Monthly Archives: April 2014

An introduction to my research

This morning I presented my first ever academic poster. It was an internal faculty event for all the research students to showcase our work to our colleagues, so not too intimidating. Nevertheless, I was rather chuffed to win third prize for my poster. And since the poster is a good introduction to my research it seems sensible to do a web version for the blog. Here it is…

The poster

The poster. Click to download a PDF version


Not everyone is at equal risk of suffering loss from fire. There is considerable evidence that those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately likely to experience accidental fire (see Jennings 20131 for a recent summary). This research seeks first to understand which communities are most at risk in the West Midlands today. It will then explore whether the relationship between a Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) and the communities it serves limits the ability of the FRS to reduce those inequalities. It aims to improve the lives of some of the most deprived communities by finding ways to increase the efficacy of fire safety interventions, reducing inequality and improving Fire Service outcomes.

Who’s at risk of fire

Initial analysis of data from the West Midlands Fire Service has revealed a striking relationship between deprivation and the incidence of accidental dwelling fires (ADFs).

The maps in figure 1 demonstrate the similarities in spatial distribution between areas with a high rate of accidental dwelling fire and areas with a high rate of employment deprivation.

Map of employment deprivation and accidental dwelling fires in the West Midlands

Figure 1. Rates of accidental dwelling fire (top) and employment deprivation (bottom) show similar spatial patterns

Figure 2 further illustrates the strong correlation between employment deprivation and fire—if fire were evenly distributed throughout society all the bars would reach the horizontal orange line, which represents the average fire rate index. This pattern is repeated throughout the principal domains of deprivation.

Graph of employment deprivation and incidence of fire

Figure 2: There is a strong relationship between accidental dwelling fire rates and employment deprivation

Further work will look for links to other demographic factors, such as ethnicity, age, tenure and household composition.

Why community relations?

The role of the Fire Service is changing. It is increasingly focused on prevention, and central to this is  a need to engage with the communities that it serves in order to raise awareness of fire safety. However,  there is evidence from elsewhere in the UK that there is significant friction between those in poorer neighbourhoods and the Fire Service, rooted in part in a deep-seated distrust of all public bodies2. It is those very neighbourhoods that the Fire Service most needs to reach in order to address these inequalities.

The second phase of this research will adopt a more qualitative, interpretative approach to explore the nature of the relationship between the Fire Service and its communities. It will seek to understand how different communities view the Fire Service and make sense of their experience of the Service and of the wider state. Figure 3 illustrates how organisational, cultural and personal factors affect outcomes. It is hoped that a deeper understanding of this process will help to reduce inequality.

Links between behaviour and outcomes

Figure 3. Personal, cultural and organisational aspects of behaviour may affect Fire Service outcomes

  1. Jennings, CR (2013). Social and economic characteristics as determinants of residential fire risk in urban neighborhoods: a review of the literature. Fire Safety Journal, 62 (A): 13–19. DOI 10.1016/j.firesaf.2013.07.002 []
  2. Matheson, K (2012). Fire fighters, neighbourhoods and social identity: The relationship between the fire service and residents in Bristol [Online]. PhD Thesis, University of the West of England. Available from: [Retrieved 14 November 2013] []

The pitfalls of joined up working

Joined up working—it’s all the rage in public management at the moment. It helps the public sector work more efficiently. It reduces duplicated effort. It enables multiple agencies to combine their resources and expertise to tackle those “wicked issues”—another big public management buzzword.

And on the face of it it all seems to make sense. In the context of fire, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has been doing interesting ‘joined-up’ work recently sharing data with a variety of other agencies to help identify, at an individual level, who is most at risk of fire1. This enables them to target fire safety interventions very precisely, which will surely mean better outcomes for less effort and cost.

As I’ve been reading around the subject of community relationships with public bodies, however, I’ve started to uncover bits of evidence to suggest that joined up working may not be entirely good for outcomes. It’s all to do with trust. Some really interesting research in Bristol has suggested that actually some communities, and particularly poorer communities, distrust the fire service2. This distrust hampers the ability of the fire service to communicate the  fire safety message and may be reducing the uptake of fire safety measures. And the suspicion is that it may in part be down to the fire service being associated in people’s minds with other public services.

The notion is explored in more depth in some earlier research into poor uptake of community health initiatives amongst those in more deprived communities3. The researchers in this study found strong evidence that people in poorer communities were reticent to engage with public services for a whole host of reasons. These included fear of loosing resources such as benefits, feeling they were being watched or judged, and poor experiences in the past, both of being treated without respect and of simply not getting the help they felt they needed. And crucially for the work being done by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, data sharing between agencies was identified as a significant factor leading to fear and distrust of the public services. This seemed to be particularly acute where Social Services were concerned, with the fear of having children taken into care widespread. Few would argue that protecting children isn’t important, but perhaps that purpose is not best served by an approach which is perceived as turning all public sector workers into spies, leaving parents afraid to engage with primary health care services.

There are certainly real benefits to be had by public services working together, but what is starting to become clear is that there are also some real problems associated with it. For all it may be done with the best intentions, some of the most disadvantaged people in society perceive joined up working by public bodies as a significant threat to them. As a result they make choices about the way in which they engage with services that may significantly hamper the ability of those services to achieve their aims. There are no easy answers. Abandoning joined up working is not a realistic option. But there is a clear need for public services to deepen their understanding of how their actions are perceived and how they affect the willingness of communities to engage with them.

  1. Higgins, E, Taylor, M, Jones, M and Lisboa, PJG (2013). Understanding community fire risk—A spatial model for targeting fire prevention activities. Fire Safety Journal, 62 (A): 20–29. DOI 10.1016/j.firesaf.2013.02.006 []
  2. Matheson, K (2012). Fire fighters, neighbourhoods and social identity: The relationship between the fire service and residents in Bristol [Online]. PhD Thesis, University of the West of England. Available from: [Retrieved 14 November 2013] []
  3. Canvin, K, Jones, C, Marttila, A, Burström, B and Whitehead, M (2007). Can I risk using public services? Perceived consequences of seeking help and health care among households living in poverty: qualitative study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (11): 984–989. DOI 10.1136/jech.2006.058404 []