Fire Service leadership: A continuing and complex conundrum

It is nearly 20 years since the second national firefighters strike took place along with the sweeping reforms that followed in the four years following the end of the strike in 2004. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMCIFRS) teams have now completed an inspection of all 45 fire and rescue services in England. In its final report State of Fire and Rescue – The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England, published on January 15, it summarises the first formal assessment of the FRS for over a decade. It is intended, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and of Fire and Rescue Services, Sir Tom Winsor, that this will be an annual publication.

Driver for Change

The assessment, in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire, has many positive things to say about the Service but, worryingly, has many criticisms about matters which have been previously raised and certainly within the last 20 years by national audit organisations including HMCIFRS, the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisors Unit and the Audit Commission. When combined with the findings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, this report may well be the most influential for change in the fire and rescue services for a generation. The impact it will have will be wide ranging and potentially review and change how services are delivered across England.

There are a number of recommendations that include reviewing the roles of a fire and rescue service and those who work in the Service; reform of employment arrangements; the development of clear guidance aimed at giving chief fire officers operational independence and the production of a code of ethics for fire and rescue services. Perhaps the intention may turn out to be another false dawn in the long awaited (r)evolution in the Fire and Rescue Service but just possibly may be a turning point so that in a decade’s time we can look back and say this was the time when tragic circumstances and a strategic vision serendipitously collided to make a real difference. The challenge for the Fire Service is to seize the opportunity, now presenting itself and push the agenda forward. For this project to be achieved then leadership must change and work to deliver the progress that the HMCIFRS seeks.


“When combined with the findings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, this report may well be the most influential for change in the fire and rescue services for a generation”


Strategic Leadership

One of the problems facing the Service is that it has eight different governance structures and even within those variations there are small variations of how services are governed. From the Isles of Silly to London Fire Brigade, all services are different and managed accordingly and there are consequences as a result. Coalescing the whole of the English Fire and Rescue Service will be a challenge and getting a voluntary acceptance and an effective implementation of change will be the greatest challenge of all.

Strategic leadership of the FRS has been absent in effect since central government washed its hands of the Service in 2012, using an arm’s length approach that a giant octopus would be proud of. This “benign neglect” has led to the fragmentation of a Service in the face of austerity and without a cohesive response to government cutbacks of up to 46 per cent in the final local government settlement for fire authorities in England between 2016-17 and 2019-20, according to the National Audit Office. Following a reduction of up to 30 per cent in real terms for some authorities between 2001-11 and 2015-16, this has led to a cut in the number of firefighters by nearly 20 per cent in some FRSs.

In some respects, it has been easy for the government to push through budgetary reductions because of the overall reduction in the number of incidents attended by fire and rescue services and the general reduction in the number of fire deaths and injuries. Claiming “mission accomplished” as a device to reduce resources is spurious – after all, the FRS like other emergency services provide a last resort insurance of safety “just in case” and an insurance against adverse events. It is generally accepted that the annual number of deaths have bottomed out and that over the next two years all eyes will be on the long-term effects of the reduction in fire prevention activity as there may be a shift towards fire safety departments as part of the reaction to Grenfell. The proposals made by Sir Tom Winsor may help to strengthen the Service in order to face up to the challenges of austerity and the likely impact of government which does not appear to be radically changing its approach to public services funding at the moment.

Evolving Fire Service Role

The roles of the Fire and Rescue Service and its staff has been under scrutiny for decades. In 1991, it was intimated that the Fire and Rescue Service had a role in the care and management of casualties and subsuming the emergency ambulance service into its remit. This ambitious plan, mimicking the services in many other countries, was thwarted at the time mainly by a lack of ambition by those leading the Service and those ministers responsible for the FRS. Now that that boat has sailed, probably forever, (although the potential for the ever-growing emergency ambulance service to take over the Fire and Rescue Service has been suggested as a more likely scenario), it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Fire and Rescue Service and firefighters become more mainstream emergency care providers.

