State of Fire 2021: Frustration grows at lack of progress
Following the third and final report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, Sir Thomas Winsor, Political Editor Catherine Levin reviews the State of Fire 2021
Just before Christmas, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue (HMICFRS) published State of Fire and Rescue 2021. This is the third and final report to the Secretary of State by Sir Thomas Winsor before he steps down as Chief Inspector at the end of March. It also marks the last publication to involve HMI Zoë Billingham, who also ended her tenure during 2021. Former NFCC Chair, Roy Wilsher is now an HMI, inspecting both fire and police.
While Sir Thomas says in the foreword that this is an opportunity to reflect on change since 2017, the recent evidence comes from virtual visits to just 13 fire and rescue services between February and August 2021. Chief fire officers also responded to Sir Thomas’ request for insight and that in part influences the report.
The previous edition of State of Fire included six recommendations for change. Only two are complete. Sir Thomas says that the remaining four are still relevant and does not set any new recommendations in his 2021 report, adding: ‘My frustrations grow on behalf of the public at the lack of progress being made to reform this vital public service’.
Two of the recommendations rely on the publication of the near mythical Fire Reform White Paper that is yet to see the light of day. Perhaps it will be available by the time this article appears, but its absence is more likely to be because of the difficult problems the recommendations are attempting to solve.
The first is about determining the role of the Fire and Rescue Service and those who work in them and the second is about reforming the pay negotiating machinery. Taken together, these are huge and existential: they need the government to make it clear what its position is first and the place to do that is in a white paper that could be the first step towards legislative change. With so much parliamentary time devoted to getting the Building Safety Bill through, the Fire Minister will have his work cut out, if he has the appetite for the battle to make these fundamental changes to the way that firefighter pay and conditions are managed.
Writing that the windspeed of national reform has dropped, he adds: ‘Although the pandemic has understandably delayed progress, the public and the fire and rescue services cannot wait any longer. In some respects, and some levels, there has been a conspicuous failure to give due priority to the essential reform of the fire and rescue sector’.
Pay and Conditions
When it comes to the recommendation that focuses on reform to the way that pay and conditions are negotiated, including the potential for a police-style pay body, he pulls no punches.
‘In the interests of public safety, I urge policy makers, legislators, employers and the wider fire sector to take steps to consider what useful improvement could be made to current terms and conditions and pay negotiation machinery. This work should include a consideration of the removal of the right of firefighters to strike’.
This is radical and the first time he has written about the right to strike. Responding to the report, Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “It is not clear how removing firefighters’ rights to democratically organise would help keep the public safer – in fact, having a fair structure where employers and employees can come together to work through issues, helps protect public safety.”
Matt goes on to question Sir Thomas’ independence: “He has a track record, across sectors, of attacking workers and the role of unions in line with what we can presume to be his own political beliefs.” He also criticises Sir Thomas’ understanding of fire and rescue services and said he was pleased that this would be Sir Thomas’ last report.
There is more on the relationship with the unions elsewhere in State of Fire. Earlier in 2021, Sir Thomas wrote to the chiefs of Manchester and London telling them that paying extra to firefighters to be able to respond to marauding terrorist attacks (MTA) was not acceptable because this was already part of the role. Sir Thomas conflates the unevenness of the preparation and response to MTA with the continued uncertainty about the role of firefighters that is at the heart of one of the unresolved recommendations in his previous reports.
Having spent a lot of time in the previous years’ reports criticising the lack of effort being put into fire protection activity, this report turns more of its attention to fire prevention.
‘Too many services aren’t taking enough action on prevention. This is despite the range of areas for improvement in respect of prevention that we issued in our first round of inspections. In many cases, we found a clear disconnection between what is in public-facing service plans and what is actually being done by public-facing staff’.
The 2019 edition of State of Fire said that fire and rescue services were doing less prevention work, did not always target it effectively and were not evaluating it to determine the benefits. HMICFRS noted that the number of home fire safety visits (including safe and well) had reduced by 25 per cent since 2011.
In 2020, fire and rescue services reduced their fire prevention activity because of the pandemic. As a result, it is hard to get any sense of how fire and rescue services responded to this criticism. The danger of over emphasising one part of the business is that other parts suffer as can be seen from HMICFRS issuing a cause of concern about fire prevention activity to three of the 13 services inspected during 2021.
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service bucks the trend and receives an outstanding grading for its prevention work for the second year running. HMICFRS takes nearly three pages of its inspection report to describe what it takes to be outstanding: it is the combination of linking its prevention work to its IRMP, having a clear rationale for targeting risk and then evaluating its effectiveness along with competent, trained staff that work well with other agencies. Critically, Merseyside maintained the level of home fire safety visits since the inspectors first visited the service.
