National Fire Chiefs Council Chair Mark Hardingham reflects on a year in which fire and rescue personnel have met the challenges presented by the pandemic and looks forward to embracing transformation and culture change.
As we start 2022 and look forward to a new year, I wanted to take some time to both reflect and look forward.
It has been nine months since I took over the role of NFCC chair. I feel privileged to represent every fire and rescue service in the UK and all the incredible work they do. Some of that is highly visible to the public, much of it happens behind the scenes – all of it is with the ultimate aim to keep people safe.
It will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that working for an emergency service means the ‘extraordinary becomes the ordinary’. This is more poignant than ever when we look back at the challenges the last year has brought – and continues to bring, especially as the pandemic enters a new phase with the Omicron variant.
People working in fire and rescue services have done so much over the last year – this includes a staggering 477,000 vaccinations, supported more than 130,000 ambulance journeys, made countless deliveries to vulnerable people, and done so many other things working alongside partners throughout the pandemic.
And with recent government announcements about the new variant and the commitment to offer everyone a booster jab by the end of the year, fire and rescue services have once again immediately stepped forward to help. Within hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, services were mobilising staff to assist; it is truly humbling what colleagues have achieved when their communities need them most. This outstanding work was reflected in HMICFRS’s Covid inspection and the recent 2021 State of Fire reports.
When I took on this role, I wanted to ensure I had a good insight into every fire service. As part of this, I have now met with nearly every leadership team to set out my views about the NFCC and FRS, and to listen to what is important to you – and what you need from NFCC to support you. These will continue with the remaining services into 2022.
To reflect on the past 12 months, we have seen so much work take place, covering a huge and diverse range of areas.
Sustainability and National Resilience
Back in August we saw wildfires devastate Greece and through our National Resilience function – at the request of the Home Secretary – we sent a team at short notice to assist our Greek colleagues. Demonstrating professionalism, dedication and always wanting to make a difference.
And this ties in with the recent COP26 in Glasgow where world leaders met to discuss and agree on the next steps around tackling emissions. We need to see change and we need to see it happen at pace – including within fire and rescue services. The wildfire season is getting longer and we are seeing more widescale flooding. Without behavioural change these will get more intense and more likely to impact on our ability to effectively respond.
“It will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that working for an emergency service means the ‘extraordinary becomes the ordinary’”
We are working on a national environment and sustainability strategy for fire services, with climate change at the core of this. There are links in this work to the new National Resilience Strategy and the Fire Service’s New Dimensions programme. We must have the right equipment, people, training and funding to support communities as they face the national risks that will emerge over the next 20 years. They have come to expect our professional and dynamic support and we must maintain this.
Moving onto Fire Standards, I am delighted to see eight national standards have now been launched with many more in the pipeline. They are a key component of continuous improvement, they provide focus for fire and rescue services, and are a core component of inspection as outlined in the recent State of Fire report.
Future of the Fire and Rescue Service
While we have not yet seen the proposed Fire Reform White Paper, this hasn’t stopped our work on the future role of the Fire and Rescue Service. NFCC is working on ‘Fit for the Future’ – in partnership with the LGA and the National Employers (England) – to ensure we are identifying and setting out the Fire and Rescue Service’s future vision. This is vital in meeting public expectations and their demands of a modern Fire and Rescue Service.
As we look forward to 2022 and hopefully start to see the country – and indeed the wider world – tackle and recover from Covid and Omicron, I would like to reflect on the winter pressures our colleagues in the NHS are facing – time and again you are being asked to go that extra mile and you do so ably and without question. We are proud to have been asked to support you and do so willingly and in a way which reflects the culture amongst the blue light family and our partners – all to ensure communities feel safe and supported.
Yet we also need to ensure we are looking after our staff and their wellbeing. Thousands of staff have taken on so much during 2020 and 2021. Mental health is a growing concern, and it is imperative everyone knows where they can access vital support, and that it is okay not to be okay.
Mental Health Symposium
This is something close to my heart and I recently attended the Royal Foundation Emergency Services Mental Health Symposium. Attended by the Duke of Cambridge, the event aimed to ensure all emergency responders receive the often specialist mental health support they need.
“People working in fire and rescue services have done so much over the last year – this includes a staggering 477,000 vaccinations”
Senior UK fire representatives and other blue light services signed up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment; I was proud to do so for all fire services, through the NFCC. This will form part of the Blue Light Together package providing mental health support for emergency services, announced at the event.
The Commitment supports our national programme of work to assist fire and rescue services as they seek to provide the best possible support for those who suffer with poor mental health, including providing access to the best possible support when they need it most. The event and the Foundation help bring together emergency service leaders to work in partnership and create lasting change.
I recently attended the Asian Fire Service Association conference and annual awards where we saw inspirational and energised speakers, delegates and award winners. The passion in the room was palpable and it was clear that whilst work is underway in fire services there is still much to do. Some of the stories shared were shocking and there are clearly behaviours that have no place in a modern Fire and Rescue Service. Former international footballer John Barnes called for a discussion about ‘societal changes’ and I could not agree more. Again, the State of Fire referenced this and challenged us all to improve inclusion and tackle shortfalls in diversity.
As you would expect, the protection and building safety agenda remains a key focus in the work of NFCC.
The Building Safety Bill is now at the committee stage; it places new duties on those responsible for buildings and provides a new focus on the needs of residents, as it needs to do. The Fire Safety Act is likely to come into force in early 2022. It was designed to ‘ensure that people feel safe in their homes and a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire will never happen again.’
A recent government announcement stated that leaseholders should not have to foot the bill for the removal of cladding; something we have been very clear on and strongly endorse. I look forward to seeing how this develops, what it means in reality and how it eases the unacceptable burden leaseholders face.
The Grenfell Tower and Manchester Arena inquiries continue with further recommendations expected in 2022. NFCC will be responding to these with services and in a way which responds to the learning and makes people safer. The inquiries will raise significant issues and it is essential we tackle these head on and make changes for the better. However, many cannot be achieved by the Fire and Rescue Service in isolation; they need change from government, the wider sector and associated professions, all with a willingness to adapt, transform and create cultural change.
It is clear that fire and rescue services have seen a busy 2021, with no sign of this letting up in the New Year. Your dedication and determination make me proud to represent you all; your hard work and service to your communities is highly appreciated.