Through co-responding the FRS may permanently help to augment ambulance services which are near collapse as a result of uncontrolled demand, increased public expectations and a systemic failure to get enough funding from government to reduce patient pathway times. Co-responding initiatives have been taking place in the UK since the mid-1990s and have generally been successful in serving communities and providing that essential reassurance that those who are particularly vulnerable require. Indeed, from the FRS point of view, co-responding activities has been a blessing in some areas: in one home county service, a station marked for closure due to reducing activity levels as a result of effective prevention had a stay of execution as its co-responding activity made up for the declining fire calls. Unfortunately, in an act of shooting its members in the foot, the decision by a representative body to end a deal with employers for firefighters to attend medical emergencies has not only meant emergency call reductions have reached low activity levels once again to threaten the sustainability of stations but equally important is that the community has an elevated level of risk directly as a result.

Any review of the role of the Fire and Rescue Service and its staff should consider this potential role and make it one that is statutory and funded. In this way, Service staffing becomes more stable once again and added public value is achieved at relatively low cost. While the representative bodies’ view that the health services and fire and rescue services should be properly funded, the reality is this is not likely to be the case, in view of the cost of leaving of the EU it is probably going to mean austerity will continue to be the mantra for the next ten years.

Examining services overseas for the roles they carry out may be illuminating: many services have a remit that goes beyond simple medical assistance and emergency transportation field. In the United States, some services are geared up to deliver inoculation services in the event of flu and other pandemic outbreaks, as well as delivering prevention services to masses in the event of a critical event.

There are other opportunities that may arise in the extension of inspection and audit of high-risk and complex buildings as part of an enhanced role, harking back to the 20th century when firefighters carried out inspections of risk premises. What is important is not what the individual ideas are but how the FRS and its staff become involved: it is more about how the leadership of the Service develops its ideas and promotes them at national level, gaining traction amongst politicians, Service stakeholders and the wider community. After all it is the community that is the receiver of the services and should have the best returns on its investment.


“The impact it will have will be both wide ranging and potentially review and change how services are delivered across England”


Recruitment Opportunities

Related to future roles of a service is the fact that the HMI recommends that the national pay negotiating machinery be amended and reviewed and that there is a need for independent pay review body. It is hoped that government has a look at the future of the ‘grey book’. In what is a rerun of one of the more contentious issues of the last national dispute, this is likely to produce the same arguments. ‘The employment arrangements of the fire sector are longstanding and… too often hindering services from modernising to best meet the needs of the public’. The time this is likely to take will depend on your perspective.

Ministers, keen to act in haste, then repent at leisure, fail to see the way the Service has changed since 2004. There is geological time and there is FRS time – sometimes it is difficult to determine which is which but it is probably fair to say that apart from duty systems, innovation in technology and appliances, reduced crewing in many services and a couple or three mergers (or acquisitions), much does not appear to have changed.

Developing a workforce that reflects a community it serves is improving but not quickly enough, although the argument goes that reduced budgets mean reduced recruitment and that is restricting change in workforce diversity. Now recruitment is beginning in earnest again and should increase more following the recent pensions court case. Bullying and harassment in the workplace is still endemic in some services. It can seem to outside observers that some FRSs are still a decade or so behind the pack and a generation behind the most enlightened services.

Code of Ethics

Setting out a code of ethics for the Fire and Rescue Service will be a welcome development and finally put into guidance behaviours and values by which firefighters and their leaders set store and set out exemplary standards. There have been many attempts to do this in the past, and as with those (partially) successful efforts it will take moral courage on the part of leaders of the Service to ensure that the words are made into reality. With the large numbers of recruits now expected in the next five years, it is possible that almost a third of the workforce will join the Service with a clear set of expectations and behaviours in front of them. It will be for leaders to ensure that this change in culture does not reside just in new recruits but that it permeates through the Service, leading by example themselves and insuring they and others ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’.

