against the policy, but not because I feel that is appears flawed but the real problem is that we have a very different situation than the original fire stations network was set up. This spatial allocation task has changed over the years, the road network has grown, congestion levels have changed, population increased and building density has increased. A real forward thinking policy would redevelop and redeploy against the primary issue of how to optimise the task of reaching incidents from a stationary network of sites. This means we really need to improve on the technology being utilised such as more efficient travel systems (SATNAVs and faster speed limits and better trucks/vehicles) or perhaps into more mobile setups like “footloose” fire stations that can be redeployed. Maybe the government could get a logistics delivery company to optimise a brand new station network for them instead? Or better yet… Flying London Fire Brigade drones might just do the trick!