Leadership and Technology

There’s loads to read out there on leadership, and I can take or leave a lot of it. Occasionally though you come across something that resonates and feels relevant and up to date. This week I came across a newly published review of leadership conducted by the College of Policing. The REVIEW has been developed to take a look at the many facets of leadership as they sit within a context of institutional change on a scale arguably not seen before, something that I would suggest is also common to the Fire & Rescue Service. If you take the opportunity to read the report, and some of the appendices that go with it, it’s fairly easy to take out the policing specific elements and what you are left with is a really good assessment of the challenges and context that will shape the immediate future of the public service organisations.

Its not my intention to comment on every aspect of the review, hopefully you can take a little time to read some of it for yourself, but there are a couple of things that jump out of it that should strike a chord with any leader, particularly those of us in the public services.

The first of these are the 5 major trends which affect the context in which leaders will lead, namely:

  • economic challenges
  • shifting demographics
  • rising citizen expectations
  • rapid technological advances
  • the arrival of the internet as a social space

Section 3 of the report (its only 3 pages) talks about these trends, and I think that all of them can underpin some of our thinking in West Yorkshire FRS about how we operate in the future. Without wishing to state the obvious its probably the economic challenge that will be the catalyst for changing the way that leaders will operate. I don’t wish to suggest that we are going to lead differently because its cheaper, but the leverage that austerity brings will help progress some of the change that I want to see. For a start leadership does not translate directly into management, nor does it directly come with either rank or salary. Leaders are everywhere in our organisation, and by allowing people to have limits in which to work but to allow them to make choices in how they achieve specific tasks I both think and hope that we can raise our capacity to deliver real and tangible effects at the very sharp end of the service. Less managers within a shrinking workforce is inevitable, but the ratio of managers is also likely to change so that teams can, and are expected to, take responsibility for their actions that support the service strategy.

I do think that this is a bigger challenge for the FRS than it may be for the Police as we do have a longstanding culture with its roots in our hierarchical command and control environment that creates a strong  dependency on being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Its a bit cliched but as long as you select and provide your own underwear the FRS will provide most other things for you that you need in order to carry out your work. We have a strong rationale for working in teams, and I completely accept the importance of that, but this, coupled with our strong command focus, means that the dependency on directive management is difficult to break. Our future service must have more self starters, more innovators and more individual and team responsibility, and we as senior leaders must create the situation for this to both develop and prosper. Police Officers already operate more independently, and with more responsibility and accountability and it is a good model to look at.

Secondly, I was struck by paragraph 3.7. This paragraph is more relevant to the Police right now than it is to our own service as we currently have a recruitment freeze and, to some extent, our workforce is relatively static. There is, of course, some recruitment going on in the support departments largely on a one in one out basis, but the door from the operational side of the service is one way only – and that is out. When it becomes a door into the organisation, and the first new recruits enter our service they are going to have very different expectations which are as much of an issue for those of us already serving as it will be for them. Its not enough to expect them to change to fit the way that we work, and it would be wrong to do so. What the College of Policing report refers to as ‘millennials’ will have different approaches to use of technology, to social media, in attitudes toward authority and to life experiences in general. We can spend the next few years as we change planning to welcome them into our service and preparing ourselves to benefit from their diverse outlooks and ideas.

In support of this forthcoming, and ongoing, change I, and others, this week sat through presentations from the 5 companies shortlisted to support our review of information and technology over the next few months. As ever some were better than others, but I am genuinely excited about the project that we are just about  to embark upon. As one of the key enablers of the change that lies ahead I hope that we can now make massive strides, supported by significant investment, in the way that we use, process and capture information. Where appropriate we will also look at the opportunities to procure new hardware or software, or to better use what we already have. We know that we can do this better, and the appointed consultants will be engaging with as many of the West Yorkshire team as possible to listen to your thoughts and ideas about what we can do better and the systems that need to be improved. Please take every opportunity to make your voice heard when the opportunity is presented.

Finally, and returning to where I started, I had the opportunity to sit in on the end of a Police teleconference debrief this week. I’ll be going back soon to see one of their morning force briefings which is also done by teleconference. I’m keen to look at how they do this and how they use technology to improve communications from the very top of the service to the sharp end. The review of IT will help us to look at ways of doing this.

There’s plenty more in the College of Policing review, I may revisit it at a later stage.


