The coronavirus pandemic has shown “significant” national reforms of fire services in England are needed “now more than ever”, according to a watchdog.
Chief inspector of fire and rescue services Sir Thomas Winsor found there were too many “barriers” which were “impeding the efficiency and effectiveness of services”, and said more needed to be done to address “outdated” and inflexible working arrangements.
In his annual assessment of fire services, Sir Thomas put forward “significant proposals” for change and called for an “intensification and acceleration of reforms” by reiterating previous recommendations which are yet to be implemented, including giving fire bosses operational independence.
Sir Thomas praised the bravery of firefighters during the pandemic and their “selfless determination” to help save lives and go beyond their normal duties, but added: “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there are too many barriers preventing firefighters from fully supporting their local communities when they need it most, which we know firefighters find frustrating.”
The Covid-19 outbreak has caused “significant and unavoidable delays to reform”, he said, describing how he was “impatient on behalf of the public that more has not been done by now to modernise working practices”.
And he added: “The unprecedented challenges of the last year have shown us that national reform of the fire service is needed now more than ever.”
Currently, chief fire officers do not have the same operational independence as police chiefs and this can make them subject to “pressure” on decisions such as those on staffing.
They are in an “invidious position” where they lack the “freedom that the chief officer of any emergency service needs to have”, Sir Thomas said.
The report also looks at the importance of “blue light services” being able to co-operate with each other amid emergencies, highlighting a serious house fire in Exeter where a firefighter was able to drive an ambulance to hospital so the paramedics on board could focus on providing urgent care to a seriously injured child.
There should be “no demarcation disputes”, Sir Thomas said, adding: “It should not be resisted by union pressure, for example, saying driving ambulances is not our job.”
Among some of the examples highlighted was a health and safety row between fire bosses and union officials over the coronavirus vaccine roll-out.
Firefighters had been “limited and delayed” in carrying out potentially life-saving work during the pandemic because lengthy and complicated negotiations between the fire and rescue service National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) about working conditions affected how much firefighters were able to contribute, inspectors previously said.
The FBU “totally” rejected these findings, branding them a “political and biased attack on firefighters” while inspectors maintained that their work is independent.
This followed claims from union officials that an agreement allowing firefighters to help NHS and care workers during the pandemic had been scrapped.
In the latest report, Sir Thomas questioned why such an agreement was even necessary during a public health emergency as there were “strong safety protections in place for all fire and rescue staff”.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Sir Thomas said: “The professionalism, dedication, public service ethos, commitment of frontline firefighters is not criticised, it is celebrated, commended and greatly, publicly appreciated in this and, indeed the last report.
“They are doing an extraordinarily good job and they need – both their leaders and the frontline – need to be freed of the shackles of improper politically-motivated frustrations.”
The report also looks at the progress made to introduce a code of ethics to address “toxic” work cultures in some fire services.
Sir Thomas added: “It is a culture which, in the past, where people who are not white males have not felt as fully accepted and welcome as they ought to be.”
Matt Wrack, the FBU’s general secretary, described the report as the “latest in a long line of attempts to attack the right of firefighters to be represented by a trade union and to roll back hard-won terms and conditions”.
He said granting operational independence to fire chiefs was a “Trojan horse for granting independence from appropriate scrutiny and accountability, allowing bosses to draw up and implement unsafe plans or attacks on terms and conditions and to try to limit opposition from their own staff or local communities”.