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Culture Review Suggests This is Fire and Rescue's 'Me Too' Moment…

on Tuesday, 14 February 2023.

A light has been shone on both the Police Service and the Fire Service and it is likely that more examples of poor behaviour, even criminal behaviour, are likely to be disclosed as more existing and former employees come forward with their experiences.

This is Fire and Rescue's 'Me Too' moment, according to Nazir Afzal, former Chief Prosecutor for the North West of England and author of the recent 'Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade'. The finding of the Culture Review, together with recent publicised stories and witness testimony involving other Fire Services, would appear to support his assertion. 

What is it about these workplaces which have led to some, not all, becoming toxic and, in relation to London Fire Brigade, 'institutionally misogynistic'? Is it a result of the nature of the work that is undertaken, the watch system, the traditional macho image of a Firefighter, the hierarchical command and control structure of the Fire Service or the fact that only 8% of operational Firefighters are female? It is likely to be a combination of all of those factors and others too. What is important, however, is that the Fire and Rescue Service recognise these issues and look to understand and, where necessary, challenge and change the culture of the organisation from the top down. 

Of course this is not an easy challenge and it will involve looking at the workplace culture and behaviours which have in some areas of each Fire Service become 'baked in'. 

Whilst it seems obvious, it is essential that each and every complaint received is investigated appropriately and actioned in accordance with internal processes and procedures, which need to be effective and robust. Therefore an area for attention is your processes and procedures for considering complaints, both from within the Service (such as employees) and outside of the Service. Do they comply with regulatory and statutory minimum standards? Are they fit for purpose? Are they accessible and easy to understand? Do you have sufficient resource to action complaints in line with your policies and procedures? Are your procedures likely to instil confidence that complainants will be heard and treated fairly? 

It is also worth highlighting, as can be reflected in those policies and procedures, that in some situations it will be sensible to consider engaging an independent investigator to give complainants additional confidence in your processes where necessary.

Training is essential for employees to understand not only that behaviours of the type that have been called out are unacceptable but also that saying nothing and not calling out inappropriate behaviour is unacceptable too. Challenging the group thinking that commonly develops within a watch system, and which does not accommodate and respect difference and diversity, needs to be challenged and disrupted. We have seen examples in the media recently of group viewing of pornography on duty and inappropriate comments around female service users' attire. In understanding how to change these behaviours, it will be important and helpful to recognise how they have come about. Managers need to be trained and supported in recognising issues and unacceptable conduct needs to be addressed robustly. This is likely to require addressing a "banter culture", which can be difficult, and ensuring there is a zero tolerance approach to repercussions against employees who put their head above the parapet.  Perhaps more intervention on station and more visibility in relation to how stations operate would be helpful. 

Without doubt, the relevant unions have an important part to play in supporting the Fire and Rescue Service in dealing with these issues and collaborative engagement with them will be part of the work that needs to be undertaken, including ensuring there is an understanding that your mission to challenge the culture may result in disciplinary action against their members where appropriate. Notably, you will want to engage with the unions appropriately regarding any amendments to policies and procedures affecting employees, if relevant.

Whilst it is likely to be a hard sell at the moment, it is really important that women can see that the Fire Service is a career option for them, perhaps in the same way that the Police Service is viewed where just over 28% of Police Officers are female. A more gender balanced workplace ultimately is likely to lead to changes in behaviours in itself and will ensure the Fire Service is more representative of most other workplaces. This is not a new challenge to the Fire Service and we know from working with the Fire Service for over 20 years that there have been numerous initiatives to increase female applicants. It is important to continue with this work to make the culture of the organisation more diverse and to make it an attractive one for women to want to work in. 

It is important that in order to challenge behaviour and look to challenge your own culture that you have a good understanding of where, specifically, your issues are likely to be. It is going to be really important to undertake your own independent cultural review and we would recommend that, where possible, you get in front of this issue before you receive any complaints. Nazir Afzal recently commended West Sussex Fire Service for doing just this.

How Can We Help?

VWV LLP have worked for and with clients in the Fire Service and other Blue Light organisations for over 20 years. We have a great deal of experience in advising and supporting the Fire Service on a wide variety of issues including issues of misogynism and inappropriate work place behaviours.

Should you need support on matters such as this or more broadly, please Allison Cook, Partner and Head of our Public Sector team on 0117 314 5466, or complete the form below.

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