Running the fourth largest Fire and Rescue Service in the world is a major undertaking and one that Chief Fire Officer Martin Blunden embraces with characteristic enthusiasm. FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin finds out how it’s going and what the future holds for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
Moving to a new service and a new country, Martin is now leading a fire and rescue service of just under 8,000 staff covering over 80,000 square km, making it geographically the largest in Europe. “It’s a stunning, stunning country to live in,” he says. Rather than be intimidated by the scale of his new job, Martin thinks of it as a Fire and Rescue Service with people. “That’s how I’ve got around the size and scale. I genuinely try not to engage with ‘it’s an enormous service’, otherwise it would just fry my brain.”
Having joined in January 2019, Martin is yet to visit all 357 stations. It is a challenge, he says. He spent a four-week handover period working with Alisdair Hay, the first Chief Fire Officer for the combined Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS). He visited the four areas of Scotland on the mainland and many of the Scottish Islands. The tour gave Martin a sense of not only scale but the differences in the communities that make up Scotland.
Trying to understand how firefighting works on the 91 populated islands off the coast of Scotland, he found that: “You walk on a fire station there and it feels like home. It looks like a fire station; people talk fire stuff; they talk about their communities and they are super passionate about what they do.”
“I genuinely try not to engage with ‘it’s an enormous service’, otherwise it would just fry my brain”
Communication is also a challenge when staff are spread so disparately across Scotland, a hangover from the time when Scotland had eight fire and rescue services. Martin says that technology has made a massive difference to the way they work. A recent investment in Microsoft Teams for shared working and virtual meeting means that when the Covid-19 crisis hit, they were well positioned to transition from office working to home working. Although they did need to move from desktop computers in offices to laptops based in people’s home, but that was soon addressed.
Martin shares his concern about how people work away from their normal office environment. “You are working at home as opposed to working from home. I’ve been really clear on that. That’s a slightly different distinction in terms of my expectations of staff; balancing their work with their life.”
Learning from the experience of lockdown, the strategic leadership team at SFRS approved a change to their flexible working policy. They asked staff how they wanted to work going forward; Martin does not want to see a return to normal. “All of a sudden, there’s a difference in the way we can employ people and the way people can work.” He says it is an opportunity for long-term improvement.
“Being in control of your work life balance is important: not everyone wants to work nine to five. The pandemic opened up a whole different way of working for many of our staff, but it didn’t have the same impact on our operational staff. They found lockdown hard; they went from the bubble of their fire station to the bubble of their home life.”
Looking after staff and, in particular, their mental health is a big consideration for Martin. He says he has spoken openly with staff about his own mental health challenges, sharing his own back story. He featured in a video for Lifelines Scotland, a Scottish Government funded project run by a traumatic stress centre that have decades of experience supporting emergency responders.
“It’s been interesting to see the reaction from staff and what has happened as a result. We’ve now got mental health support groups popping up all over Scotland, with people talking really openly about the challenges. It’s been like opening a tap.”
Another major difference for Martin is that he is now working for a country-wide Fire and Rescue Service. Earlier in his career, he worked for two of the 45 fire and rescue services in England, each with their own fire and rescue authority and responding to the expectations set down by the English Government in the National Framework for England. Scotland has its own fire legislation, the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 (as amended) and its own Fire and Rescue National Framework. Fire is part of the portfolio held by the Scottish Minister for Community Safety, currently Ash Denham MSP.
“We’ve now got mental health support groups popping up all over Scotland, with people talking really openly about the challenges. It’s been like opening a tap”
Martin is accountable to the Scottish Parliament for SFRS’s money but to the SFRS Board for everything else. He explains: “If I overspend and bust the budget, I can be hauled in front of Parliament. I am personally responsible for the budget, but I am not the employer. The Board employ me, and I employ everyone else”.
This is quite different to the way chief fire officers in England work. Martin says the Scottish arrangement works well. “I have an exceptionally good relationship with the Chair and the Board. One of the huge advantages of this governance model is that we have non-executives who bring a whole lifetime of experience to providing guidance, advice and help in the way we set our strategy, our budget and our risk. There is no political dimension when you get to Board meetings.”
Members of the Board are appointed by the Scottish Government. It is a really diverse Board, with an even split of men and women who come from a wide range of professional backgrounds. Martin says that this is of great benefit to SFRS. “I really value the expertise the Board bring to the way we do our business.”
Another major departure from the way budgeting works in England is that all public services in Scotland have a one-year budget and they cannot carry money over; they have no reserves either. This presents considerable challenges when projects do not go to plan and money has to be used in different ways. Martin is more subdued on this point, noting: “The budget is the biggest single challenge that we have.”
One manifestation of the budgetary challenge is the need to improve the SFRS estate. He says it will take two to three decades to deal with the legacy property issues. He draws on an example of dated shower facilities which are not appropriate for anyone, let alone women. “How have we not picked this up?” he asks. This is a reminder of what HMICFRS said about some of the fire stations in England where there are not suitable facilities for women in particular. How does Martin reconcile a desire to recruit more women firefighters with fire stations that will take years to bring up to modern standards?
His response on this point is not about specific provision for women but designing in gender neutral facilities: “We are designing out the need for gender separation.” It is not unique to Scotland, but something that the Board has agreed to include as part of the range of standard station designs going forward. It does not help with the existing estate, but it does speak to a forward-thinking approach for new fire stations.
Elsewhere in the built environment, the influence of SFRS is more keenly felt when it comes to mandating the installation of sprinklers in domestic properties. Martin explains: “The advantage of being a national Fire and Rescue Service is that we get involved in national Government work. We were part of the cross-Government Ministerial Working Group that was set up after the Grenfell Tower fire. Getting sprinklers into legislation was really important and the Ministerial Working Group was seen as the opportunity to make this happen.”
Legislation extending requirements for sprinkler systems in new buildings to all flats, all social housing and certain multi-occupancy dwellings was introduced on September 9, 2020 and will come into force on March 1, 2021. This is part of the package of measures that have come out of the Ministerial Working Group in response to the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017.
“For us, it’s about getting ahead of where the country is going to be in 20 years where we’ll see a significant rise in the number of elderly people living alone in Scotland. We have to think now about how to keep people safe, starting with the building design. We need to make the building stock safe. Our proactive stance is about keeping people safe and making sure they don’t die in fires.”
During this interview, Martin shared his thoughts on a just a few areas of work but could have talked for hours about the passion he clearly feels about running SFRS. He is brimming with enthusiasm to make a difference in Scotland.
Will this be the last fire leadership role for Martin? He is 52 and not about to retire any time soon. His focus is on a programme of modernisation, adapting to changing risk patterns and ensuring that SFRS is a great place to work. And, finishing with as much enthusiasm as he started this interview, he concludes: “I want to see through what we’ve started.”