The latest Accounts Commission report also warns cuts will be needed with five Scottish fire and rescue services among the six most expensive in the UK, per head of population. Scottish fire and rescue services spend around £372 million a year. Like police, they will become a single service in April, with a savings target of £293m over 15 years.
The Accounts Commission, which checks that public money is spent efficiently, said there was an opportunity to create a “world-class fire service for Scotland”, but it also faced a number of challenges.
David Dalziel, chairman of the Chief Fire Officers Association Scotland (CFOAS), admitted improvements were needed to reduce fire deaths.
“The figures are unenviably high – we’ve been conscious of that for some time, but the trend is downwards,” he said.
Although both casualties and fires are falling in Scotland, they are dropping faster in England and Wales.
Mr Dalziel, who is also chief fire officer in Grampian, said previous studies found deprivation levels, numbers of people smoking, excessive drinking and coldness had been cited as reasons for more incidents north of the Border.
He said: “We need to take a multi-agency approach. In the last five fatal fires in Grampian, the victims were all known to other agencies. So we need a better exchange of information.”
He said fire chiefs were optimistic about meeting the 15-year savings target, but added: “We understand the public purse is going to get squeezed, but not at all costs. We are a protective service.”
Part of the reason for the higher costs lies in the rural landscape of parts of Scotland, with the Highlands and Islands service the country’s most expensive per head. It’s hoped a single service will make savings by cutting duplication in functions such as HR and IT.
The report also highlighted inconsistencies with the numbers and locations of fire stations, although any major changes are likely to be restricted by the shortage of capital funds available.
John Baillie, chairman of the Accounts Commission, said: “This is a critical time in the history of the service in Scotland.
“Strong leadership, both nationally and locally, will be needed to deal with the financial pressures facing the service.
“More attention needs to be paid to finding new ways of engaging effectively with communities and the workforce over service changes that will be needed in the longer term.”