Burning ambition

Next month, the consultation stage of the Fire and Rescue Service’s (FRS) first ever national HR strategy will officially come to a close. Its official launch is scheduled for spring or early summer.

The HR strategy is just one part of an ambitious modernisation programme in the heavily unionised, male-dominated fire service since a government inquiry in 2002. Insiders report that there has been more change in the UK’s fire service in the past few years than in its entire lifespan.

However, not everyone believes HR has a role in this. Andy Dark, assistant general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), believes that too many HR practitioners “are driven by a desire simply to do things differently, so they can tick the box, rather than do them effectively”.

So is a clash between the firefighters and their non-uniform colleagues in the HR department inevitable?

Des Prichard is a career firefighter who joined the service in 1976, so he is well aware of the daily issues they face, whether new shift patterns, changing job descriptions or being on call. Prichard is now chief fire officer for East Sussex Fire and Rescue, and HR director at the Association of Chief Fire Officers (ACFO).

“We certainly do not want to be seen as a tool of management,” he explains. “But when a service is going through a major period of change, it is inevitable there will be conflicts between what the union hopes to do for members and what the FRS wants to achieve as a whole.”

The Bain Report of 2002, which came out of the government inquiry, prescribed greater emphasis on HR. This has led to a steady flow of professional HR practitioners entering the service, keen to challenge the old ‘command and control’ management structures and, implicitly, the unions.

James Dalgleish, who has headed a 100-strong HR operation at the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority for the past four years, is one such example. Before taking up the reins of a department with an annual 7m at its disposal, he was head of HR at Lambeth Council, and a national official at trade union Amicus. His current role has far more of an industrial relations element than his previous jobs, as he is constantly dealing with the FBU (which represents 95% of firefighters), as well as the GMB and Unison unions on the non-
uniform side.

“There is always a major role for trade unions to play and we welcome the contribution they make. But too heavy an emphasis on industrial relations can complicate the delicate balance between strategic development and operational delivery,” he says. “It used to be enough for the unions to say ‘no’ to stop all reforms. Our attitude today is that even if union agreement is not forthcoming, management will still need to take the decisions necessary to achieve our business objectives.”

A uniform approach

One of the main thrusts of the modernisation programme is a change in emphasis away from purely fighting fires to educating the community about how to prevent fires. Of course, this requires fundamental changes in how the service recruits, the skills it requires and how it rewards its staff.

To the FBU, however, modernisation is simply management shorthand for cuts. “We are professionals working in a highly-respected, high-performing public service,” argues Dark. “It’s wrong and a touch arrogant to start with the assumption that we need to be rescued by personnel managers.

“In the past, we had uniformed managers who understood the service and were beginning to get to grips with personnel skills, but had few personnel qualifications,” he adds. “We now have those with professional personnel qualifications, but little understanding of the service and what is required of it.”

These days, there’s a new breed of HR professional working in the fire service. One example is Peter Brook, the (non-uniform wearing) head of people management and strategy at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue (GMFR). It boasts 2,600 staff – more than 80% of them uniformed – and an HR department of 30. Formerly in the utilities sector, Brook has been with the fire service for nine years.

“HR professionals are in the vanguard of change at the fire service and are undoubtedly helping to usher in some important reforms,” he says. “We have introduced many changes to the service in the past few months and have had to walk through an industrial relations minefield to do so.”

In Greater Manchester, those reforms include ongoing negotiations over traditional shift patterns (which include nine- or 10-hour days), and the replacing of traditional beds (or what some brigades call ‘horizontal sleeping platforms’) with PCs designed for personal development. The no-beds initiative has gone down badly with the FBU, whose spokesman believes that adequate rest and recuperation is essential for the enormous physical and mental stresses involved in firefighting work.

When it comes to issues such as these, which ultimately affect how firefighters perform day to day, it is up to HR to prove its credibility by demonstrating the business case for reforms.

“When I joined what was then a very traditional personnel department, there was a clear ‘them and us’ divide between uniformed and non-uniformed staff,” says Brook. “Today, I head an integrated HR function that is making great strides in breaking away from the old divisions.”
Along with that divide came what Brook calls a “very prescriptive culture” based on the so-called ‘grey book’ of terms and conditions, disciplinary procedures based on the military, and a heavy-handed ‘blame’ culture when things went wrong.

“We now have Acas-based policy, clearly identifiable role maps and an early identification of future staff potential – all of which offer a key role for HR,” he adds.

Dalgleish concludes that the key to successful HR in the fire service is compromise – but only up to a point.

“We uphold management’s right to manage and the union’s right to represent, but the old ‘win all or lose all’ approach is gone,” he says. “We will modernise even if we can’t get union agreement.” 

Hot issues for 2006

Gender and ethnic diversity: Until 1998, firefighters had to be a minimum of 5 feet 6 inches tall and have an (under bust) chest measurement of 36 inches, which to some extent explains the lack of women in the service. And while the London Fire Service now comprises 160 female firefighters and more than 500 from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, diversity is still an issue.

Flexible working/work-life balance: According to James Dalgleish, head of HR at the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, far from being seen as a ‘soft’ issue by this most macho of public services, the introduction of more work-life balance initiatives is viewed by managers as a “crucial recruitment tool”.

Working with the community: Joy Willoughby, assistant chief fire officer (HR) for the Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, has been working with disaffected and disadvantaged young people in the local area, many of whom are often blamed for starting fires or making prank calls to the service. She believes more services will embrace community projects such as these.

Government plans to introduce ‘regional control centres’, which will consolidate the number of fire stations: This is already being hotly contested by the Fire Brigades Union on the grounds of safety and efficiency. It will be a sticky issue for HR since, predicts Willoughby, it will involve the transfer of employees.

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