Embedding diversity and inclusion as part of everyday Fire and Rescue Service culture

Andy Bowers, Deputy Chief Fire Officer of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, opened the AFSA Spring Conference on June 13 2019, at McDonalds Hotel, Botley, Hampshire. The place was buzzing with 139 keen delegates from across the public service sector, representing rank and file and the chief officers in the Fire and Rescue Service.


Pre-Conference AGM 2019 & Networking Dinner

Day One: People

The theme of the first day was ‘People’ and Andy chaired the questions and answers, and the plenary sessions. For me, it was a momentous occasion as I was elected as the National Chair of AFSA the day before; a great honour for me and Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, which has continued to support me for my work with AFSA. It would be fair to say that this relationship continues to signpost the best practice nationally for the professional roles in public services across the country.



Conference Chair DCFO Andy Bowers, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service


Councillor Chris Carter of Hampshire County Council, a member of the fire authority, highlighted the importance of inclusion to achieve excellence in community engagement and fire safety. He said that it was vital to tap into the potential across the social spectrum to make the best use of the talent available. I am proud of the fact that both the authority and the Chief Fire Officer Neil Odin are very supportive of the work that I and my colleagues do in promoting equality, diversity and inclusion and human resources.

Johnny Bugg, Deputy Director of Fire Resilience at the Home Office, related to his experience of policing policy and strategy, and talent management from different communities.

Jonny Bugg, Deputy Director of Fire Resilience at the Home Office

Tony Vickers-Byrne, Chief Advisor, HR Practice, CIPD, gave a brief on how Human Resources (HR) has become the police of the organisation and lost its soul. HR needs to reinvent itself as a compassionate service, he said, putting compassion at the core of the business. It was very illuminating to know that there was a wind of change in the thinking about HR, although it is a challenge for even the best in practice.

Karen Lee, Shadow Fire and Emergency Services Minister, raised some important questions about the lack of progress in numbers to reflect inclusion. For example, only four per cent of the workforce of the Fire and Rescue Service comes from BME groups, with a ten per cent difference with the actual percentage in the population. The progress had been particularly slow since 2010.

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, gave an inspirational presentation of her life and career. She related to her teenage years, when she completed her GCSEs whilst being homeless. Her book titled The heat of the moment… Life and death decision-making from a firefighter was well received by the delegates.


Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, CFO, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service


The pick of the day has to be an excellent interview-style dialogue between Jagtar Singh (AFSA National Advisor) and Wayne McCollin (AFSA National Treasurer) as interviewers of John Barnes, former England and Liverpool Football Club star (see A Different Perspective below). John related to his own experience in the football world and racism and explained that one or two people at the top do not change social stereotypes and how people of colour are treated generally. The change ought to be focused at the street level and everyone has a role to play on how that change can be achieved.

There were workshops on a wide range of topics from specialists in the fields, HMI inspections, inclusive culture, positive action and mental health.

The day concluded with the Awards Evening, recognising the professional excellence and the spirit of charity of Fire and Rescue Service personnel. The special guest, John Barnes, filled the dining hall with laughter. His highly articulate humour was a great hit, followed by dance and party atmosphere generated by Channi Singh of the Alap Group.



Day one of the conference


Day Two: Equality and Inclusion

The second day was facilitated by Assistant Chief Fire Officer Shanta Dickinson who invited Matt Parr CB, HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, to deliver the Annual AFSA Spring Lecture. He related to his experience in the Royal Navy as a Sub-Marine Commander and Police and the Fire Service as a member of the Inspectorate. He touched on the impact of organisational culture on equality and inclusion, and the leadership accountability of these organisations.

Again, some of the key topics such as humanitarian response, vulnerability and the gypsy and traveller perspective, recruitment from diverse communities, and community engagement, embracing difference and adding value.

Richard Mckenna, from Inclusive Employers, gave a presentation on Male Champions for Change.

It was followed by CFO Mark Hardingham, Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service and Chair of Business and Safety Committee of the NFCC, and Chief Fire Officer Neil Odin, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, providing an insight into working with diverse communities for business safety and protection.

Veronica Gordon, a journalist, gave a presentation on how visibility of the Asian and ethnic minority firefighters and fire staff in the media could be increased.

It was truly a memorable conference for many people, particularly Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service whose staff and the principal officers made it possible. The two days offered a strategic snapshot of the Fire and Rescue Service in the current social and economic environment, and the availability of the resources of best practice nationally.

