An Inclusive Fire and Rescue Service Culture – NFCC Chair Mark Hardingham

I write this article as the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, and I do so with the confidence that I speak on behalf of UK Chief Fire Officers, represented at the NFCC Council I chair.

In the immediate aftermath of the release of the report into the London Fire Brigade, I released a statement from the NFCC that said, ‘the findings are wholly unacceptable of an inclusive, modern, blue light emergency service. I am clear that there is no place for harassment, bullying or discrimination in any fire and rescue service.’ That statement echoed the words of London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe and remains as clear today as it was just a few weeks ago.

There is a saying that, ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’ or in other words don’t be different, act like others…even when you are not like others. A short article like this can’t do the subject justice, but there are parallels to be drawn with the conformity culture that can exist in fire services.

The combined leadership across the sector is strong and we know that culture change is critical. Our culture must encourage collective intelligence and a range of perspectives. This only comes from embracing and understanding diversity and being inclusive; these are key success factors in organisations. 

The experience of some who have worked, and continue to work, in the fire and rescue service has fallen significantly short of what anyone’s expectations should be in the workplace – frankly, for some, their experience has been shocking, behaviours abhorrent and completely unacceptable. This has to stop, and it has to stop now.

Every fire and rescue service is both similar and different, but at the same time every fire and rescue service will see elements of the findings in the report reflected in their own Service and amongst their own staff. The decision by South Wales Chief Fire Officer Huw Jakeway to commission their own independent culture review, and the collective view of every other Chief Fire Officer to use the report into the LFB as a catalyst to look again, and deeper still, into their own fire service is evidence of this.

I also want to provide reassurance that not everything is broken. In his report, Nazir Afzal had many positive things to say about firefighters and others who work for the London Fire Brigade, about the work in local communities and about the operational role carried out 24/7 across the capital and in every fire service in the UK. Just this week I have spoken with colleagues in Jersey and West Midlands fire services who have dealt with the most awful incidents with unspeakable loss of life. They have done so with the values and behaviours that epitomise everything that is good about the fire and rescue service, and they have done so alongside police, ambulance and national fire service colleagues often putting their lives at risk to try and save others.

At a recent NFCC meeting, The Right Reverend James Jones KBE addressed Council about his work for the Hillsborough victims and families. This led to a recommendation for a Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy and A Duty of Candour on public bodies. In addressing Council about candour, he spoke about the importance of leaders being learners, and this extending through to those in the most senior leadership roles.

Reflecting on this in the context of inclusion – this is a time for leaders to be learners – to learn by listening to the experiences of others, to learn by not having all the answers, to learn by not pretending this will be easy, to learn by being prepared to be vulnerable and to learn by being prepared to use the influence and leverage of leadership to create a better future.

Whilst there remains much to do, the foundations for an inclusive culture are in place and being built upon. The Government White Paper includes elements that, if taken forward, are important parts of this cultural improvement journey. Recent debates about the London culture review in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and debate about wider fire and rescue service culture and inclusion at the Home Affairs Select Committee, have seen the White Paper held up as the national means to improve culture – in part I agree it is, but on its own it will only go so far.

Responding to the findings of the London review and wider inclusion improvements lie at the heart of the role of the NFCC. We will provide strong leadership on the improvements needed, alongside national partners; we will support our 500 senior leader members in all UK FRS with their own personal and professional development; and we will continue to produce and maintain national products, guidance and peer support for fire and rescue services to drive the changes which are absolutely needed.

Alongside the White Paper, the joint NFCC work with the LGA and Employers (England) on Fit for the Future continues and sets out the ambition for a 21st century fire and rescue service. One of the improvement objectives in the framework states – An inclusive culture is at the heart of every fire and rescue service. They are a welcoming and supportive place to work for the widest variety of people from all backgrounds.

The NFCC and Fire Standards Board products already available to meet this improvement objective, and support other work in fire and rescue services include, the Code of Ethics Fire Standard, Core Code of Ethics, Leadership Framework, Equality Diversity and Inclusion Hub, Equality of Access tools, Inclusion Lunch and Learn CPD sessions, Maturity Models and Good Practice Frameworks, Coaching and Mentoring Toolkit, Recruitment Hub and Talent Management Framework, Supervisory and Executive Leadership Programmes. And 2023 will see two new Leadership Fire Standards, new work on a Middle Manager Leadership Programme, Direct Entry Schemes, Strategic CPD Masterclasses and Health and Wellbeing Research. In light of recent events we are already reviewing the products provided, our outline plans for next year, and are engaging with NFCC members and fire services to establish gaps that can be filled by further national work.  

The challenges we face, and the opportunities that come from a more inclusive fire and rescue service are not exclusive to our sector. The fact it exists elsewhere in no way excuses its presence in the fire service, but it does mean the NFCC has an important role in building and brokering relationships with national and international organisations inside and outside our sector. These offer significant potential where there is strong evidence of good practice and progress and NFCC will bring that back for fire and rescue services where it can complement improvement.

Of course, leadership from NFCC will only go so far. Those working in fire and rescue services will always look to their own fire service leaders – from first line supervisory through to the Chief Fire Officer. Alongside those in organisational leadership roles, every person in the fire and rescue service has a personal responsibility for creating inclusive teams. Fire and rescue services must encourage, develop and support all staff to be active bystanders and to not walk past discrimination, inappropriate behaviours and other issues when they see them. Ultimately this application of leadership and personal responsibility is about raising and relentlessly building on personal and professional standards – and those standards relating firstly to attitude and behaviours and secondly to skills.   

A successful journey of improvement will best come through a multi-partner approach. Culture and inclusion has to be a cross cutting issue where everyone has a common goal and aligned aspirations. NFCC, fire service, employer, trade union, representative body, inspectorate, staff networks and the Government – whilst everyone has a particular context or perspective, not one of those organisations should struggle with an aspiration for every member of staff to enjoy coming to work, feel like they belong, are valued and welcomed with kindness, and feel supported to realise their potential, whatever that might be.

Data is an important measure of progress, albeit there is limited national equality, diversity and inclusion data for fire and rescue services. Where it does exist it demonstrates slow progress and does not show a fire and rescue service that yet reflects communities either in firefighter numbers or in equality of progression into leadership roles. The data for March 2022 shows that just 8.2% of firefighters of known gender were women, compared to 4.1% ten years ago; and just 5% of firefighters who stated their ethnicity were from an ethnic minority, compared to 3.5% ten years ago.      

A further measure for fire services in England and Scotland is inspection. Inspection findings so far on values, behaviours and culture have seen both ends of the spectrum. Some services have been rated outstanding and good, with innovative and notable practice found about values, behaviours, and inclusion. Elsewhere, services have fared less well and despite improvement plans with work underway, causes of concern, inadequate and requires improvement scores have been reflected in inspection reports.

In the 2022 State of Fire report the Chief HMI Sir Tom Winsor said that ‘Good intentions to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally haven’t resulted in tangible improvements, and many services don’t clearly define what they are working towards…In our most recent public perceptions survey, 78% of respondents said that fire and rescue services being representative of local populations was either fairly or very important. The sector must do much more in this respect, and must learn from experiences in other sectors…Not only should it recruit staff from a diverse range of backgrounds, but it should also foster environments and cultures that will keep those people in their jobs and develop them professionally’.

Ultimately the measures of success will be feedback from our own staff and the communities we serve. In the London report Nazir said several times that these were not his words, they were the words of 2000 members of the London Fire Brigade. In future our own staff and the public will be the principle and ultimate measures of success or failure…and that must guide our collective work.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More