After Grenfell, local authorities must break the link between fire and inequality

This is an article I wrote for The Conversation. You can read the original article here.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower has brought the inequalities that exist in British society into sharp relief. The number of dead or missing and presumed dead has risen to 79 people in one of the Britain’s wealthiest areas, due to what London Mayor Sadiq Khan called a “preventable accident” caused by years of “mistakes and neglect” by government officials. Meanwhile, there have been accusations that the local council and building management organisation failed to listen to residents’ warnings about the risk of fire.

My ongoing research indicates that these points may all be linked. It’s a well-established fact that fire has always affected poorer communities more. To prevent fires, there must be effective engagement between communities and public services. But my findings suggest that the way these services operate does little to encourage disadvantaged and marginalised communities to work with them.

Searching for answers

In my own analysis of house fires in the West Midlands, I found striking inequalities in the way that fires are distributed. Areas with high rates of fire also tended to be areas where residents’ income was lower, unemployment more widespread, or a higher proportion of the residents came from black and minority ethnic groups. One earlier study found that children whose parents were long-term unemployed were a staggering 26 times more likely to die of fire related injuries than children whose parents were in higher managerial and professional occupations.

Surprisingly, though, there is little solid evidence explaining why this is so. It is easy to think of some possible reasons: poor quality housing; the inability to afford modern, safer electrical equipment; higher rates of smoking (smoking is a major cause of fire deaths). But the truth is that we just don’t know. It may be, though, that the communities affected by high rates of fire have some ideas. This is one reason why it’s crucial that those charged with improving fire safety learn to listen.

Deep fried plantain

Deep fried plantain – delicious, but risky.. Fimb/Flickr, CC BY

I spent time talking to people in a diverse, disadvantaged part of the West Midlands. Among those I spoke to was Peter, a Tanzanian man. I had already established that areas with high African populations tended to have high rates of fire. Peter had no doubt as to why this was. His community, he told me, are not used to cooking on gas and do a lot of deep frying. Information like this is of great value to those interested in improving fire safety. But it is information that will be lost to fire safety officers and local councils alike, if they don’t engage with the diverse communities that they serve.

Working together

It’s important to recognise that fire prevention is not something which can be done to a community. The community must join in and take part – it is a joint effort. In the disadvantaged area where I worked, people were very wary of dealing with public services any more than necessary. This meant that they were unlikely to engage with the local fire service, or with other groups attempting to promote such things as fire safety or healthier eating. And many of the reasons I heard for this were far less likely to affect more affluent, middle-class residents.

For one thing, the people I spoke with were fed up with nothing ever changing. They felt that they weren’t being listened to, and no matter what they said or did their lives stayed the same – so they had given up trying to engage with services. They also worried that having contact with one service would lead to unwanted contact with other services, with social services being a particular fear, as others have noted. And they felt judged – judged for needing help, judged for where they lived.

What’s more, fire was just not a priority. It seemed an unlikely possibility, set against all the other pressing problems they had to worry about, such as the bus service being withdrawn or the landlord not carrying out repairs. And for many, the prospect of engaging with local services to make their homes safer felt daunting. The language used by public sector workers was confusing. The way in which meetings were run was unfamiliar. Organisations dominated by middle-class, white employees tended to approach engagement in ways which make sense to middle-class white people. This created services which felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar to many of those who I spoke to.

If tragedies like Grenfell Tower are to be avoided in the future, public services need to get much better at engaging with the communities that they serve. And because those communities are diverse, the approaches taken to engage must also be diverse. Examples of valuable efforts I came across included hanging out in hairdressers frequented by African women, and working in partnership with an organisation with existing links to sex workers, to try to reach them.

Creating environments in which people from many backgrounds feel safe and comfortable engaging is a huge challenge for many in the public sector. It will push organisations out of their comfort zone. It will require time, investment and new skills. But these challenges can no longer be deferred, if we want to build a society which is fairer and safer for everyone.

