Reinventing the fire service

After a seemingly endless dispute over pay and working conditions, the fire
service is settling down to a new way of working. Nic Paton reports

The firefighters pay dispute – men and women in their distinctive yellow and
brown uniforms huddled around braziers as motorists drive by hooting – may seem
like an age ago, but for HR professionals working in the service, the
challenges are just beginning. The publication of the Government’s White Paper,
Our Fire and Rescue Service, in June – the same month as agreement was finally
reached between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and management – means HR will
have its work cut out for many months, if not years.

Based in part on the earlier recommendations of the independent Bain Inquiry
into the service, the White Paper outlines ways of modernising and overhauling
a service in which many of the working practices date back to the 1930s and, in
some cases, seem positively archaic to the modern observer.

The paper talks at length about the changing role of the fire service from
one that, as one service professional puts it, "squirts water on
fires" to that of a modern day fire and rescue service, encompassing fire
prevention and anti-terrorism assistance among its more traditional tasks.

From the HR perspective, the key change is likely to be the introduction of
a new ‘integrated personal development system’ (IPDS) that will replace the
service’s 12 ranks with seven ‘roles’, based on national standards and a
framework of skills and competencies. These will be linked to a new pay
structure, or ‘grey book’, itself based on the agreement thrashed out between
the FBU and management. This structure is due to be agreed in November.

Added to this, a multi-level entry system will be introduced, so that people
can enter the service at any level, rather than being forced to start at the
bottom and work upwards. There will also be an accelerated development scheme
to identify high-fliers and help them move on to management levels.

New selection tests will be introduced, medical standards for employment
will be reviewed and a diversity strategy will be developed to encourage a
wider range of employees into the service and to help tackle bullying.

At a service level, there will be an ‘integrated risk management planning’
system. This will give managers more flexibility to plan and allocate resources
locally, including assessing which shift patterns will be most appropriate. As
yet it’s unclear whether this will lead to job cuts.

The current discipline regulations are also to be abolished and replaced
with a framework of regulations based on best practice guidance from the
conciliation and arbitration service Acas. Pensions provision will be reviewed,
looking at things such as who is eligible to remain in the scheme, the grounds
for taking early retirement and local authority funding.

Pay, pensions, training and working arrangements for retained firefighters
will be reviewed, too, and the paper calls for more sharing of HR operations
between smaller brigades and more collaborative working on human resource
management

The introduction of the IPDS and new pay structure, in particular, will be
key factors in helping to bring modern HR practices into the service, believes
Peter Brook, head of personnel at Greater Manchester County Fire Service.

"Through IPDS we will be able to identify core competencies and make it
possible systematically to assess performance against roles and develop
training needs against competencies," he explains.

The introduction of modern procedures on discipline is long overdue, he
believes. "Some of our disciplinary regulations are more suited to the
Royal Navy of 50 years ago rather than a modern fire and rescue service. Now
discipline procedures will be based on modern employment law," said Brook.

A key challenge will be in giving local managers the relevant HR skills to
implement the changes. Best practice on things such as workplace assessment,
competence appraisals, and the handling of disciplinary and capability
procedures will all have to be incorporated into training and development
programmes.

The overhaul of the pension structure and the introduction of more diversity
and family-friendly policies will also focus the minds of the service’s HR
experts, Brook suggests. With the legacy of the dispute still hanging over the
service, getting buy-in at all levels, and particularly from the FBU, will be
vital.

"I think a lot of the workforce are up for change now," says
Brook. "Many of them appreciate that some out-dated working practices have
been exposed to media scrutiny in the past year, and nothing will be the same
again. But we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There is a lot that is good about our current culture too. There is, for
instance, a lot of youth and community work that is done by firefighters in
their spare time on a goodwill basis, developing good links with the local
community, particularly in deprived areas."

Some changes have already been accomplished. There is now a national HR
forum where personnel and HR managers meet to discuss changes and share best
practice. There are also regional forums where more local experiences can be
shared and strategies for collaboration drawn up, and more services are working
to pool training and development, occupational health and recruitment services.

"The service needs more input from HR professionals with experience of
best practice in other sectors," says Brook. "Many HR policy and
support roles have traditionally been performed by uniformed officers, whereas
their operational experience might be better utilised to develop the frontline
service and the new community safety strategies, that will be expected from a
modern fire and rescue service."

The introduction of multi-tier entry systems will also help to bring this
about, allowing HR professionals to join the service at senior levels, he
suggests.

