Thirty-five weeks ago I became Minister for Fire Resilience and Emergencies, and Peter Dartford, at the Chief Fire Officers Association conference shortly after that gave me a list of challenges to focus on in the then 33 weeks I had left:
Firstly, be a cheerleader of the service across government, secondly promote its prevention role and finally, set out a clear vision for the future.
Although I shall not be claiming credit for it, in that short space of time substantial progress has been made by the service, and in the profile of the service across Whitehall and in our communities.
From Home Office to Foreign Office the fire service’s activities are highly regarded, whether it is its resilience role, its contribution to international development or getting businesses back to work quickly, the breadth and quality of what you do is recognised and appreciated.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has recently praised the ‘short audits’ being developed for compliant businesses which will radically reform an overly bureaucratic process and means that fire safety audits for low risk businesses could be cut from 6 hours to just 45 minutes, to name but one example.
And of course the tremendous efforts that are always made in response to an emergency.
The recent appalling arson attacks in Oxfordshire were one pertinent example to my own department where we saw Oxfordshire Fire Rescue Service not only dealing with that serious situation but also 2 other major incidents at the same time.
Ably and seamlessly supported by neighbouring services they did a terrific job and enabled the council to re-establish its services to the community before the blaze was out.
I have been a cheerleader for the service, Peter, but the excellence and reach of what you all do made it an easy job, and I offer my sincere thanks for everything you have achieved.
Likewise regarding Peter’s second challenge.
Your role in prevention is well understood and third parties are alive to the possibilities that are opened up with the fire and rescue service as a partner.
Whether it’s the Chief Fire Officers Association’s focus on partnerships to keep older and more vulnerable members of the community safe by accessing data from other agencies to target those over 65.
Or Merseyside’s campaign to deliver important safety messages such as having working smoke alarms on each floor of the house.
Or Devon and Somerset’s chip pan fire demonstrations.
Or Humberside’s awareness raising during Chinese New Year of the dangers of lanterns.
Or West Midlands push on volunteering in the fire service and the cadets.
Or Cheshire internationally recognised leadership in road safety and its innovative work with primary and secondary schools.
Or Lancashire’s focus on reducing levels of anti-social behaviour and associated fire-related incidents through football. In every service there is something good going on.
The fire service is continuing its excellent record on prevention and community engagement.
In reaching the most hard to reach, and the most vulnerable and in cracking the tough stuff.
That is recognised not only within government but with agencies and the third sector who are focussed on the communities you serve.
On this theme I have some shocking news – it is a good job you are sitting down because the government is about to regulate!
I am pleased to be able to announce today that following the consideration of responses to the public discussion paper on Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector we are introducing regulations requiring private sector landlords to install smoke alarms on each storey of their property, carbon monoxide alarms in the rooms considered most at risk from high levels of carbon monoxide and to check the alarms are in working order at the start of any new tenancy.
To aid this we will be providing additional one-off funding to fire and rescue authorities this financial year to enable them to support landlords in the transition to complying with these new regulations.
We estimate the regulations will result in up to 36 fewer fatalities and 1,529 fewer injuries over a 10 year period.
Alongside this targeted regulation for carbon monoxide alarms the government intends to pursue non-regulatory alternatives to encourage installation of carbon monoxide alarms in all private rented sector properties.
It is right that prevention and your amazing achievements get the recognition they deserve but there has been so much other progress in the last year too.
I’ve seen new services designed and developed in Norfolk which stemmed from the ideas front line firefighters had for using specialist dogs to trace fatalities through the water.
I am delighted that the West Midlands have developed, and will advance, 999 Eye with other emergency services, health care professionals and community services, which will make use of social media to build up a picture of the scene of an incident to enable the ideal response to be mounted.
You are finding ways to make your communities more resilient as I saw in Humberside, who have set up a trading arm to deliver training in CPR and supplement the ambulance and first responder service.
Any surplus made is reinvested in the fire and rescue service or to make payments for social and charitable purposes. I have never met a more resilient community - everyone I met on that visit: the butcher, the vicar, the pub landlord and the Women’s Institute had been CPR trained.
Oxfordshire and Staffordshire have dedicated business support managers and teams that work with partners, businesses and communities to prevent fires and in cases where there are devastating fires this function can advise and assist those in returning to normal which benefits business, staff and the community.
And services are becoming more efficient: I want to congratulate Dorset and Wiltshire for their move to merger. Not easy to do, and it took great political and professional leadership and will benefit the communities you serve.
The Chief Fire Officers Association have acknowledged that the sector needs to procure smarter and better to deliver efficiencies.
They have taken ownership and have shown leadership by not only developing a national procurement strategy but by creating a national fire back office which could mean that procurement, and other policy areas would be co-ordinated nationally. And my department has awarded £370,000 from the Fire Transformation fund to support this.
The energy, drive and focus is tremendous. But just as the service has moved, so have the goal posts.
There are a million more pensioners now than there were at the start of the Parliament.
There are 40,000 more people with dementia in the UK than there were a year ago.