Chris Hastie, PhD candidate, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Barriers to engagement

Today my findings had their first big public outing when I presented at the Institute of Fire Engineers annual Fire Related Research and Development Conference. Here’s my presentation. Because it was the conference’s twentieth anniversary it begins with a brief look at the state of play for community fire safety 20 years ago, before running though the research I’ve been doing with communities in north east Coventry.

Or you can view it on

The presentation finishes with a couple of quite provocative questions. First, I ask whether the focus on very intensive Home Fire Safety Checks is the best strategy for ensuring a wide reach for community fire safety. And secondly, I ask whether Fire and Rescue Services are necessarily the best organisation to deliver community fire safety. I will return to these questions in more detail in future posts.


Factors associated with rates of fire

I’ve recently had an article published in the Fire Safety Journal1 which summarizes some of statistical research I carried out early in the project. This is my first academic paper to be accepted, so I’m quite chuffed to have managed to get through the peer review process. The article, bearing the not very snappy title of “Socio-economic and demographic predictors of accidental dwelling fire rates”, was co-authored with Professor Rosalind Searle and explores the way in which fires in the home are distributed through society.  Here’s a presentation that covers some of the main points…

If you have trouble viewing the presentation you can also try watching it on Vimeo

The published version of the paper can be found at doi:10.1016/j.firesaf.2016.07.002. Alternatively, you can read the accepted manuscript.

  1. Hastie, C. and Searle, R. (2016) ‘Socio-Economic and Demographic Predictors of Accidental Dwelling Fire Rates’. Fire Safety Journal 84, 50–56 DOI:10.1016/j.firesaf.2016.07.002 []

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I’ve rather let posts to this blog slip whilst I’ve been out talking to people and collecting data, not to mention listening back to all those conversations, reading field notes and trying to make sense of it all. But now, as the fog is just starting to clear, is perhaps a good time to return to it and start sharing some of things I’m finding.

Amongst the themes that are emerging is the fact that people really don’t think fire is all that important. A woman who has lived for sixteen years in an area with a particularly high rate of fires in the home told me that she had only ever seen one house fire. Against the perception that fire is a rare event that happens to others, people feel they have much more important things to worry about.

Another important theme centres around the failure of public services of all types to really get to grips with engaging effectively with some sections of a diverse community. For a whole range of reasons many people just aren’t interested in engaging with services, or hearing or acting on the messages they try to get across.

But what has all this got to do with the only bit of French I can remember—Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it stays the same)? Well, I’ve been putting together a proposal for a conference paper recently, and the particular conference I’m hoping to present at celebrates its twentieth year this year. To mark this, the organisers are asking presenters to review the state of the field twenty years ago and relate their presentation to this. Community fire safety as a concept was in its infancy twenty years ago and the Home Secretary, who was responsible for Fire Services in those days, put together a task force to look at it. They published their report, Safe as Houses1, in 1997, and I dug it out to have a look at the other day.

And what do you know, they said pretty much the same things back then. On the perception of fire risk the report notes

The public in general feel remote from the dangers of fire. Only 4% of the public consider they are likely to have a fire in the home while the respective figures for burglary and
road accidents are 44% and 35%. Because of this, it is not ‘top of mind’

Elsewhere the report observes

Existing techniques and approaches have clearly not made sufficient impact on changing the attitudes and behaviour of those in greatest danger of having a fire in the home. Fire safety messages have not been heard or do not appear to have been acted upon by those most at risk

The authors suggest that the term “hard to reach” is inaccurate, arguing, in essence, that the groups they need to reach are reached easily because they watch a lot of TV. But they are hard to influence—they haven’t responded to the message. I think this distinction is somewhat artificial. If they haven’t responded you can’t really claim to have reached them. It remains the case 20 years on, though, that efforts to reduce the incidence of fire have been markedly more successful amongst some communities than amongst others. The message still isn’t being heard in some quarters. My job now is to work out why that is, and what can be done to change it.

  1. Community Fire Safety Task Force (1997) Safe as Houses: The Report of the Community Fire Safety Task Force [online] London: DCLG. available from <> []

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 []