NFCC responds to HMICFRS report
THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) stated that the first annual assessment of English fire and rescue services (FRSs) features findings that ‘require a joined-up approach’.
In July 2017, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) took on inspection of English fire and rescue services (FRSs), to help support the government’s fire reform programme, and was 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 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 the sector’s ‘greatest strength’ is in responding to emergencies, but it ‘needs significant reform in several areas’.
He stated that it ‘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 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’. NFCC chair Roy Wilsher said that he ‘acknowledges’ the recommendations but adds that FRSs are ‘not influenced’ by them alone, with HMICFRS ‘one of several influential stakeholders’.
In turn, there are ‘other factors to consider’ including the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s findings, national operational learning, government and employer aims, with it being ‘important to note’ that all recommendations ‘have interdependencies and require a joined-up approach’. The NFCC also highlighted the report’s positive comments that the sector’s ‘determination and dedication to protect life and property are second to none’, while operational response was highlighted as a ‘strength’, and a public perception survey showed 98% of people ‘are satisfied’ with their local FRS.
It responded to all four main recommendations, noting that the first – that the Home Office and FRS ‘determine the role’ of FRSs and firefighters – should be ‘risk and evidence-based as lists of activities do not help’. The second – that the Home Office, NFCC, trade unions and Local Government Association (LGA) review pay negotiation machinery that requires ‘fundamental reform’ – is something it was ‘happy to be engaged with’.
Third was ‘considering the case for legislating to give chief fire officers operational independence’, to which the NFCC responded that ‘there is some thought that the operational independence given to chief constables is a suitable operational model’, which ‘could make operational decision making clearer in often complex governance structures’.
Finally, it was ‘very happy to be engaged’ in producing a code of ethics, and would work alongside the LGA on this. Mr Wilsher commented: ‘I am pleased to see the first State of Fire report which highlights [FRSs’] unique strengths, while outlining areas for improvement. However, work must be joined-up and not carried out in isolation.
‘Reduced protection capacity is an area which has been highlighted consistently by HMICFRS, which is directly related to austerity and the subsequent 23 per cent reduction in wholetime firefighters since 2010. This needs addressing, but it cannot be at the cost of essential duties such as prevention. Building regulations are referenced throughout HMICFRS’s report, but a degree of caution needs to be shown as overall responsibility lies with government and local authorities, not [FRSs].
‘The repercussions of the failure of buildings regulations system is clear. It is imperative the failure of the building regulations system is not placed at the door of the FRS. There should be more recognition of NFCC’s National Resilience capability, rather than it being referenced as FRSs working “side by side”. There are processes and frameworks in place to support both national and international deployments.’
He added: ‘While culture is a theme running throughout the report, NFCC feels this area needs a stronger evidence-base to further understand if there is a culture of bullying in a small number of services, or whether it is actually something else such as resistance to change or national factors such as pay and pensions.
‘We are not complacent about this; we already have a national People Programme to look at these areas and to ensure we are nurturing and attracting the best talent to the sector. In earlier recommendations from HIMCFRS, I was pleased to see that the role of NFCC was highlighted and the recognition that the majority of our work is carried out on a voluntary basis, which is again mentioned in the State of Fire Report.’