In the second part of former Firemaster Brian Allaway’s investigation into what has changed since the publication of his book Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service ten years’ ago, he asserts that at long last, now is the time to change and suggests how it can be done

In the previous article on the subject of culture and identity in the Fire and Rescue Service published in June’s edition of FIRE, we looked at the issue in the light of previous research from Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service and the first formal inspection of fire and rescue services “for more than a decade” the State of Fire and Rescue – The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019 by HMCIFRS. In doing this we asked the question what, if anything, has changed in the last ten years or so?

Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service analysed and defined organisational culture as a topic, and the culture of the Fire Service in particular. It concluded that cultural realities in the Fire Service can be seen as being based on the adoption of a masculine identity in the workplace. In relation to organisational culture, the State of Fire and Rescue, amongst several other findings, noted a striking lack of diversity in the Service and a ‘toxic culture in too many services’.

A more in-depth analysis of both pieces of work noted a remarkable similarity between their findings, particularly when it came to the prevailing culture of the Fire and Rescue Service. The article concluded that little seems to have changed in the last ten years, and, it could be argued, for much longer than that. However, it was also argued that the inappropriate values demonstrated in the Service could and should be changed, and, despite the difficulties of doing so, it would still be possible to change the Service’s culture. Perhaps, at long last, now is a time to change.

This article is designed to continue the ongoing discussion on how that could be done.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The State of Fire and Rescue, in common with virtually all of the previous reports into the Fire and Rescue Service, indicated that it is a sector with many strengths. It has a particularly strong operational response, with an almost universal focus of staff on protecting life and property in the communities they serve. The operational response of the Service is particularly strong and it is greatly admired by the public. However, and once again in common with previous reports into the Fire and Rescue Service, HMCIFRS goes on to indicate that significant reform would be necessary to modernise the sector. The report highlights:

 

  • A lack of consensus as to what firefighters and FRSs ought to do asking, what is the true nature of the firefighter’s role?
  • The lack of central strategy, with localism being encouraged at the expense of national standards, unjustifiable variations in service delivery, and a lack of national capacity and capability.
  • The lessons to be learnt from the Grenfell tragedy, including the need to improve firefighter and incident commander training, inter-agency working, communications and the need to learn from previous incidents.
  • A requirement for a national code of ethics, where the values it contains are part of staff performance appraisals (for all members of staff) and are considered in promotion decisions, to ‘make sure they become part of everyday working life’.
  • That many services need to improve their protection work as the Service is not doing enough to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations.
  • A lack of development for future leaders.
  • The Service’s particularly poor record when it comes to diversity.
  • A requirement for cultural change.

A (short) discussion about change and resistance

It’s all about the values

Developed organisational cultures are often characterised by strong values held throughout the organisation and entrenched through well-established socialisation processes, with a strong requirement for individuals to ‘fit in’. This would seem to be particularly true of the Fire and Rescue Service. Here, a system of shared and normalised values guide both managerial and employee behaviour, where a particularly strong cultural framework, or web of human relationships, defines how the rules for carrying out the daily work routine are developed, with the actions of individuals being framed in a contextual system of meaning.

There is a body of evidence to suggest that well-established organisational cultures, such as that of the Fire Service, based as they are on frameworks of strongly held values, will be very difficult to change unless they are subject to some catastrophic event where the imperative of organisational survival applies. These types of pressure do not normally apply to the Fire and Rescue Service and, therefore, the only remaining pressures to improve the Service’s efficiency and effectiveness result from technological developments, internal managerial requirements or external social and political pressures.

Resistance to change

In the realities of Service life, it can be difficult for managers to control the culturally driven behaviours of the workforce. Organisational culture is too complex a phenomenon to change in the short-term and any change brought about by programmes introduced within the Service may well be superficial. In reality, the evidence suggests that organisational cultural change cannot be brought about easily, either in the short- or medium-term, as it is inextricably linked to the deeply held values and beliefs of organisational members. In these circumstances there will be resistance to change. Attempts at change by senior managers may only be given lip service by line managers, who may undermine attempts at change through ridicule, or alternatively just keep their heads down until the next initiative comes along. Organisational culture is made from below as much as from above, and employees may not agree with or support cultural change. In these circumstances, attempts at change may be seen by them as an attempt to control their thoughts, beliefs and values.

The possibilities of change and improvement

The Service is currently driven by a deep and normalised set of shared values. Therefore, any change process is much more likely to be effective if it adapts or builds on the existing positive values embodied in the Service and its people, such as saving life – through prevention as well as intervention – and the basic decency that is embodied by the majority of firefighters; with a focus on the areas of the Service to be delivered and the style with which it is delivered; concentrating on equality, dignity and respect; underpinned by improvements in leadership.

How the Service is Delivered

The role of the Service

Traditionally, service delivery in the Fire and Rescue Service has been based on an ability to engage effectively in what has been considered by practitioners as the primary role of the Service, responding to incidents and in particular fighting fires, or ‘doing the job’. Therefore, the most striking value evident in the Service is a pride in delivering on a physically demanding and often dangerous operational task when fighting fires. Individuals in the Service often articulate this shared value as a pride in delivering a special, essential and often dangerous emergency service, based almost exclusively on the task of fighting fire. A task which requires both physical strength and mental toughness. Moreover, in the minds of those who deliver it, the Fire and Rescue Service is not seen as a job that everyone is either capable of, or actually wants to carry out.

