Ten years on from publication of his book Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service, former Lothian and Borders Firemaster Brian Allaway investigates what has changed
In 2011, the Institution of Fire Engineers published my book Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service. Based on academic research at PhD level, this book reached a number of conclusions regarding the dominant organisational culture of the Service at that time, and made recommendations for leaders within the Service who wanted to build on, and improve, cultural identities within the Service.
In 2020, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services (HMCIFRS) published State of Fire and Rescue – The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019, a landmark review for a number of reasons, not least because this was the first formal inspection of fire and rescue services ‘for more than a decade’. The report, among other things, specifically looks at the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service.
The publication of this report presents an ideal opportunity to re-examine the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service in order to see what, if anything, has changed in the past ten years or so.
From an organisation’s perspective, organisational culture provides for the people who work in them a language; a common set of experiences and metaphors; a common set of assumptions and a common sense of meaning, which is used in referencing individuals and creating their identities, as well as the distinct categories that define them, and us, within the organisation. In this way, organisational culture provides a key component in the provision and reinforcement of identity, for both individuals and groups in the workplace. Existing organisational cultures gain their strength through the commitment of individuals within them and are used to influence perception, thinking, feeling and action.
In this way an organisational culture provides a framework, within which acceptable (to the culture) behaviours are demonstrated in the workplace. It can be seen as a social contract against which identities are negotiated and enacted, and it provides an internal, automatic, spontaneous, informal system of direction, control and co-operation that can be more effective than the more formal management structures. From this perspective, a dominant organisational culture will provide strong norms which, in turn, provide gender meaning and culturally prescribed behaviour in the workplace.
The Fire Service Culture
Cultural realities identifiable in the Fire Service have a long history, indeed some of their features can be traced back to Roman times. The research outlined in Culture Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service described an emerging historical view of the culture of the Service, which indicated that it values the heroic self-image of a firefighter, prescribes a militaristic, hierarchal approach to the management of the Service and physical and mental toughness in those that fulfil the firefighting role. Members of the Service will, in these circumstances, often adopt a strong, self-defined masculine identity, which leads to definitions of them and us, where women can be excluded and subjugated males marginalised.
It also provided a description of masculinity against which the Fire and Rescue Service culture could be analysed in its full context. This Service-centred definition of masculinity in the workplace is socially constructed through the work of the firefighter. It is, therefore, firmly linked to the physical and mental strengths required by the task of fighting fire; founded on the values of group solidarity with other men, physical toughness and resistance to both danger and authority; bound up with the ability to compete for and obtain dominance at work; drawing its strength from the absence of women; and resulting in behaviours that can be tough, aggressive, competitive and risk taking.
In 2010, it could be seen that even though there had been pressure for, and some signs of, change, the Fire Service retained a strong team-based approach with many pressures to ‘fit in’, particularly at watch level. The underlying belief persisted that the Fire and Rescue Service was a dirty and dangerous job, which required physical and mental strength to carry it out successfully. For any individual to be accepted into the Service it must be seen that they could ‘do the job’. Moreover, within the existing dominant culture at that time, it was believed that women could not be effective firefighters, as it was still ‘a man’s job’. The most striking value that emerged from the research was a pride in delivering a physically demanding and often dangerous operational service when fighting fires.
Therefore, the system of meaning in the Service gave a powerful system of integration for its members and these integrative processes did not support change in the Service or its dominant culture. It provided a consistent identity for its members, but it was not necessarily integrating in support of the organisation’s objectives, as defined by the formal leaders of the Service. In these circumstances the main conclusion that emerged from the research, regarding change in the Fire and Rescue Service was that the underlying resistance to change, evident at that time, was based on a culturally prescribed organisational reality, which required the adoption of a strong hegemonic masculine identity in the workplace.
“Describing the culture in some services as toxic, inspectors indicated that there were some cases of active bullying and harassment”
State of Fire and Rescue – The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019
The report of HMCIFRS stated that fire and rescue services had many strengths and they provided a highly skilled response to a range of emergencies. The main focus of staff was on protecting the communities they serve, their dedication to protecting life and property were second to none and services were highly skilled, being able to respond to all kinds of challenges. The report also highlighted the admiration of the public for the Service, saying that their most recent public perception survey indicated that ‘only 2 percent of just over 10,000 respondents said they were dissatisfied with their local service’.
The authors of the report saw much of which services could and should be proud: for example, their commitment to their profession and their communities, their life-saving prevention initiatives, and their highly skilled emergency response. But the report went on to indicate that inspectors also saw some worrying themes: some services not doing enough in relation to building safety; barriers to becoming more effective and efficient; a notable lack of diversity; and in some services, a toxic, bullying culture. One conclusion drawn by the report was that in some areas little had changed in recent years, giving examples of this as the Grey Book and that co or first responding to medical incidents actually reduced between 16/17 and 18/19.
The inspectors’ concerns were outlined in a number of areas. Across every service they saw barriers to becoming more effective and efficient. In some services staff were spending too long in stations. Inspectors believed that, as well as responding to emergency calls, training and exercising, staff should, when they could, carry out a range of fire safety work, especially with vulnerable people. Crews should also be doing checks to make sure the service has current information on the buildings in the area that present heightened risks, and services needed to do more to make sure buildings were compliant with fire safety regulations.
