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“More change urgently needed for Fire and Rescue Services” asserts HMICFRS

09 August 2022

FIRE AND Rescue Services in England are improving, but further change is urgently needed – and particularly so when it comes to culture and diversity. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has reported on 15 Fire and Rescue Services across the country in the second phase of its second round of inspections. The Inspectorate has identified some encouraging improvements, but also believes that far more needs to be done to reduce risks to public safety.

The list of Fire and Rescue Services inspected in this tranche includes Devon & Somerset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Humberside, Lancashire, London, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Tyne & Wear, West Sussex and West Yorkshire.

During its inspection procedures, HMICFRS found that:

*the sector generally continues to be well prepared to respond to both routine and major emergency incidents

*there has been a positive shift in Fire and Rescue Services prioritising fire protection, but some (six out of the 15 inspected) do not prioritise fire prevention activity enough

*there were problems relating to values and culture in half of the Fire and Rescue Services inspected (ie eight out of 15), with some evidence of poor behaviours. In two of the Fire and Rescue Services, the cultures were found to be “toxic”

*Fire and Rescue Service staff continue to have confidence in their own organisation’s well-being and Health and Safety arrangements

*some Fire and Rescue Services haven’t taken enough steps to promote and improve equality, diversity and inclusion

HMICFRS has issued six new causes of concern, while three from its first round of inspections in 2018 and 2019 remain in place. These concerns relate to fire prevention, values and culture and also fairness and diversity.

Incredible courage

Roy Wilsher (Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services) commented: “Last year, Fire and Rescue Services attended more than half a million incidents. I’m in no doubt of the incredible courage firefighters show each and every day and their dedication to keeping the public safe. I want to thank them and indeed all Emergency Services staff who worked so hard to protect us all during the recent record-breaking temperatures.”

Wilsher continued: “It’s encouraging to see many Fire and Rescue Services that received causes of concern in our first round of inspections have taken meaningful steps to improve and act on the recommendations issue. We have also continued to see a general positive shift in Fire and Rescue Services prioritising protection. The sector needs to continue this focus such that the public can experience long-term safety benefits. This must include sustained Government funding to make sure the number of competent fire protection staff continues to increase.”

That said, Wilsher then stated: “Our second full assessment of inspections has continued to identify issues that need urgent attention. It’s troubling to note that some Fire and Rescue Services have failed to act on the causes of concern we issued in 2018 and 2019. We have also issued six new causes of concern, making a total of nine across seven of the 15 Fire and Rescue Services inspected in this phase. While this is fewer than for our previous tranche of inspections, it’s still too many.”

Four of these causes of concern relate to values and culture. “We saw some worrying examples of poor behaviour during our inspections,” noted Wilsher. “In two Fire and Rescue Services, these cultures were found to be toxic and that is simply not good enough. We continue to find too many Fire and Rescue Services haven’t taken enough steps to promote and improve equality, diversity and inclusion. Worryingly, too many of them don’t prioritise fire prevention activity enough. This is crucial for public safety.”

In addition, Wilsher stated: “While I am calling on Fire and Rescue Services to tackle these issues as a matter of urgency, more needs to be done externally as well. I welcome the White Paper on fire reform, which has addressed three of our four outstanding national recommendations, including determining the role of Fire and Rescue Services and firefighters, reviewing Terms and Conditions and providing operational independence for chief fire officers.”

Concluding his comments, Wilsher said: “I hope the way these proposals are implemented will address those three recommendations and match the Government’s original appetite for reforming the Fire and Rescue Services such that they can then provide an even better service for members of the public.”

Firefighters respond

Firefighters have responded to the latest release of inspection reports for Fire and Rescue Services in England. Tam McFarlane, national officer for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), explained: “We welcome HMICFRS’ recognition of the hard work of firefighters in the horrendous wildfires. However, firefighters will all tell you the same thing: cuts to resources mean that Fire and Rescue  Service performance is declining rapidly.”

McFarlane continued: “Firefighters and control staff do the best job they can each and every day, but with 11,500 less firefighters when compared to 2010, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain public safety. Fire and Rescue Services responded to almost 150,000 fires in 2021. Non-fire incidents have increased by 18%, while last year also witnessed a 27% increase in fire-related fatalities. Meanwhile, average response times are up by nearly 40 seconds since 2010-2011.”

Referencing HMICFRS’ comments, McFarlane said: “It’s particularly shocking that eight of the 15 Fire and Rescue Services inspected don’t have enough fire protection staff to carry out vital fire safety work and that some Fire and Rescue Services are overly reliant on overtime to provide operational response. That’s a direct impact of the cuts made to funding and firefighters’ jobs.”

According to McFarlane, the HMICFRS report has exposed the fact that many Fire and Rescue Services’ plans don’t show how they intend to use resources to reduce the risk posed to the communities they serve. More broadly, these reports highlight the full reality of a decade of devastating budget cuts, with some Fire and Rescue Services so cash-starved that they are selling land and buildings to try and survive.”

On that same theme, McFarlane urged: “The Fire and Rescue Service is in desperate need of increased investment. If the Inspectorate is serious about improving firefighters’ working lives, a good place to start would be focusing on the insulting real terms pay cut of nearly £4,000 firefighters have seen since 2009, not to mention the ridiculous 2% pay offer made of late.”

From McFarlane’s perspective, the latest HMICFRS reports also make it “blatantly clear” that there are serious issues when it comes to the management culture within Fire and Rescue Services. “In the majority of cases reported in the staff survey, the source of bullying, harassment or discrimination was someone more senior to the person experiencing the behaviour. Given the fact that chief fire officers are ultimately responsible for this mess, serious questions should be asked about the White Paper’s plans aimed at boosting their powers. Culture starts at the top.”

More change required

Also responding to HMICFRS’ documents and comments, Candace Miller (managing director of SFJ Awards) told Fire Safety Matters: “It’s heartening to see that Fire and Rescue Services are improving in key areas, although it’s evident that more change is required if we are to fully modernise working practices across the board.”

Miller added: “There can be no doubt that more diverse, inclusive and equal workplaces are much better for such an approach and I would urge Fire and Rescue Services across the country to act now and do more in this regard.”

Further, Miller stated: “By developing leadership, expanding part-time and voluntary working and offering apprenticeship schemes that truly engage local communities, participation will be widened and more diverse and inclusive workplace cultures will be able to take root and subsequently flourish.” 

*Read the individual Fire and Rescue Service inspection reports and the summary offered by HMICFRS by accessing the Inspectorate’s website