The reality is, however, that as many lives, if not more, can be saved through prevention as through intervention. Prevention really is better than the cure. Therefore, the argument should be put forward that prevention and protection should be as highly valued as attending emergency incidents and will save many lives.

In recent years the requirements of society regarding its emergency services have changed, and there is an expectation that the Fire and Rescue Service should be ready to deal with a broad group of emergencies. While some legislative changes were introduced in 2005, there does not currently seem to be a cultural acceptance of the flexibility required within the Service. For this reason, the culture of the Service should be encouraged to adopt a much more flexible approach to ongoing changes in its response to emergencies, seeing the Service as a ‘societal safety net’ and being prepared to embrace changing operational requirements as society and its needs change.

A focus on equality, dignity and respect

Despite some evidence of the acceptance of women in the Service this does not, by any means, seem to be the case throughout the sector. In the minds of most of its practitioners, the Fire and Rescue Service continues to be a dirty and dangerous job that requires both physical and mental strength to carry it out successfully. In the current dominant culture within the Service, this implies that women cannot ‘do the job’. In these circumstances, the cultural realities of the Service make it difficult for women to be fully accepted. People from minority ethnic backgrounds and other underrepresented groups can also be treated in this way. Therefore, the current culturally acceptable ideal type, encapsulated in and based on the firefighting role, promotes a belief that everyone else, apart from those in the ‘in group’ are somehow less capable of doing the job.

This set of often unconscious values and beliefs, together with the behaviours that reinforce them, can lead to the denigration of anyone who is seen as different from the idealised norm. In these circumstances the strong team-based approach to delivering the service can result in a cultural reality, which is particularly unwelcome to outsiders, or those who are seen as being different to the culturally defined norm.

In a modern fit for purpose Fire and Rescue Service, this cultural approach is self-evidently inappropriate and wrong. It needs be challenged by leaders of the Service, both formal and informal, making the argument that individuals deserved to be valued for what they bring to the Service, rather than for fitting some culturally defined ideal type.

Leadership

The formal structures and management approach adopted in the Service can be seen as traditional, hierarchal and autocratic. In short it seems to be a command approach, driven from a top down perspective and displayed by formal and informal leaders at all levels of the Service. While it may be that a command approach is appropriate when dealing with emergencies, it does not seem to be appropriate in the other sets of circumstances service leaders are required to deal with on a day to day basis in modern society. Therefore, a variety of approaches may be necessary, depending on the circumstances (although it may be that individuals will have some difficulty switching between different management styles).

Much research into leadership distinguishes between leadership and management. In the main, a management approach will be about maintaining systems and dealing with relatively tame and familiar problems.

In contrast, leadership is often characterised as requiring longer time periods, a more strategic perspective and a requirement to address unusual problems. Management and leadership styles are rooted in the continuum between certainty and uncertainty in problem solving. When considered with the concepts of tame, critical and wicked problems, management can be effective in dealing with tame problems, but it will take leadership to resolve the wicked ones. There is a further complication that arises when critical problems are considered. This type of problem tends to involve a crisis, which allows little time for making decisions or acting on them. In these circumstances, incident commanders need to be decisive and confident, they need the ability to make quick decisions and take decisive action when dealing with critical situations during emergency incidents.

In a fire and rescue context there may well be a requirement for leaders of the Service to move from asking questions regarding organisational delivery and processes, thus improving the service being delivered; to managing organisational processes, thus ensuring effective service delivery; to providing answers to difficult and intractable problems in an incident command role; and back to collaborative leadership if the incident develops into a major disaster requiring multi-organisational collaboration. Moreover, in the current organisational context, senior leaders in the Service will often be required to legitimise their actions in a public setting by developing a convincing public argument to justify their actions in both the operational and service change contexts.

For these reasons there is a pressing requirement to deliver the best possible leadership training and development, if the Fire and Rescue Service is to deliver on its ability to provide a service that is truly fit for the 21st century.

Conclusions

While it would seem that little has changed in the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service over the last ten years or so, it seems that pressures for change continue unabated. It is difficult not to conclude that change in the Service will be necessary if the Fire and Rescue Service is to continue to be a Service fit for purpose in modern times. In this article I have argued that while successful change in the organisational culture of the FRS will be difficult, concentrating on the role of the Service, its values, equality, dignity and respect and importantly improving leadership, will give the best chance of achieving appropriate and lasting change.

However, good intentions in doing this, together with introducing a nationally agreed set of values for the Service, will not on its own be enough. Acceptance and ownership throughout the Service will also require both investment and national coordination. To ensure success, there will be a requirement for research to underpin a common understanding and development of a new model for leadership and delivery: a new framework to disseminate learning and training in both these areas; the ability to demonstrate the acquisition of the skills and values required to deliver a modern Service; and all of this will have to be delivered through a common framework of agreed national standards if the Service is to have consistent delivery to the same standards throughout the country.

Many of the required facilities for delivering this already exist, however, a great deal of work and some investment will be required, if it is to be delivered within a nationally consistent framework.

References

  1. Allaway B. (2011) Culture, Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service. The Institution of Fire Engineers.
  2. Winsor T.P. (2020) State of Fire and Rescue - The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services.