The culture problem: How can we maintain trust in our Fire and Rescue Service?
Does the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) have a cultural problem? According to a number of news investigations and bulletins, it most certainly does. The Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade has given more victims of discrimination the confidence to provide testimonies of toxic behaviour within the Fire and Rescue Service, spread nationwide and delivered directly to the chair of the review, Nazir Afzal, as he recently revealed in a BBC Radio 4 programme.
This is encouraging; it is paramount that people feel supported enough to come forward and report discrimination at work so it can be effectively investigated and dealt with, but to counteract the damning effect of these pockets of unacceptable behaviour, it is also important to report on and share what is being done right, and look ahead to new developments that add a positive narrative to this conversation. Otherwise, if we allow the scales to tip too far in the wrong direction, the element of trust in the FRS is at risk of becoming permanently compromised.
More Independent Reviews
Recent investigations by ITV have revealed some shocking behaviour conducted by firefighters in South Wales and Dorset and Wiltshire fire and rescue services. In South Wales, the investigation found that two male firefighters had been allowed to remain at work after sexually harassing and abusing women. In Dorset and Wiltshire, firefighters have been accused of taking photographs of women who had died in car accidents and sharing them in private group chats, as well as further accusations of extreme misogyny and sexual harassment.
Both services have now commissioned independent reviews of their culture and disciplinary processes. In a statement provided to ITN, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service stated: ‘The matters you have raised with us are deeply concerning and we take allegations of this nature extremely seriously… There is an expectation for our staff to work in line with our code of ethics which sets out high levels of expected behaviours. The vast majority of our staff are good people, working hard and doing a great job. But when and if those standards are not met, we will move quickly to address it’.
The key comment in this excerpt is: ‘The vast majority of our staff are good people, working hard and doing a great job’. It is the awful actions of the offenders that are going to affect the issue of trust for the majority of good, hard-working individuals going forward; public trust of the workforce and internal trust within the institution. A victim of abuse at Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service told ITV: “It just affects everything. It affects your relationships, it affects your trust as well… It makes you feel like you can’t trust any firefighter anymore.”
“This is the FRS’s Me Too moment, and unless they act upon this, they will drive away hundreds of phenomenal people… it’s a national failure”
Nazir Afzal, author of the Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade
Following these recent investigations, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour featured the issue of a toxic culture within the FRS, with guest speakers Nazir Afzal and former HMICFRS inspector, Zoë Billingham. When asked, Nazir confirmed that the stories uncovered in his review are not unique to LFB: “No, absolutely not. London, if anything, is ahead of the game because it’s had an independent review, it has accepted all the recommendations and is in the process of delivering them… The examples [of recent abuse] are endemic, I’m afraid to say. London is not in denial because it accepts everything. I’m really concerned, as we’ve discovered from the report about Dorset and Wiltshire, and I can think of six other [services] that, if I had the resources, I’d be in there right now because of what people have been telling me.
“The answers are: leadership. West Sussex, for example, are about to commission their own cultural [review] without waiting for a victim to come forward and talk about their experiences, and surprise, surprise, West Sussex is led by a female chief fire officer, which might tell you a little bit about the issue.
“This is the FRS’s Me Too moment, and unless they act upon this, they will drive away hundreds of phenomenal people who are working tirelessly to keep us safe, and I’m afraid to say, it’s a national failure.”
Zoe was an inspector for the first round of HMICFRS inspections in 2018, and she was not at all surprised by the current developments: “What we’re seeing now are the sorts of behaviours where women are being daily subjugated to abuse under the guise of banter, which is simply not good enough within the FRS… It’s no surprise to me at all, if you look at these stories of what’s been happening in policing recently, these catastrophic stories of abuse of position, there will be pockets of wholly toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia and bullying within every fire service… We have to ask ourselves, is the right culture being created within our organisation?”
Nazir plainly stated at the end of the programme that there is an out-dated culture within the fire sector that needs to be addressed: “There’s a narrow minded group-think that struggles to accommodate difference and diversity… Women are expected to conform, and even the PPE that they wear is not unisex, and then when they complain about it they are told, you just keep whinging – and that is the culture.”
“What we’re seeing now are the sorts of behaviours where women are being daily subjugated to abuse under the guise of banter, which is simply not good enough within the FRS”
Zoe Billingham, former HM Inspector
Committed to Improvement
One service that is committed to improving its values and culture from the bottom up, and commended by Nazir for taking action before internal problems are reported, is West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. Since taking on the role of Chief Fire Officer, Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton has had the difficult task of recovering the service from its first HMICFRS assessment in which it required a vast amount of improvement.
As reported in the Sussex Express soon after her new appointment in 2020, Sabrina says that building trust and better morale were key to improving the FRS. She acknowledged that all fire services have problems with leadership that affects the confidence in staff to come forward and voice any personal concerns, and this is one of the first things she wanted to change within West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service: “What I’ve said to [my staff] is I want them to feel open, I want them to feel like they can just pick up the phone and speak to me or drop me an email. And lots of people have and that’s been really good, particularly in a service where I know that trust is an issue.”