Wearing a uniform with pride

This Saturday was Armed Services Day. Across the UK people gathered together, shared thoughts over social media, or just took a moment to reflect on the commitment of our armed services. I had the opportunity and privilege of attending a drumhead ceremony in Bradford to represent West Yorkshire FRS. Sitting there at the service and looking around it was impossible not to notice the veterans, cadets, reservists, patrolling Police officers and our own WYFRS band all identified by, and resplendent in, their uniforms and medals. 

Wearing my uniform is a source of immense pride for me. It is a privilege that comes with my job. When I wear my uniform I am reminded of the traditions and heritage of our service. I am reminded that I am part of a team who all serve the public with the common purpose of keeping our community safe and protecting people from harm. My uniform identifies me to the community as someone who is there to help. I also wear different types of uniform. On a day to day basis I wear regular uniform, occasionally I will wear more formal uniform such as in the picture above, and when I attend incidents I wear a uniform that also happens to be my personal protective equipment. When I do wear my uniform I am always mindful of the need and expectation that I am smart and promoting the image of our service positively.

I also wear rank markings and rank insignia. There are different views on this issue. Some believe that the use of rank markings is outdated in what is essentially a civilian organisation. I wear my rank markings because they denote the responsibility that I carry, and I want people to know that I am accountable and that I am expected to lead. I have aspired for rank for much of my career. I wanted rank because I want to lead and shape our wonderful service, and to make it the best that it can be. In a service where there is an occasional view that rank markings are things of the past, I unashamedly wear mine with pride.

Do these views indicate that I think that anyone in our service who doesn’t wear a uniform or wear rank markings is not capable of leading, of being accountable or contributing to the future of our service? Absolutely not! What makes our service such an excellent one to be part of is the way that everyone, whatever they wear and whatever their role has a voice and a contribution to make. It’s not always as easy as it should be and we need to be better at that.

There are many views in our service about the wearing of uniform. It can be divisive. We have ‘uniform’ and ‘non-uniform’ staff, it’s part of our common terminology. Some of those ‘non-uniformed’ staff are simply not operational – but they still wear a uniform, some of them wear overalls – because that’s appropriate to their role, but it’s still a uniform of sorts. There are of course those that wear what they want to work as long, of course, as they conform to a dress code. Some of these may want to wear a uniform, some may not. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s impossible to please everyone.

 I think that we in WYFRS can have a conversation about uniform and workwear. I know that is something that will elicit a range of views. There is not a huge amount of money available, so any change needs to be considered carefully and be based on a clear rationale to improve and progress.

There are days when I don’t wear a uniform. I may wear a suit and tie. I do this for one reason only. It’s not because I think that some people are wary of a uniform, I hope that the person wearing it (me in this case) dispels any need to be wary or suspicious of my role. The reason that I, on occasion, don’t wear a uniform is because I am travelling extensively outside of service premises or using public transport. On these occasions, unfortunately, my uniform may single me out as a target for those seeking to harm. I wear my uniform with pride, but I take sensible precautions when I consider the risk of harm from terrorists or others.

The motivation that drives those that want to harm our armed and protective services is complicated. Whilst I will never agree with their ideology, I can see how they rationalise their actions. Such actions are abhorrent and contrary to our culture – but that’s the point. It’s why we must, more than ever, consider what wearing a uniform means and celebrate the positive effect on our world by those that do.

In control of Control

I had a small glimpse into the future last week. Along with colleagues from West Yorkshire Police we visited Merseyside to look at their Joint Control Centre. This is a joint project between the Fire and Police services in Merseyside that brings both control rooms onto one site (currently with a door in between i.e not the same room), but which also provides an excellent joint command facility for major multi-agency events. Also on site are operational planning teams for the two services, and indeed some of the local authorities and the local ambulance service.

 This particular project came about as a consequence of a moment in time when, politically and operationally, a chance presented itself that was just too good to miss for our colleagues in Merseyside. I congratulate them for their vision in doing so. Could it happen in West Yorkshire? I think that the answer has to be that given the right circumstances anything is possible, and you can’t fault the business and operational sense in such move. Our team in West Yorkshire Fire Control are still settling into our new facility in Leeds, I don’t want to set hares running and suggest that we may be moving again – far from it, but with all of the ongoing discussions about the future role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, and the undeniable good sense of the Merseyside model, it would be wrong to say never.

