Proposed changes to governance could confuse the democratic accountability of local fire services.
In January, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published its first State of Fire and Rescue report. The report is the culmination of the first cycle of inspection of all 45 fire and rescue authorities in England.
The report reaffirmed that the key strengths of the fire and rescue services lie in the dedication of the staff who respond effectively to all kinds of emergencies to help save lives and prevent fires.
The public has great respect for all staff, both firefighters and support staff, and positive collaboration between services can be seen in notable examples, such as 15 fire and rescue services working side by side to deal with the risk of flooding at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire in the summer of 2019.
However, the report also highlights the need for sector reform, in the face of what the inspectorate calls sporadic improvements; a lack of consensus as to what the role of firefighters and fire services is; and a lack of clarity around operational leadership.
On a more practical level, the report sheds light on out-of-date working practices, including a reliance on paper-based systems and a lack of central strategy around digital and IT improvements.
Most concerning in the inspectorate’s report was the lack of diversity and a toxic, bullying culture in some services.
The inspectorate made four recommendations. First, that the Home Office should precisely determine the role of fire and rescue services and the role of firefighters who work in them, and second, that the sector should consider whether the current pay negotiation machinery requires reform.
“We want to work with the Government to help it understand the challenges facing fire and rescue authorities”
Both these recommendations are based on the inspectorate’s conclusion that delays in the resolution of discussions on the role of the firefighter and longstanding pay disputes are a hindrance to the modernisation of the service.
The third recommendation is that the Home Office should consider the case for legislating to give chief fire officers operational independence in a similar manner to police chief constables.
However, there is no evidence from the inspections – which did not look at governance – to support the recommendation to give chief fire officers operational independence. In fact, it would only serve to confuse the democratic accountability of the fire and rescue authorities and could lead to important decisions, such as whether to close a fire station, being made by officials rather than a local community’s elected representatives through the fire authority.
The final recommendation is that the sector should develop a code of ethics for fire and rescue services, which should be adopted by every service.
We want to work with the Government to help it understand the challenges facing fire and rescue authorities, and how it can use the Budget in March to ensure they are properly resourced and funded.
However, the report’s recommendations will not help individual fire and rescue authorities and services drive the changes they need to make. Unnecessary tinkering with the governance of the fire service and pay negotiation machinery would distract authorities from keeping residents safe and improving the quality of service they receive.