The latest call for ‘Fire Reform’ has just concluded its consultation period. It comes amidst the recent turmoil at Westminster and impending change of Prime Minister, which will, in all probability, delay if not completely derail the Fire Reform agenda. We find ourselves with a temporary Fire Minister while we await the first reshuffle of the new PM’s tenure. Any new Home Secretary or Fire Minister is likely to want to take time to consider this policy area, and it is hard to imagine we will be at the top of their list of priorities.
This means having to take forward reform and improvement via means other than legislative or regulatory change, at least in the short to medium term. This may be more challenging, but we cannot allow the machinations of central government to stop us from pushing to make our services more efficient and effective, and most importantly to make our communities safer.
Fundamentally, FRS activities need to be driven by Community Risk Management Plans. In my role as the project executive for the NFCC Community Risk Programme, I have been leading efforts to install a more consistent and comprehensive approach to assessing risk within the sector, and by extension to the process of Community Risk Management Plans (CRMP). More flexibility is going to be central to achieving the required outputs to make our communities safer – too many stakeholders are still preoccupied with the same structures, shift patterns and approaches to crewing that were in use 25 years ago, when risks and understanding of risk management were quite different.
The recent heatwave and accompanying wildfires provide a timely reminder of why this flexibility is so important. The scientific evidence tells us that climate and weather-related incidents are going to become more common in coming years and decades, and services will need to significantly change how we use, equip and deploy our resources to respond to that new threat. Every CRMP should identify this as a major and growing risk.
Marauding Terrorist Attack (MTA) incidents are a further example of the kind of flexibility we should be able to deliver within our existing framework. Indeed, many services already do. Sir Tom Winsor, in one of his last actions as Chief Inspector, made it clear that in his view responding to terrorism incidents was already a part of the expected role of the FRS.
In both above instances, there is a lot to be said for the public opinion sense-test. Do we think that a member of our community, if asked, would expect us to undertake this role? If they found themselves in danger because of a wildfire, a flood, or a terrorist incident, would they expect a firefighter, if they were able, to render aid?
I should be clear that I do not think this should be a ‘free for all’ – firefighters cannot be expected to do anything, regardless of whether it relates to the role of the FRS or not. Their role should be aligned to an evidence-based Community Risk Management Plan. In many cases this will result in the use of established skills to deliver prevention, protection and emergency response activities, if there is significant change in skill requirements, this should be recognised through remuneration. Of course, firefighters also deserve fair pay that reflects the increasing complexity of the work they do and fundamentally to address the rising cost of living.
Referring to areas in the White Paper, the first two questions in the consultation simply ask whether services should be able to deploy resources flexibly to address current and future threats, and whether fire services should play an active role in the wider health and public safety agenda. It would take a spectacular feat of cynicism and scepticism to disagree with either suggestion. Within my service, our recent public consultations indicate that our communities certainly agree that this is something we should be doing.
However, there is not a great deal of detail on how government plans to make this happen, beyond their independent review of the NJC, and their promises to ‘work with fire and rescue leaders to ensure that services can fully support their communities’. The review of the NJC is likely to encounter hurdles as any changes would need to be agreed on a UK wide basis, and there is significant opposition to changes that would see the NJC disbanded, or its role weakened. So, whether the White Paper progresses or not, we are going to need to drive much of this change ourselves.
Nonetheless, as leaders within the fire and rescue service, senior officers are going to have to anticipate opposition to this approach. We are going to need to be bold and accept that we cannot wait for government to drive forward these changes. We need to have confidence that this is the right approach, not only for the communities we serve but for our people as well. A more flexible role will not only be more rewarding but will also make us more resilient and increase our value to both the public and political leaders. Most importantly, we need to be making the argument that this flexibility is already built into the roles our firefighters undertake.