IN 2015, just two years after Scotland’s single fire service was created, Audit Scotland reported that the merger from eight regional forces had been managed successfully but that there were some serious potential funding problems in the years ahead. Now, just three years later, it would seem the financial warning is coming true and that the lack of funding and resources is spreading, slowly but surely, through one of the country’s vital public services.

The latest piece of worrying news is about the state of the fire service’s buildings and vehicles. According to the latest Audit Scotland assessment, fire engines are at risk of breaking down amid what it calls an insurmountable repairs backlog worth some £400million. It also says the country’s engines and fire stations need tens of millions of pounds worth of investment over the next decade.

The good news, amid the bad, is that, at a time of great change to the service, fire deaths have been falling in Scotland, thanks in part to better prevention and education, but thanks also to the fact that the fire service has been able to maintain an effective frontline response in difficult times.

But for how much longer? We know that hundreds of frontline jobs have gone from the service since 2010 but, on top of that, the state of its engines and stations could pose a profound existential challenge. Audit Scotland has praised what it calls the service’s strong financial management but it also says that the current backlog of repairs is insurmountable without additional investment and a transformation of its current model for delivering services.

The question of further investment is one the Scottish Government will have to tackle soon – there has been a 12 per cent fall in the service’s budget in real terms in the last five years and the concern must be that the fire prevention work that has helped reduce deaths could be undermined. The Grenfell tragedy is also a reminder that prevention alone cannot do the job – the service needs firefighters who can work on the frontline when the worst happens and any further cuts to their numbers will not sit easily with the public.

However, Audit Scotland’s warning about the fire service’s current model points to other changes that the service can make. The traditional way of doing things in Scotland was always for different regions to have their own police and fire services, but they were merged, and now the question should be whether the time is right to merge all emergency services and their control rooms. The practice is common in Europe after all, and it could improve co-ordination and planning in the Scottish service and save money. Traditions are important, and valued, but they should never be an obstacle to the best way of running our public services.