A Different Perspective

AFSA National Treasurer Wayne McCollin reflects on comments made by former England football international John Barnes at conference

AFSA as an inclusive association continually seeks to open its doors and thinking to anyone who seeks to contribute and add to the debate supporting the association’s goals and values. At the recent Spring Conference one such invitation was accepted by John Barnes, a footballing icon who happens to be black.



Guest of honour former England football international John Barnes


There is no one that could challenge his credentials as a star amongst many superstars in the game and in some ways this was in spite of the fact that he was not universally accepted by sections of football followers merely because of the colour of his skin. He plied his trade at a time when societal attitudes had still to make the giant leap for mankind in accepting individuals for what they brought to the table and not what they looked like. So racist taunting was always part of the backdrop for this artist at work.

Born in Jamaica, life opportunity had given him a good education and it is clear that had he not chosen football as his field of gold he could have been successful in whatever profession he chose. An innate intellect and a life lived has left Mr Barnes with many points of view and a particular perspective that fashions his take on the matters of society’s woes. Whether unique or not, it is his own.

For those who attack others because of the colour of their skin he chooses not to refer to them as racists, although accepting that their words and actions are racially motivated and the intention to harm often exists. John chooses to banner the ‘isms’ as discrimination, which they undoubted are, but he does so because of concern for alienation or adverse reaction. Call someone a sexist and they may take offence is an interesting notion but the belief is that engagement is the key and if you scare or overly challenge the offender then disengagement might be the result.

For some this proposal to make things palatable or acceptable to ignorant or deliberate perpetrators smacks of avoidance. At first the quest for change in society was headed as equality of opportunity. This changed to diversity because the former could not be achieved if there was not full recognition of the wide range of difference that exists. Then came inclusion, having been invited to the party you were now allowed to dance. Ultimately, there is belonging.

A plausible narrative or just going easy on the ‘ists’? For John this has allowed him to engage people in a debate and use his power of reason to influence if not change hearts and minds. To him calling an MP a homophobe would have seen barriers go up and discussion closed down. He believes that much of the dressing room banter that he was exposed to was nothing more than that. Much borne of ignorance and not malice. However, it did need to be addressed and he did and would now. Not surprising that the son of a diplomat would choose diplomacy.

When questioned about how the new crop of black sport stars are still being stereotyped and profiled he advocates the futility of indignant outrage, which could be lost in the reaction and counter reaction. These individuals should focus on what they can do to address the root causes of injustices in communities and society. There is a lot still to be done to change the lives of those existing in inequality and disadvantage. This is what John calls getting on message and staying there with both words and action.

It would be easy to see this as role modelling by these sporting superstars, but he has another take on this. We do not need sporting and celebrity role models, instead pillars of society with achievable aspirations of influencing the wider section of professional life. This is not decrying the success of our BAME sporting celebrities, but a harsh reality check when it comes to the chances of success. The reality check that for John answers the questions of under-representation if not absence of footballers from the Indian sub-continent, and BAME footballing managers.

He relates his own chance ‘discovery’ by an unknown taxi driver, which could still happen but even less likely now in the days of scouting and signing of players at preteen ages. The percentage rate of success in the top level of the game is minute and worsened by the international nature of the sport. The chances of an Asian breakthrough or deluge are slim to unlikely, if not impossible. Playing in all-Asian teams might not be a way forward.

The plight of the would-be BAME manager is fraught with the politics of the game and its setup. Club history and ownership and the seemingly bottomless money pit that drives the game means that even home grown white managers can find themselves being discriminated against in favour of international name and fit. There is absolutely no sense of hiring or keeping a manager purely because it is the right thing to do in profiling diversity.

As for Black History Month, that should be for white people to learn about the contribution that people of colour have made to the enrichment of society without recognition. The premise being that BAME peoples should know or have the ongoing quest for knowledge about their history and worth.

Growing up in a society that is unequal and in many instances discriminatory, we all learn to do what we believe to be right for ourselves at any given time in our life experiences, and no one can tell us that we are right or wrong in how we manage those experiences. John Barnes has taken his own path in dealing with what many would see as an extremely hostile professional world, rationalised and added to it through the shared learning of others and his own intellect to shape his approaches to life. The good thing is that he is not selfish in his outlook, but seeks to share his understanding with those that would engage and listen. His perspective might not be shared by all but it can and does stand up to scrutiny and challenge.


Date for your diary

AFSA National Conference November 28-29, 2019. For more details email: [email protected]

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