Reform can’t wait as services struggle

It is always a pleasure to write for FIRE magazine. As an inspectorate, we place great value on engaging directly with those we inspect. It is crucial to the success of our work and helps us to better understand how we can support services make sustainable improvements. This ultimately helps make communities safer and as I’m sure the public would agree, fire and rescue services play a vital role in this.

I made this clear in my second annual State of Fire and Rescue report, which was published last month. Against a backdrop of financial pressures and recruitment challenges, we continue to see countless examples of the dedication of Fire and Rescue Service staff to their roles. They do this by working well together, and with other organisations, to respond to a wide range of activities and incidents. For example, I know many of you have to tackle major incidents, such as flooding, to serve local communities.

In February 2023, we started our Round 3 inspections. Overall, many services have made considerable progress since we began inspecting in 2018. But we have unfortunately continued to find deficiencies in some areas. So far in this round, six out of the 15 services we have published reports for are struggling to make improvements. And we have issued eight new causes of concern to seven services.

Of course, the reasons behind the declining performance in some services is complicated – and it depends on each service’s context. But some systemic challenges are preventing services from being as efficient and effective as they can be, with one of the most pressing being the urgent need for government reform.

You may remember that on December 12, 2023, the government published its response to the Fire Reform White Paper. I was pleased to see the proposals outlined, including support for chief fire officers gaining operational independence, commissioning a review of the pay negotiation processes, and taking action to improve culture in services. But these proposals need firm commitments including deadlines. It has been many years since we issued these recommendations, and both the sector and the public deserve to see outcomes. Reform cannot wait any longer – the government must make this a priority.

Another challenge faced by many services is a lack of strategic leadership, particularly at senior levels. Too many leaders are failing to see the big picture. This can lead to ineffective decisions that prevent their services from adequately addressing the current and future challenges they face. Ultimately, this has the effect of making the public less safe.

It was also discouraging to see that some leaders don’t fully understand the barriers they face to making improvements and meeting the needs of their communities. For example, the problems we have identified in values and culture have remained hidden for many years. Some chief fire officers were unaware of the prevalence and scale of these issues in their services, which were brought to light only through inspection, specific incidents and adverse media coverage. These make for grave reading.

Unfortunately, we know there are still too many cases of poor behaviour among some members of staff and senior leaders. The need for services to prioritise the improvement of their values, culture and misconduct management has never been more pressing. This is something we will cover in detail this summer, in our thematic inspection of the handling of misconduct allegations in services.

Having a full picture of a service is a vital building block to its success. I have heard our inspections compared to a mirror for a service, reflecting back the reality of how it operates, its people and how it performs, rather than an idealised version.

But like any reflection, the focus will tend to be on the good; there are always things that are missed. And they tend to be the things you know are there, but you don’t want to look directly at. As an inspectorate, not only is it our role to shine a light on these areas, but to work with and support services to address them and make sustainable changes for the better. We want to enable services to learn from each other to build on existing positive practices. For example, in April 2024, we held our first positive practice event on culture and leadership, to promote system-wide improvements.

Through our ongoing monitoring of services, and our Engage process, we’re able to identify and tackle issues while we’re still in the early stages of inspecting the sector. This can only lead to improvements down the line. This is why I have asked the government for new powers to help enable us to do so. We need to have the right legislation in place for us to inspect most effectively, which will lead to services making the improvements that are so urgently needed.


“It was also discouraging to see that some leaders don’t fully understand the barriers they face to making improvements and meeting the needs of their communities”

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