HMICFRS calls for ‘significant’ FRS reforms
HER MAJESTY’S Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has released its first annual assessment of fire and rescue services (FRSs), and has called for ‘significant reforms’.
In July 2017, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) was announced to be taking on inspection of English FRSs, with the Home Office stating at the time that this would help support the government’s fire reform programme, and be renamed HMICFRS to ‘help support the continuous improvement of this critical public service and support fire and rescue authorities to become even more effective’.
Sir Thomas Winsor was appointed as chief fire and rescue inspector, with its first taking place in spring 2018, and every authority inspected by the end of 2019. It has now released its first annual assessment, with Sir Thomas acknowledging the ‘strong commitment’ from firefighters to protect communities, and stating that FRS’ ‘greatest strength’ is in responding to emergencies, but the sector ‘needs significant reform in several areas’.
He stated that the sector ‘needs to improve how it complies with building fire safety regulations’, and despite examples of ‘outstanding’ culture in some FRSs, other must address ‘toxic’ environments for staff and improve workforce diversity. While acknowledging the importance of strong trade union representation, Sir Thomas ‘expressed concern’ that union influence ‘sometimes prevents necessary reform’ in certain areas, while there was ‘unjustifiable variation’ in nationwide services.
Another issue is that modern FRSs’ ‘main duties’ are prevention, protection and response, but in some cases FRSs ‘undertake non-statutory activity, while having too few resources to fulfil their core remit’. While levels of operational staff have ‘largely been maintained’, protection staff levels have seen a ‘drop’, while there is also ‘considerable variation’ as to ‘what constitutes high-risk premises, and how often they should be inspected’.
Finally, the report says that the sector ‘would benefit’ from a code of ethics, which would ‘reinforce’ how people ‘should be treated and how they should treat others’, with staff at all levels ‘empowered to challenge any behaviour contrary to the code’. Sir Thomas said: “This is our first time inspecting [FRSs] in England. We have seen much of which services can and should be proud.
‘We have seen their commitment to their profession and their communities, impressive lifesaving prevention initiatives and their highly skilled emergency response. But we have also seen some worrying themes. In particular, some services are not doing enough to make sure buildings are safe for the public. We have also identified barriers the sector faces to becoming more effective and efficient. I am particularly concerned by a notable lack of diversity in the workforce, and, in some services, a toxic, bullying culture.
‘[FRSs] provide education and support to businesses and, if necessary, use enforcement powers to make premises compliant with fire safety legislation. However, how services discharge this duty has commonly fallen below the standard we had expected. I of course recognise the importance of strong trade union representation. The role of unions is to protect and improve members’ rights. In the fire sector, the unions have a proud history of doing so.
‘However, the influence of the FBU is considerable in some services. I believe it goes too far and is sometimes contrary to the public interest. This is not acceptable: the FBU should not unduly dictate how fire services are provided. We have come across some outstanding examples of culture in some services. The best cultures are inclusive and diverse, with committed staff working to common goals. But the culture in some services is toxic. We have come across cases of active bullying and harassment. Disturbingly, some people we spoke to seemed to find the poor treatment of staff by other colleagues amusing.’
He concluded: ‘Without reform, the sector will continue to be beset by barriers that prevent progress, perpetuating outdated ways of working and ineffective and inefficient practices. Ultimately, it is the service to the public that suffers. But there are opportunities to be seized. English [FRSs] are seen around the world as being some of the best. If the reforms I have suggested in my assessment are carried out fully, they will secure major improvements for the sector and cement it as world-leading in the years to come.’