Fire and rescue sector national governance: Effective or not?

Fire and rescue sector national governanceTaking on the governance of Staffordshire’s Fire and Rescue Service in late 2018 (becoming the second commissioner to do so), alongside my existing governance of policing, has provided me with opportunities to support the two services working even more collaboratively together. Both services have seen and felt the benefits that collaboration can bring.

It has also highlighted statutory differences in the governance of each. As the Police and Crime Commissioner I am a separate legal entity to the Chief Constable who has full responsibility for the operational delivery of policing and is held accountable by me for that. However, in my role as the Fire and Rescue Authority (FRA) I am the sole legal entity. It means, amongst other responsibilities, I am the employer of all the firefighters and all the fire service staff.

Having reflected on that, I think the arrangements for the governance and delivery of policing are stronger, clearer and more resilient as a result of separating and distinguishing the chief officer and commissioner roles more clearly. The expertise and responsibility to run the service is clearly with the chief constable and accountability to the public, through an elected individual is also clear.

Changing legal entity arrangements within fire and rescue would require legislation, but I believe it should be considered by government. However, this is only one part of what I believe are broader and multi-layered problems with governance arrangements in the fire and rescue sector. The current system, despite efforts from everyone involved, results in fire and rescue services not receiving the dynamic leadership and clear direction they should expect. So why is this the case?

“I am struck by the snail-like progress that has been made, which impacts ultimately on the delivery of services at the front line”

Under the auspices of the Local Government Association (LGA), a National Joint Council (NJC), made up of chairs of fire authorities and members of the trade unions, is responsible for negotiating national terms and conditions of firefighters. The chairs and members of fire authorities like me are elected politicians and as such will have limited knowledge and experience in regard to the complex nature of these terms and conditions and the detailed requirements of the service, whilst the trade unions will rightly represent the interests of their members, rather than the needs of the service. Whilst the NJC benefits from advisors in the shape of chief fire officers from some services, the reality is that the current system is allied to maintaining a status quo and addressing narrow interest groups.

Another aspect of fire and rescue authorities being the employer and the LGA/NJC structures, is the impact this has on the forum where chief fire officers come together. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) should rightly be compared to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC). The NPCC is generally a robust, focused and appropriately opinionated collective which makes its views known to government and others in an effective way. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the NFCC that is slow to voice opinion and will often not have the broadly one voice that would be helpful.

As one example of system failure, I look back at the progress of the NJC in considering the broadening of the role of a firefighter over the last few years and more keenly since taking on the governance of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. I am struck by the snail-like progress that has been made, which impacts ultimately on the delivery of services at the front line for those residents of Staffordshire and elsewhere that pay council tax for a service that needs to be fit for purpose. I firmly believe that to change the system you need to break the system and this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

In addition to the chief officer/commissioner separation that I have already addressed, I would like to see significant changes to the negotiation and implementation of terms and conditions and clarity provided around the role of a firefighter in a service that dynamically adjusts to the environment it works within.

“The current system, despite efforts from everyone involved, results in fire and rescue services not receiving the dynamic leadership and clear direction they should expect”

There is a need for national negotiations, but these have to be linked to a system which allows also for local negotiation linked directly to the needs of a local area; we know that not every area and service is the same. This would mean that at a national level, a core role definition and terms and conditions are determined, which are applicable to all fire and rescue services. This should be a negotiation between the professionals that run the service and the trade unions, with approval for implementation through refreshed national governance arrangements.

Any work over and above the core national role definition should be negotiated locally, linked to the needs of the area and the ambition of that fire and rescue authority and service. The local statutory Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) is in place to determine what the service needs to do locally to address the relevant issues in that area. If that needs new skills, or requirements for the firefighter role then that should be determined locally, with appropriate adjustment to pay and other terms and conditions. As the IRMP is developed by the chief fire officer, it makes complete sense for them to undertake the negotiations locally that are needed in order to deliver the local ambition, as laid out in this document. The IRMP is designed to outline all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks and as such would need to recognise any new skills, or requirements to meet these risks and deliver the service.

One important consideration will inevitably be the extent to which consistency can be achieved through this national/local balance. I feel sure, however, that with the involvement and commitment of all stakeholders, this can be achieved.

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