Fire: Raising the Standard
Section 2 Fire-raising Statistics and Definitions
Given the differences in scale between fire and police statistics, it is important that recording practices and counting conventions applicable to both are fully understood.
2.2 Fire-raising and the fire service
The fire service record information on all reportable fires. Fire Service recording conventions define a "reportable" fire as " an event of uncontrolled burning involving flames, heat or smoke". Each reportable fire can be either a primary or secondary fire.
2.3 Primary and secondary fires
Primary fires generally involve property and include buildings, caravans, motor vehicles and plant and machinery. Secondary fires are often minor and include the burning of rubbish, grass and derelict properties.
A fuller but not exhaustive definition of primary and secondary fires can be found at appendix B.
2.4 Fire Data Report forms
Fire brigades collect statistical data on all the fires they attend. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), Fire Statistics and Research Section (FSR) requires the use of three different Fire Data Report (FDR) forms to collect the information in a standard format, namely:
- FDR1 - records primary fires.
- FDR2 - allows for amendment to the FDR1 form.
- FDR3 - records secondary fires.
Examples of these forms can be found at appendix C.
An instruction directing brigades on the recording conventions and definitions attributable to various fires accompanies the forms 4. HMIC and HMFSI found that the FDR forms and the accompanying explanatory notes can vary since they seek "best fit" rather than unambiguous evidence. Specifically, and as a consequence, the definitions attributed to different fires and their causes can be confusing and lead to inaccurate recording practices. For example, the cause of a fire is recorded in paragraph 5.1 of the form as " most likely cause".
The guidance states:
"Complete this section as accurately as possible, giving what is thought to be the most likely cause of the fire. You do not need to be certain that the fire was due to the cause given, only that the cause was one that could be reasonably supposed, given the evidence available. If more than one cause is possible, then (if this is required by your brigade), record the most likely at 5.1 and others in Section 7 with an indication of % likelihood (if required by your brigade)."
Definitions of the possible causes of fires are also given.
The guidance states:
- Accidental - caused by accident (not thought to be deliberate or malicious).
- Malicious - where malicious ignition is established beyond reasonable doubt.
- Deliberate - where a fire is started deliberately (but not necessarily with malicious intent) such as some fires started by children, psychiatric patients, suicides and attempted suicides. Deliberate fires do not include those fires that accidentally got out of control, e.g. a fire in a grate or a bonfire. In these cases tick the box for "accidental".
- Doubtful - where malicious or deliberate ignition is merely suspected but not established beyond reasonable doubt. This description should not be used to indicate general uncertainty about the cause of the fire.
- Not known - where there is general uncertainty about the cause of the fire. The "not known" box should only be used if absolutely necessary, but where possible the most likely cause on the evidence available should be given.
When considering published annual fire statistics it is important to recognise that the term "malicious" includes those fires recorded as "malicious", "doubtful" and "deliberate". This could have the effect of making the headline figure higher than it should be and may provide further explanation for the difference in fire and police statistics.
HMIC and HMFSI believe that the forms and the guidance notes would benefit from review. This cannot be done in Scotland alone and requires agreement throughout the United Kingdom. Both the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) and the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (SCFBAC) provide advice to Ministers on the Fire Service and fire-related matters at a national level. These two bodies are therefore best placed to effect the necessary change supported by the FSR, who, HMIC and HMFSI understand, share this concern.
It is recommended to the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, that a task group be formed to review Fire Data Report forms in conjunction with FSR, CACFOA and ACPOS. Such a review should endeavour to produce a more robust, clear and effective recording mechanism.
2.5 Fire incident data
Brigades gather, collate and send the data onto the FSR. However, prior to submission few brigades are able to use or analyse the data at a local level to provide timely information on local trends. The inspection did however find some exceptions and good practice, e.g. Grampian Fire Brigade, and some others, use geographical mapping software to analyse data. This allows the brigade to highlight areas of high activity and to search the databases to provide worthwhile management information. However, it was noted that these systems are stand-alone and not readily accessible to all managers.
Strathclyde Fire Brigade has begun to make fire incident data available through the brigade intranet. Personnel can access data superimposed on images of their station's area of responsibility - helping to identify areas that have a specific fire safety problem. This kind of information is vital in identifying minor fire-raising that can lead to more serious incidents in schools and commercial premises. This concept is similar to that of "Datashare" which is explored in more detail at paragraph 5.4.
