With the first draft of the all-encompassing Equality Bill due to be published any day now, it is not a moment too soon that the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has decided to tackle what successive Home Office ministers and, most recently, the Audit Commission, have agreed is an abysmal record on diversity.
For a service that has devoted nearly a decade to numerous locally driven, behind-the-scenes education drives, the statistics are damning. With black minority ethnic (BME) staff making up just 3.2% of the workforce, and women 3.1%, the FRS still has a great deal to prove.
Does it matter who puts out fires as long as they stop things burning down? Well, yes, says the Audit Commission, which believes that the lack of diversity among operational staff is seriously impacting on the service’s ability to educate different communities about fire risk.
So the Equality and Diversity Strategy 2008-2018, published last month alongside several carefully staged photographs of women and black firefighters, contains four key elements: extra money, new targets, graduate entry measures, and an annual appraisal of progress on positive action.
Armed with a £3m handout from fire minister Parmjit Dhanda, the FRS expects to launch its first national graduate entry scheme later in the year.
A further £2m will be made available to those parts of the service which exceed the new diversity targets: 15% of the force being women, and locally representative numbers of BME firefighters (29% in London for example, and 11.5% in West Yorkshire), within five years.
While John McGee, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union, supports incentivising of equality, Charlie Hendry, vice-president of the Chief Fire Officers Association, warns of the risks.
“I believe that the lure of extra money will encourage at least some to move away from the principles of positive action, and even to break the law,” he said.
McGee recognises the significance of the new 39-page strategy document as the first coherent attempt to bring together the long list of positive action initiatives to date. “In the past, we have questioned whether the service really does want change,” he said. “But the publication of a 10-year strategy suggests that the commitment is now genuine.”
Ready for change?
While the equality document repeatedly uses the words ‘fairness’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘respect’, the desire for change is not universal in Hendry’s view.
“In local government, where average attrition rates are up to around 20%, change happens fairly naturally,” he said. “In the fire service, where the average firefighter stays for 30 years, we simply can’t expect change to be quick.”
McGee is also unconvinced that boosting the number of graduates in the service will improve diversity and working practices in the fire service.
“Many services are already developing or operating accelerated development programmes for high potential candidates,” he said. “Although graduates can help speed up progress and help change attitudes over time, they certainly aren’t a substitute for the many initiatives we have already taken.”
While both the police and prison services – though not the ambulance service – have had graduate training schemes in place for some years, police recruitment has also been boosted by big-bucks advertising campaigns.
“The government has thrown a lot of money at promoting careers in the police force, but the fire service has never had such support,” said McGee. “Doing something concerted to challenge the rather old fashioned image of the firefighter may go a long way towards attracting a broader range of applicants.”
Ultimately, it is cultural change that will be the hardest nut to crack, according to employers.
Pat Oakley, head of diversity at the London Fire Brigade, admitted: “If I was to say to you that there weren’t still sexist and racist attitudes in the service, I’d be lying.
“But by a policy of zero tolerance, we’ve rooted out the pornography, stamped on the constant swearing and the verbal belittling of women and minorities, and the service is now a far happier place for everyone to work in.
“We’re truly doing all we can in terms of positive action – right up to but excluding anything illegal – and I still fervently hope that one day, my job will no longer need to exist,” he said.