The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the practical implications of outdated and inflexible working arrangements in the fire service, reinforcing the need for national reform, a new report has said.
In his annual assessment of England's fire and rescue services, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, Sir Thomas Winsor, found that:
- fire services rose to the challenge of the pandemic, with many fire and rescue staff taking on additional activities;
- changes to improve fire and building safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire are necessary and welcome; and
- progress has been made on introducing a code of ethics to address toxic working cultures found in a few fire services.
However, the Chief Inspector said fire leaders were not always able to quickly deploy firefighters to support the pandemic response - for example the COVID-19 national vaccination programme - because fire National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union failed to reach a national agreement.
In his report, Sir Thomas questioned why such an agreement was even necessary during a public health emergency, given there were strong safety protections in place for all fire and rescue staff.
The Chief Inspector has previously made six recommendations for national reform of the fire service, which he said remains necessary and needs to accelerate.
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, Sir Thomas Winsor, said:
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, fire and rescue staff have shown their bravery and selfless determination to carry out lifesaving work by going above and beyond their normal duties. I pay tribute to all those who stepped forward.
"But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that there are too many barriers preventing firefighters from fully supporting their local communities when they need it most, which we know firefighters find frustrating.
"The public has great admiration for firefighters, and rightly so. While the pandemic has caused significant and unavoidable delays to reform, I am impatient on behalf of the public that more has not been done by now to modernise working practices.
"The unprecedented challenges of the last year have shown us that national reform of the fire service is needed now more than ever. Implementation of the recommendations I have already made will contribute greatly to building the fire service the public deserves."
In the second ever State of Fire and Rescue, Sir Thomas re-emphasised his recommendations for fire service reform, including:
- Improving a woeful lack of race and gender diversity. Only five percent of fire and rescue staff are from a minority ethnic group, compared to 14.6 percent of the total English population;
- The government should change the law to give chief fire officers operational independence, which if put in place before the pandemic, could have helped them deploy firefighters more quickly to do tasks beyond their normal duties; and
- The way the government allocates funding to the fire sector should be reviewed, as fire services are worried about their long-term financial future once the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are known.
The government announced yesterday that it would consult on legislating to create operational independence for chief fire officers as part of a new White Paper on fire reform, which will include changes to fire governance.
Due to the pandemic, new dates have been established for the implementation of the Chief Inspector's national recommendations, with some deadlines extended by a year.