When looking at the culture of the Service, even though inspectors said there were some outstanding examples of culture in some services, they saw a regrettable lack of diversity, and ‘a toxic culture in too many services’, which had gone unchecked and ‘should not be part of any 21st century public service’. They believed that they saw a toxic culture in too many services and that staff needed to be better treated. ‘Firefighters in some services don’t treat their colleagues with enough humanity’.
In the staff survey they conducted, 24 percent of respondents reported feeling bullied or harassed at work in the previous 12 months. And, in one service, it was reported that as many as 46 per cent of respondents reported feeling bullied or harassed at work in the previous 12 months. Describing the culture in some services as toxic, inspectors indicated that there were some cases of active bullying and harassment. ‘Disturbingly, some people we spoke to seemed to find the poor treatment of staff by other colleagues amusing’. They were also critical of the watch system, where they believed, in some services, watches had created their own subcultures, which were contrary to Service values, and have proved impenetrable for new staff.
Describing diversity among firefighters as woeful, inspectors indicated that the lack of diversity across the sector was striking and they had received allegations of unlawful discrimination. With regard to firefighters at the time, 6.4 per cent were female and 4.3 per cent were from a BAME background. Of concern was the fact that there were fewer firefighters from a BAME background at the beginning of 2020 than there were in 2011. And, while it was true that the percentage of female firefighters was increasing, until the end of 2018/19 this was largely because more men were retiring, rather than because more women were being appointed.
There is a remarkable similarity between many areas of the HMCIFRS report and the analysis contained in Culture Identity and Change.
The Fire and Rescue Service has for many years been subject to pressures for change. These pressures were brought into sharp focus at the beginning of this century. At that time there was a clear view that while the Service was particularly effective in fighting fires, it was an expensive Service, which could considerably improve on its efficiency and deliver substantial cost savings.
All of the reports into the Fire and Rescue Service praised both Service management and firefighters for their consistent ability to deal with incidents in a professional manner. Ministers always praised firefighters in their public speeches and often linked this praise to a particular major incident. This reflected the opinion that the Service was high performing and enjoyed considerable public support. However, both ministers and reports invariably went on to outline concerns with regard to how the Service was delivered, putting forward far-reaching proposals for change, including proposals to improve the efficiency of the Service, change the conditions of service for firefighters, introduce more of an emphasis on prevention and improving equal opportunities in the Service through changing its culture.
In many ways HMCIFRS’s report reflect these pressures for change.
Resistance to Change
Research carried out for Culture Identity and Change indicated that the core organisational culture of the Fire and Rescue Service could be seen to be based on an historical tradition going back many years. This ongoing cultural reinforcement resulted in a dominant culture that was internalised, normalised, unquestioned, exclusive, excluding and self-perpetuating. Founded on a set of deeply held values and beliefs, the dominant organisational culture was supported both consciously and unconsciously by the majority of individuals and groups within the Service and was, as a result, very difficult to change, particularly in the short-term. Moreover, the underlying resistance to change within the Service could be seen to be based on a pre-existing organisational reality, informed by the adoption of a masculine identity in the workplace, together with an ongoing cultural necessity to propagate, support and reinforce the cultural meanings upon which that reality was based.
It would seem that in many ways this resistance continues.
Taking the above analysis into account it can be concluded that resistance to change in the organisational culture of the Fire and Rescue Service continues at the time of writing. Certainly, it would seem that, even though HMCIFRS found some improvements in some areas, little seems to have changed in the past ten years, as far as the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service is concerned.
However, it is still possible to change the culture of the Service, and some of the recommendations for Fire Service leaders contained in Culture Identity and Change may still be relevant. Even though the evidence indicates that changing the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service will be difficult, the inappropriate, culturally formed values, beliefs and behaviours that may result from the existing culture, can and should be challenged and changed.
This is not to argue that all of the culturally based values within the Service are now somehow inappropriate, as some of them do ensure that the Fire and Rescue Service is, and can remain, an effective emergency service. Therefore, attempts at cultural change based on a thorough understanding of the Service and its dominant culture, which recognise the difference between appropriate and inappropriate values and seek to maintain and strengthen the former, while minimising or eradicating the latter, are much more likely to be successful. Moreover, this type of approach will result in a stronger, more effective and efficient Service, fit for modern times.
In order to ensure success in this area people throughout the Service need to be involved: leaders of the Service will need to be the catalysts for appropriate change; they will have to communicate, advocate and live the values that underpin the Service. Line and middle managers will also be critical to success, and they should be engaged in any change process from the beginning. Equally, appropriate, meaningful and lasting cultural change is unlikely to happen without the support and acceptance of the workforce, therefore enthusiasm, communication and commitment at all levels will be the key to lasting success.
Allaway B., Culture, Identity and Change in the Fire and Rescue Service, The Institution of Fire Engineers, (2011).
Winsor T. P., 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, (2020).