The number of people over 85 is predicted to double in the next 20 years and nearly treble in the next 30.
There are new demands on the service, to support national resilience, and potential new scenarios the service might respond to.
The pace required to adapt to the changing need and greater demand is phenomenal.
Government has been trying to remove the milestones which slow you down in transforming your services:
Many tell me that clinical commissioning groups have been helpful in getting further progress with working with healthcare and ambulance trusts.
Transformation funding has provided much needed capital to help make those changes, and also incentivised authorities to take the plunge, whether it is a new headquarters or greater collaboration of blue light services or merger.
The findings of the Cabinet Office data sharing project, which not only looks at data sharing between statutory services but also with the third sector too is an invaluable piece of work and I know chimes with one of the key asks in your first 100 days manifesto and will add further momentum to the array of projects looking at better targeting of prevention strategies.
And where we can change the law or bring in new initiatives responding to what you have told us we have done so. Most recently in introducing roadside drug testing.
But to ensure the pace remains and that the service can make best of use of all of this we need strong leadership and excellent management.
More opportunity and options are needed for our local services to be able to drive change as they wish.
The Conditions of Service Review was commissioned to do just that, and I know Adrian Thomas will be speaking to you tomorrow about it. But there is one theme which comes out from his review that I do wish to raise with you now, because, in my view it is the most important and the one upon which all the others, and the success of the service, hinge: it is the values of the service.
What I am about to say is distressing, but it needs to be said, I raise it in the context of all the good work and good will I have mentioned.
The Conditions of Service report makes, in some places, very uncomfortable reading about certain behaviours in the service. Its findings are supported by other reports produced in the last 12 months including reports by the unions and women’s organisations in the fire service.
Two-fifths of all respondents to Adrian’s survey stated that they have been bullied during their time in the service.
The Fire Officers Association’s recent behaviours survey reported that 60% of respondents had been subject to abuse over the last 5 years, 56% reported it and in 71% of cases a senior officer knew about it. In 66% of cases no action was taken and in 63% of cases the victim was disappointed in the outcome.
Bullying takes many forms and it takes place both on and off duty.
People being ostracised and denied the use of station facilities.
Station equipment being tampered with.
Personal property being damaged.
Threats made if a person does not follow a particular course of action.
Verbal abuse, acts of intimidation, physical and sexual violence or threats to do so.
And anti social behaviours - being drunk and abusive.
In my short time as Fire Minister I have listen to too many painful stories:
Of police officers, resilience crews and members of our armed forces on the receiving end of abuse.
Senior officers being threated with violence and not being supported by their oppos in other services, or their political masters.
A firefighter contemplating suicide because they are ostracised and bullied for not going out on strike.
Or a victim of bullying being asked to resign by their HR department because it is the easiest way to deal with the abuse.
And those at every level of the service who have had to endure threats of dismissal, violence against their person or worse, but who still describe their role as “the best job in the world”.
We often salute the courage of those in this service, for running into danger to save others. Today I want us to pause and salute the courage of those in the service who have, and do, endure this abuse.
Who have carried on protecting their communities in the face of threats. Who go into work every day knowing they will be treated shabbily and their wellbeing will be harmed and who have little confidence in the support or redress for them.
And that includes those elected too – councillors and MPs have not escaped this inappropriate behaviour.
One elected member, who had recently been threatened by the Fire Brigades Union was so terrified at the consequences for their family on the occasion they did have a house fire that, having dialled 999 and depositing their family outside their home, then re-entered the blazing building and hid to prevent repercussions to their loved ones.
I doubt very much that any of those firefighters who turned up on that shout would have acted with anything but the professionalism we would expect, but that persons contact with their fire and rescue service had so convinced them otherwise that they were prepared to take such a great risk to their personal safety.
I am sure everyone in their room can point to other stories where the behaviours of the service have been far removed from its values.
The frequency of industrial action and the venom it has brought in pockets of the service has affected both its reputation and stamped on theses fault lines within it. Minorities have suffered most.
Whether these stories are told by firefighters, support staff, management, politicians or the public they are heart-breaking. Not just because of the suffering they describe but because we all know they are not representative of the service.
One firefighter told me at the start of my tenure, “I find it so sad how the reputation of the service has been damaged. When we are out and about the kids wave to us, but the parents just glare”.
It is a minority of the service which perpetrates this, but their impact on its good running and its reputation is disproportionate and highly damaging. It must end.
Such behaviour is a barrier to change, a barrier to our workforce thriving, a barrier to us serving our communities.
We owe it to all who work in and with the service, and the community it serves to do better than this.
In 2 days time the Chief Fire Officers Association will lead a discussion between members of the fire family: professional service, employers and the unions on this topic. I know there has been work in this area to date, and that progress has been made, but I can tell you it is not enough.
A resurgence and affirmation of the values of the service must and can only come from the Service.
You all have to take responsibility for that and it will require strong leadership from you all.
Employers need to take responsibility and the professional service must act to change the culture.