One service that raised serious concerns in the latest tranche of HMICFRS reports about the way it promotes its values and culture is Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service. The service has been moved into HMICFRS’s enhanced monitoring process, Engage, which provides additional scrutiny and support. Chief Fire Officer Mark Preece is committed to taking steps to improving the service. He told Gloucestershire Live soon after the most recent reports were published: “Along with other senior officers, I have been out talking with crews and departments across the county, listening to their views and understanding how we might better engage, include and support them. This is one way we are working to embed our organisational values and promote a positive workplace culture.”
So, yes, given recent events, there clearly is a culture problem within the FRS, which will inevitably affect trust; trust of individuals, trust of the effectiveness of the service and trust of the entire institution. Losing trust in those who have ultimately sworn to save and protect life is counter-productive. So what more can be done to address this?
For FIRE’s February 2022 issue, I spoke to Cheshire and Lancashire fire and rescue services in an attempt to share good practice on the subject of their workforce culture and how they look after their people, and I hope to share more good practice from other services in coming months. This month I have taken a different approach and will be sharing the ideas of an academic researcher whose work on cultural values and residential fires highlights the importance of building trust between local communities and their Fire Service.
“There’s a narrow minded group-think that struggles to accommodate difference and diversity”
Nazir Afzal, author of the Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade
Cultural Values and Practices
If you are not already aware of it, I recommend The Firefighters Podcast for conversations about the world of emergency services operators. One of the conversations (no. 188) is with host and Firefighter Pete Wakefield and sociologist and Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Sheffield, Dr Morgner. They talk about Dr Morgner’s recent study: Understanding ethnicity and residential fires from the perspective of cultural values and practices: a case study of Leicester, United Kingdom. The research and subsequent recommendations have some interesting ideas about building trust within the community that could be of benefit to all services.
The highlights of the study include:
- The paper presents a comprehensive analysis of the distribution of residential fires in an ethnically diverse urban area.
- Residential dwelling fires are not properly understood in terms of ethnicity as well as cultural norms and practices.
- An analysis of national census data and a community survey addresses residential fires in terms of cultural values.
- Variables such as trust and personal relationships explain the variance in rates of residential fires in ethnic communities.
Dr Morgner separates trust into two types that are dominant in modern society: personal and institutional. Personal trust is something that develops over a long period of time, a bond that takes work and nurturing. This trust can be easily broken and can cause great harm to those involved, for example, one person in a marriage has an affair. Institutional trust is more robust and relies on abstract principles that have to work for us in order to gain that trust. If institutional trust is broken, it can easily be re-gained. An organisation will continue long after people have left, and will uphold continuous values. The trust is fairly stable, but cracks can appear when something ongoing threatens the validity of those values, ie incidents of toxic behaviour.
Dr Morgner used community surveys as part of his research within Leicester, and he found that the local communities are not all aware of their local fire service and what it can do for them. One question in the survey asked if people had experienced a fire at home in the last three years, and 20 per cent said “yes”, but only two per cent turned to the fire service for help. The other 18 per cent turned to neighbours, friends and family – their trusted community. From these surveys it was clear that more effective community engagement was required between the FRS and the local communities.
“There will be pockets of wholly toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia and bullying within every fire service… We have to ask ourselves, is the right culture being created within our organisation?”
Zoë Billingham, former HM Inspector
Local culture was a problem here and needed to be addressed, but Dr Morgner realised the problem extended beyond that to become an information problem within those cultures. A large amount of his work subsequently focussed on more research into the community lifestyle and the information barriers. He devised that multi-cultural households are less likely to experience fires in the home than single culture households. This is because different cultures will experience varied fire safety advice and bring an increased amount relevant information to the household.
Dr Morgner also interviewed firefighters about community engagement and found many had great ideas and worked spontaneously on individual projects, but nothing was recorded and no wider training was given. This immediately created an information barrier, for example, when those firefighters moved away or left the job, they would take those valuable ideas and resources with them if there are no procedures for recording new initiatives.
Dr Morgner’s findings revealed the following, taken from a summary of his published study: ‘… that trust and personal relationships are fundamental to information sharing within this community. This highly personal form of knowledge acquisition is not matched by the Fire and Rescue Service’s more anonymous information-driven approach. The findings highlight the need for a more person-centred approach to fire safety to ensure that interventions in more vulnerable neighbourhoods and communities can contribute more effectively to fire safety and reductions in the rate and severity of fires’.
When he presented his research to all ranks of the fire service in Leicester, the feedback was positive and everyone saw value in his findings. Going forward from here, Dr Morgner implemented a number of tailored outcomes for the service to utilise the data. Community engagement training with practical elements was devised, as well as a train the trainer element to enable the service to develop on its own, and corporate communication was re-developed to include realistic images of firefighters and members of the local community, where before there had been no advertising including pictures of actual people, which is far more personal than just text.
This example highlights the importance of building trust within local communities and cultures, getting to know people and engaging on a personal level. In the podcast, Dr Morgner suggests that the police force might gain more trust in the community than the Fire Service because of initiatives like the development of community engagement officers, recruited from a local pool of people in the community. They engage, they are reliable and they already know the people they have sworn to protect. Going forward, a good place to start might be to develop a more personal approach to engaging with the communities of local stations and developing procedures to maintain good practice.
I would welcome any services that already works with this level of community engagement to contact me at: email@example.com so we can continue this conversation and share best practice for the ongoing benefit of all our FRSs.
To listen to Pete Wakefield’s podcast with Dr Morgner, visit: www.firefighterspodcast.com
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