FIRE Editor Andrew Lynch reflects on mental health issues in the Fire and Rescue Service and why the State of Fire is also intensely personal
“Best job in the world” is how the script normally goes, with ne’er a high-profile interviewee in these pages straying from the UK Fire plc line. Everyone from HMI Roy Wilsher – when he spoke to FIRE in his previous incarnation as Chair of the NFCC – to virtually every newly appointed officer sing from the same hymn sheet.
It came as something of a shocker therefore when our correspondent got the opposite response in a revealing interview on a fire officer’s participation in the fabled Marathon de Sables, a tale straight out of a Netflix six-parter (see pg 61). “The job has made me ill and robbed me of the person I once was. I still enjoy elements of it, but I’m not in love with it anymore. I do think it’s damaged me.” That Hertfordshire FRS’s James Bull has gone on to achieve amazing feats and champion raising awareness of mental health issues is testament to his contribution to a service in which he has both struggled and excelled.
One suspects that there has always been the yang to the yin yet concerns get buried deep and seldom see the light of day, at least in the old days. In an address to retired members on mental health provision during my tenure as a trustee for The Fire Fighters Charity (best non-paid job I ever had!), two gentlemen approached me afterwards. The first said he couldn’t understand the fuss and issues would normally be resolved over a quick cuppa, “thank you very much,” and that was that. The second, an instructor, said it took 30 years to catch up but then hit him like a sledgehammer and were it not for the intervention of the charity he would not have been talking to me. Same service background, completely different readings and reactions.
There are inherent contradictions writ throughout the service. Just ask Chief Inspector Sir Thomas Winsor who is frustrated that reform has not come quickly enough (see pg 21 for review of State of Fire 2021 and pg 25 ‘exit’ interview). Our correspondent alludes to the ‘near mythical’ Fire Reform White Paper failing to materialise, although Sir Thomas Winsor’s frustrations go beyond the mute political response. One of the inspectorate’s pillars is culture and without continuous improvement, workplace strains will accumulate.
The immense complexity of today’s world and the added institutional burdens of inadequate systems has, I suspect, affected the majority of us during our working lives. Throw in traumatic events and the recipe for personal disaster increases manifold. Building organisational and personal resilience have been key themes for FIRE; perhaps we have not placed enough emphasis on the impact of the former on the latter.
That is why the seemingly dry, mandarin inspectorate exercise is far more important than the wider media pretends, focusing solely on divisive issues such as the right to strike – a move that even Sir Thomas Winsor believes few really have the appetite to address. No, if I were struggling to make sense of life and assimilate work and home, I would be pouring through my service’s inspection report and seeking answers to why progress has or has not been made.
Without wholesome support, how else can it become the best job in the world again?