Operational Independence

The ‘operational independence’ of CFOs could be the most controversial and therefore most challenging proposal within the HMCIFRS’s report. It criticised opinion that operational independence of the chief fire officer will undermine the local accountability of the CFO and of the Service itself to the community. The report recognises that there are tensions between what are perceived to be operational priorities and political expediency when some decisions are being made.

Unlike chief constables who have operational independence under statutory law (Section 2 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011) which provides ‘that a police force, and the civilian staff of a police force, are under the direction and control of the Chief Constable of the force’, independence of CFOs may be optional and temporary depending on the authorities’ will. Chief constables have wide ranging powers – the direction and control of the Act – including decisions in relation to the appointment and dismissal of officers and staff; decisions concerning the configuration and organisation of policing resources (or) the decision whether or not to deploy police officers and staff; total discretion to investigate or require an investigation into crimes and individuals as he or she sees fit; operational decisions to reallocate resource to meet immediate demand; and decisions taken with the purpose of balancing competing operational needs within the framework of priorities and objectives set by the PCC among other things.


“The ‘operational independence’ of CFOs could be the most controversial and therefore most challenging proposal within the HMCIFRS’s report”


Similar powers to operate with independence (within a strategic framework and budget set by the police and crime commissioner, the fire authority, mayor or whichever authority that covers the area) for a chief fire officer would free them up from the political constraints and tensions around delivering effective outcomes and help avoid disagreements about purely service related matters.

To use the powers that come with operational independence, there would be a challenge: the capability of leaders to meet the increased demands of senior roles. In many effective fire and rescue services, the balance of skills and attitudes of both political and service leaders have been complimentary – each respecting their own and others’ boundaries making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. With independence comes an isolation and the “buck” really does stop with the chief. Therefore, the question is, how will the development of senior officers in this enhanced leadership role be changed given the criticism in the HMCIFRS report regarding the failure to change quickly, particularly in the last decade or so?

While operational response is on the whole, good, other aspects remain challenging including the need to enhance fire safety in services and with regard to the people element, only 18 services were judged to be good, while 25 out of 45 required improvement with two services judged to be inadequate. In particular, the HMCIFRS identified the proportions of female and black, Asian and minority ethnic staff in senior and leadership roles, bullying and harassment in many and culture that is ‘toxic’ in some, as being particularly concerning.

The “new” National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) leadership framework recognises that leadership is the key to all six areas for improvement cited in the document, which include in particular an improvement to ‘strengthen leadership and line management to support organisational change and improved community outcomes’ and to ‘provide excellent training and education to ensure continuous improvement of services’. The framework links to the NFCC ‘Core Learning Pathways – Leadership and Management’ proposals which lists core qualifications, supplementary learning and development activities, complimentary qualifications and setting the level of equivalence in term of the Quality and Credit Framework (QCF). QCF Level 3 (A level equivalent) for supervisory managers, Level 5 (Higher National Diploma or Foundation Degree) for middle managers and Level 7 (Masters Degree equivalent) for strategic managers. This is very similar to the levels of education recently and controversially proposed by the College of Policing.

This aim is very much aspirational at the moment but does recognise the need to have a mix of formal academic learning and accredited training to balance the needs of managers at all levels. Claiming that that ‘leadership is not defined by what courses we have attended or qualifications we have achieved, but instead by the difference we are making to the people around us’, it nonetheless recognises an in-depth change is required. Hopefully, this iteration of a response to the FRS leadership development challenge is more effective than the ASPIRE models, the Integrated Personal Development System and the many other transitory fads of the recent past, created in haste, inconsistently adopted and implemented, and eventually consuming themselves in a feeding frenzy of bureaucracy.

Once again, the FRS is facing several critical challenges with what can only be a small number of drinks left in the “last chance saloon”. The HMCIFRS has given a heads-up as to what is needed to change and now the Service could respond quickly and effectively: leadership will be key and a potential tool for developing staff. How it will be implemented may determine the future of the FRS in England.

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