In the long-term, the willingness of the FBU to accept the proposed changes
may well be tested. Like many unions, it is composed of moderates – with
general secretary Andy Gilchrist widely accepted as one of them – and more
traditional hardliners.

As part of the pay negotiations, for instance, middle managers will be moved
on to a new negotiating forum that is likely to have the effect of creating a
new power block within the service to offset some of the negotiating strength
of the FBU.

And, it is clear that, despite the dispute having now been settled, there is
still suspicion in some quarters about the changes.

The FBU has yet to make a formal response to the White Paper. And when
Personnel Today contacted the union for a contribution to this article, a
spokesman said the views expressed in these pages – largely those of HR
professionals working in the service – had been "absolutely
appalling", adding, "I’d rather talk to The Sun than to you".

The Bain Inquiry was more specific than the White Paper about the need for
more HR professionals to work in the service to help push through change. But
David Willingham, personnel manager at Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, is
clear that an expansion of the HR function, both in terms of bodies needed and
in its perceived role within the service, is a key element of making the
changes a reality.

"We are going to need more HR people on the ground. There will need to
be more of an emphasis on the close working of different groups. The
introduction of the IPDS has significant resource implications," he says.

"The profile of HR will be raised by all this. It gives us an
opportunity better to co-ordinate activities. The fire service has tended to
operate in splendid isolation over the years, it has been very insular. A lot
of the issues are about getting ownership throughout the organisation, making
people see that change is about benefiting all of the organisation, getting
people to understand what is happening and the reasons why," he adds.

For some brigades it may mean less of an upheaval than for others.
Humberside, for instance, has had NVQs in place for some time, so there is
already an assessment process available. Others will have to start from
scratch, but the changes should not be a huge surprise.

"IPDS has been on the cards for years. It started being developed in
the early 1990s and it is coming to fruition now," says Willingham.

HR will need to be "upskilled" he says, if it is to cope with and
lead the changes. There will be a need to have a professional HR function
throughout the service, stresses James Dalgleish, head of HR at London Fire
Brigade.

"People management is at the core of modernising the service. It will
be much more co-ordinated, there will be national and regional
co-ordination," he says

A lot is riding on the success of the HR function to transform itself as
much as the service it works for. "The emphasis needs to be on the fact
that we are getting HR professionals together and are leading change, putting
that development agenda together," adds Dalgleish.

Lessons for HR from the strike

– Any dispute tends to leave a legacy
of bitterness, so in its aftermath it’s vital to keep looking forward

– With any change process it is important to seek the co-operation
and partnership of the employees and unions

– HR cannot allow the past to rule the future

Timeline of the dispute

2002

April
Firefighters call for a 40 per cent pay rise, which would take fully  qualified basic pay to £30,000 a year

May
Fire Brigades Union conference discusses calls for industrial action,
including strikes, if pay claim is not met

June    
Thousands of firefighters march through London in support of pay claim

September
Thousands of firefighters lobby talks in London aimed at prevent- ing the
strike as pressure starts to grow. With managers offering just 11.3 per cent
over two years, positions harden

October
Talks continue. Strike planned for the end of the month called off at the last
minute

November
Tony Blair takes a hard line, saying "no government on earth" could
meet the FBU demands. Employers and FBU agree a deal in all-night talks, only
for it to be blocked in the morning by John Prescott. First, two-day, strike
begins on 14 November. Army Green Goddess fire engines and crews drafted in.  Second eight-day strike begins on 22 November

December
Third strike suspended after intervention by Acas

2003

January             
With no agreement reached, third strike goes ahead, with firefighters’ walking
out for a two-day stoppage, with another scheduled for a week later. Prescott
warns that the Government plans to force through a pay deal and introduce a
Fire Service Bill

February
FBU pledges not to set any new strike dates after first talks between all sides
at Acas

March
Employers make a 16 per cent ‘final offer’, which is rejected by the FBU
and more strike dates are set. But a 24-hour strike set for March 20 is called
off at the last minute as talks continue

April
Employers write to all firefighters setting out guarantees over pay. Further pay
offer rejected, but FBU vows not to strike during war with Iraq

May
Fire Service Bill begins its progress through Parliament

June
Agreement finally reached on the 16 per cent pay increase, with firefighters
voting three-to-one in favour. Firefighters receive 4 per cent more in their
next pay packets, followed by 7 per cent in November and the remaining increase
by July 2004 – taking the basic salary to £25,000. Deal includes modernisation
of the fire service and consultation about changes

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