HMIC and HMFSI regard such systems as good practice, and conversely, the failure to analyse such information as a missed opportunity. Given that the FSR annual statistical report may be published over eight months after the year end and includes sampled data, local analysis offers a far more timely picture of emerging issues and trends.
Ideally, all brigades should record data in an electronic format that would allow them to analyse and interpret information quickly. Such systems should be flexible enough to allow brigades to record sufficient information to inform policy making yet be compatible with the FSR to facilitate provision of data to that body. The integration of information technology should be a priority and CACFOA and the Scottish Executive are the organisations best placed to drive such change.
In the short to medium term it is recommended that brigades make more use of locally owned incident data. By using this information brigades will be able to secure a valuable opportunity to assess and deal quickly with local trends and emerging issues.
For the longer term, it is recommended that the Scottish Executive and CACFOA lead brigades towards an integrated information technology strategy to provide more appropriate management information. Any work in this area should involve liaison with the Scottish Police Information Strategy (SPIS) to achieve compatibility where possible. Cost would clearly be an issue in such an exercise, but there is the likelihood of long-term efficiency gains as a result of the initial investment and a "spend to save" philosophy is commended.
2.6 The Police and fire-raising
In legal terms, fire-raising can be divided into two categories:
- Wilful fire-raising; and
- Culpable and reckless fire-raising.
Wilful fire-raising refers to circumstances where property is set on fire deliberately with criminal intent. To prove that a person committed this crime, the evidence must show "beyond all reasonable doubt" that the act was intentional - any recklessness renders the specific charge flawed. Where recklessness is apparent then the charge of culpable and reckless fire-raising may be more appropriate.
Culpable and reckless fire-raising can also be committed against any form of property but only as a result of a reckless act by the person responsible. These (simplified) legal definitions have evolved over many years and are shaped as a result of "stated cases" i.e. cases that amend the law of the land following appeal and debate.
Previously, the "class" of property affected by the fire was an important aspect in what charge was libelled. Wilful fire-raising was affiliated with damage to "heritable property". Legally such property was held to be buildings, corn in barns or stacks, growing wood and coal-heughs (mine shafts).
Where damage was caused to property other than that listed above, the charge of "malicious mischief" was libelled. Malicious mischief is held to be the wilful, wanton, and malicious destruction of, or damage to, the property of another person. There must be malice, either actual or inferred, on the part of the perpetrator, as destruction or damage caused by accident, or under a reasonable belief of right, is not criminal.
However, the case of Byrne v Her Majesty's Advocate (2000 Scottish Criminal Courts Record 77), provided fresh direction on fire-raising. It highlighted the importance of mens rea5 as the most important factor in the competency of the charge of wilful fire-raising - not the type or class of property against which the act was directed.
The police service takes direction on counting conventions and rules from a Scottish Executive led forum 6. The forum, which includes members of the police service and the Crown Office, is responsible for defining what is, and what is not, to be recorded as a crime and for instructing forces how to record specific incidents.
Flowing from the direction given in the Byrne case, there was a change in police recording conventions from April 2002. Previously (and this will be explored further at 3.2), where the property damaged was non-heritable and the act was deemed to be wilful, police forces recorded the act as malicious mischief. Since April 2002, this has changed, and the offence should now be recorded as fire-raising.
The net effect of such a change will be to reduce the number of malicious mischief crimes and increase the number of fire-raising crimes. At present, for statistical purposes, the crimes of malicious mischief, malicious damage and vandalism are grouped together under a single crime code. In the year 2000/01 there were 83,378 recorded offences under this code in Scotland. During the same period there were 2,403 recorded crimes of fire-raising (wilful and culpable and reckless).
As a result of the huge variance in volume, the recording alteration will likely cause a significant percentage increase in the fire-raising statistics and a lesser depreciation in the malicious mischief figures. The exact scale of the variance is hard to estimate given the lack of specific detail available.
It is clear that different techniques are used by the police and fire services to record and collate statistics in respect of fire-raising. Not only are statistics recorded differently, but both services use different terminology and language to label fires of a non-accidental or criminal nature. This inconsistency means that it is very difficult to interpret and compare recorded crimes or incidents. As a result, the true scale of criminal fire-raising in Scotland is unclear and therefore it is difficult to assess whether it is afforded the appropriate level of priority.
The intelligence gap between the two organisations is examined in more detail in the next section.