If this is what it takes to get an outstanding grading, other fire and rescue services should be reviewing these three pages with great interest to learn what works in Merseyside and how it can be translated into other services.
Today, the home fire safety visit is a core part of Fire and Rescue Service business. It has evolved for many into a safe and well visit and the NFCC is promoting the concept of the person-centred approach that was highlighted in the December issue of FIRE. Chief Fire Officer Neil Odin is leading the NFCC’s prevention programme and HMICFRS recognises this investment, but it is early days with little delivered so far.
Out of the 13 services inspected during 2021, only three received a good grading for managing performance and developing leaders, making this the worst area in this tranche of inspections. Merseyside and Cambridgeshire maintained their good gradings from the previous inspection, with Bedfordshire improving from last time.
The high turnover of chief fire officers has not gone unnoticed by HMICFRS. ‘Many services are failing to establish adequate succession plans for future leadership. This is particularly important following the recent high turnover of chief fire officers’. In the last year, 16 out of the 44 fire and rescue services have either seen a change of chief or are in the process of recruiting a replacement. With ten services requiring improvement in this area during this round of inspections, the future does not look good when it comes to diversifying leadership.
In State of Fire 2021, Sir Thomas highlights the common route of working up through the ranks that chief fire officers take to reach the top leadership role and remarks that there is a reluctance to do otherwise. He comments: ‘And this is particularly worrying given the fact that processes for appointing chief fire officers aren’t always open and that there is a current lack of diversity at senior level’.
HMICFRS highlights innovative practice in Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service where it has signed a concordat with other fire and rescue services in the region to allow officers to be seconded between services, filling gaps while a fair and open recruitment process takes place. This along with changing its succession planning processes and introducing promotion gateways showed the inspectors that significant improvements had been made and was enough to lift its grade in this area.
On the gender diversity point, things are about to get worse. In the past six months, Jo Turton retired from Essex and Becci Bryant left Staffordshire.
The number of women chief fire officers will, with the retirement of Alex Johnson in South Yorkshire, go down from a peak of eight to just five: Ann Millington in Kent, Dawn Docx in North Wales, Dawn Whittaker in East Sussex, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton in West Sussex and Kathryn Billing in Cornwall. There are some recent promotions to DCFO to watch: Shantha Dickinson in Hampshire, Jo Bowcock in Oxfordshire and Moira Bruin in Essex.
Sir Thomas writes that while there are good intentions to improve diversity across all ranks, not just the leadership teams, they have not resulted in tangible improvements. He adds that responsibility for change lies just as much with political leaders as it does with chief fire officers and their senior teams. The recent meeting of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Authority demonstrated that not all political leaders share the same views as their officers when it comes to desire for gender balance in services.
Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner and Conservative Councillor Luke Stubbs was at the December 14 meeting. Responding to the service’s Annual Statement of Equality and Equality Objectives, he said the government was bringing in quotas for the benefit of women and ethnic minorities. He added that this was only happening in majority male environments. “I don’t think that’s acceptable and if we’re going to aim for 50/50, it has to mean everywhere.”
He went on to seek reassurance that white men would be treated fairly and that the number of women in the control room would be reduced to 50/50 and that any future recruitment would benefit men. His comments were reported by the local BBC with the headline ‘Too many women in fire service’ and led to a brief Twitter storm, where many in the Fire Service world and beyond expressed their outrage.
A week later, Cllr Stubbs issued a statement saying that he had reflected on his comments. ‘I sincerely wish to apologise for any harm or offence caused by the comments I made. I understand my comments have caused offence to members of the Fire Authority, firefighters, women’s networks and others. This was never my intention. I deplore all types of discrimination’.
Fire Service Snapshot
The publication of State of Fire is now a highlight of the fire calendar. Within the confines of a few pages of FIRE magazine, it is only possible to pull out a few areas of interest to share. Everyone in the sector should make time to read State of Fire because it is a spotlight on fire and rescue services as well as the work of national bodies like the NFCC and the Fire Standards Board. It is a snapshot in time that sets down milestones for progress or, as is abundantly clear from Sir Thomas in his final report, the lack of progress in key areas.
The reality is of course that not much can change in 12 months and if the recommendations for change are not achievable in a short time frame, then are they really that helpful? Do they set the Fire and Rescue Service up to fail or are they the voice of a critical friend who is unafraid to point out what is not working even if that message is hard to hear? The Fire and Rescue Service will have a new critical friend writing about them in the 2022 edition; if those recommendations are still not implemented, it might be time for a new conversation.
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