I have given extreme examples of where things have gone wrong. But there are subtler examples which illustrate a lack of care. The legend that is John Bonney once said “Equality and diversity are operational imperatives”. He is was and is right.
The women in the fire service and Fire Officer Association womens group have produced reports into how their members feel about the service they are in. All take great pride in their work, but there are some common themes in their ambitions for the future:
Poor maternity policies and practices, and little understanding of the effects of the menopause are common themes.
One female fire fighter commented that she’d get a better maternity package if she got a sports injury - an extra 4 months off!
They want more flexible working - and I have seen many examples of reasonable requests denied.
Complaints about ill-fitting or inappropriate uniform are frequent. With women often being asked to source their own.
Unisex changing rooms are not appreciated or appropriate nor are unisex dorms or a lack of regard for feminine hygiene needs.
But we know it doesn’t have to be this way - those reports from women’s organisations also contain a wealth of good practice:
On maternity leave and adoption leave.
One service, on having a new Mum return to work undertakes a medical and bespoke fitness support.
Others offer a phased return to work and enable new mothers to be able to express milk and keep it in the fridge.
Some have paid time off for antenatal checks and IVF.
Other services have quality uniforms and well sourced personal protective equipment to fit smaller sizes and job share arrangements.
One even provided tampons in the port-a-loos to be deployed at a major incident. Well done!
I know some of these topics might be a little outside peoples comfort zones - I do understand that: my 26 year old male private secretary now knows more than he ever thought he would need to know about menopause!!
But it is important you do understand if we are to give all our staff equal opportunities and demonstrate how much we value them all.
Later this week the government adviser on older workers will produce a report on the impact of menopause to the workforce, you should all get a copy!
There is a wealth of good practice, you should share it, and spread it. It should not always be up to the minority of women fire fighters we have to be asking for these changes. It is up to all of us to make sure they don’t have to.
I pay tribute to the work of these women’s organisations and to the work of the Asian Fire Service Association who champion good practice and latest thinking in equality, diversity and inclusion.
I strongly believe, the key to delivering the best service to the local community is to have a diverse, representative workforce, equipped to understand and meet the needs of those it serves and capable of delivering a first class service to everyone.
In my reply to Peter’s challenges last year I spoke about the leadership the professional service needed to show.
Today I want to echo that for those in governance positions: the chair and members of authorities, you the employers.
Government has, as of today, tabled the final Statutory Instrument for the new pension scheme. One of the final changes we made last year was to change the National Framework to give older workers reassurances if they lost fitness.
The importance of the “no job, no pension issue” lies not so much in anyone actually being in that situation but the fear workers have that it might be them in those circumstances, and that fear might cause them to cut short their career - that would be lost investment in that person, lost knowledge and skills from the service: bad for the service, bad for the community it serves.
It was because of that concern we changed the Framework, a firefighter now cannot simply be dismissed for losing fitness if they don’t qualify for ill health retirement.
Employers need to recognise this and demonstrate that they want to treat their workforce fairly. This doesn’t mean giving up their ability to make a judgement in each case, should any case ever occur. What it means is setting out those principles by which they would make such a decision.
Employers should assert that they value older workers for the experience they bring.
That they want people to be able to enjoy a full career in the service and will invest in it accordingly, as Humberside have in fitness support and motivation, where the average time for an older worker to regain fitness is 6 weeks.
That they recognise that genuine concern, and that it is in the services interest they are reassured.
They need to set out clearly the principles on which they would decide to award an unreduced pension. I am pleased the Local Government Association is undertaking this work. It may never be used, but it is important that each employee understands the process and principles that would be applied to them.
Government has acted and if, following the work of the Fitness Working Group, more can be done to further strengthen this then we shall.
In the meantime any authority Chair who writes to me stating that I cannot fetter his or her decision and in the next sentence asks me to do precisely that will get short shrift. Employers must step up and take responsibility, act fairly, and provide reassurance.
With the new pension scheme laid the whole service has an opportunity to look to the future and all the opportunities that comes with it: for the workforce, and the public we serve.
Without that responsibility, focus and strong values we will not achieve our full potential, or meet the needs of our ever changing community.
So Peter, in answer your third challenge: to set out a vision for the service I would describe:
A Service whose reach touches every vulnerable person in the community.
That acts in seamlessly with its neighbours and its partners.
The go to place for innovation, training and community action.
Where all employees work in an environment where they are valued and can thrive.
Where their ideas and vision are acted on.
Where their race, age, gender and sexual orientation is irrelevant to the facilities they have access to, or their promotion opportunities and reflects the community they serve.
A service which provides a uniform that fits. And modern, fit for purpose kit.
Where best practice is shared and best value achieved.
Where every firefighter can be a member of whichever union they chose or none.
Where everyone has everyone’s back.
A service which is respected and valued by the community it serves:
Where the parents, as well as the kids, wave and cheer as it goes by.
A service where everyone in it understands its values and purpose and how they can deliver on both.
A service that is the hall mark of leadership, integrity and duty.
That is my vision.
And I have seen enough in by brief time as your minister to know you can achieve it.