Those that know me will know that Fire Control is a part of the FRS that I feel that we hugely undervalue. Any notion that the 999 control rooms are merely providers of call answering and despatch services is both short sighted and failing to recognise the potential that lies within. The ill fated national FiReControl project left a legacy for many of neglect and under investment in this key element of service delivery. Staff and their future prospects were frozen in time, and the market and desire for innovation and development within this sector of operations slowed to a crawl as the spectre of regionalised controls hung in the air. But that is now over, and the opportunity for change and a reprofiling of our Fire Control is with us.

 In common with many others, WYFRS has invested significantly in a new Command & Control system, and like many others has done this in collaboration with a neighbouring FRS. The transition from the old to the new is a bumpy journey, as is the case with many (all?) significant projects, especially, dare I say, those with a heavy dependence upon IT. But with hard work by many, and a desire to make it happen, a steady state will be reached. That is the time, in my opinion, to look carefully at how we best make use of this important asset, which for the sake of clarity includes the people and the ‘things’.

Intelligence led mobilising is the obvious low hanging fruit. Whilst already embraced to some extent, the opportunity to design and deliver a new balance between the conflicting need to speedily mobilise resources and to extract ever more information from the potentially distressed caller is something for us to look at. There is a discussion to be had in coming months and years about how we respond to incidents and with what resources. The shift away from the standard ‘big red lorry’ has already begun with the introduction of FRUs (small fire units to those in other FRS) and there may be further opportunity as we look into future ways of responding to a range of incident types. Many may read these comments as some code for something that is measurably ‘less’ in some aspect, that is not necessarily the case – I am talking about a response to incidents that matches the actual risk presented, and takes account of as many of the associated factors as we can readily and speedily capture, before deciding what resources to send to that particular and unique incident. Again, I hear cries that ‘we do that anyway’ but this can be the norm not the exception. I’m also mindful that our Fire Control is a 24 hour presence, 365 days a year and is (broadly speaking) staffed at the same level all the time. Resilience within this setting is important, you can’t ‘make up’ in Fire Control when the calls come in to a large incident, you have to manage with what you have immediately available. Of course there are peaks and troughs to the management of any ordinary day, and any incident too. Ongoing resilience for major and ongoing incidents is manageable given time, but the immediate surge needs people to do what they are good at, and to react to the public and support those crews and officers who are deployed to incidents. I think that there is an opportunity to discuss how we can achieve this and simultaneously enhance the support that Fire Control can provide the service, and look at how we may also deliver something extra in these times of austerity.

The concept of regional and national resilience promised by the FireControl project was not a wholly bad concept, it was however poorly executed. Large incidents either within service or across borders will always require co-ordination and management, including those critical strategic incidents. The mobilisation and receipt of resources to/from other FRS is hellishly complicated without a national call sign plan. The sharing of information and intelligence about dynamic and challenging Counter Terrorism related events requires some co-ordination and the soon to be refreshed National Co-ordination & Advisory Framework (NCAF) document gives a structure around which to do that – the role of the FRS control being fundamental to success. The notion of local expertise and knowledge is still important to me, and whilst technology will play a more important role in the future there are still more pros than cons to retaining that local expertise both in terms of topographical information and FRS capability. Again we must be looking in the not too distant future around achieving efficiencies through improved cross border working, and that will bring increasingly common ways of working. I think that our FIre Control staff do a fantastic job, and are a key part of how we deliver our service to the community. 

As the service continues to change and evolve, my challenge as it is to all other staff, is to look at the equipment, systems and skills at their disposal and look for ways to make our service even better. Their role in respect of prevention and wider community safety is ripe for development. The physical security system that keeps many Control rooms (rightly) protected is also an artificial barrier to wider working. I’d like to see more people going through that locked door (both ways) in order to better understand respective roles, and to look for ways to make each other’s day better and more effective. The challenge is there then, the future is bright in my opinion, but the time for evolutionary change is here and we must embrace it.

Preparing for terrorist events

Up until very recently I wouldn’t have been able to write this blog posting. The topic has been subject to a degree of protective security since its inception, and is only just moving out into ‘the daylight’ from the shadows of the cloak of secrecy. The subject is the Fire & Rescue Service role in the management of a Marauding Terrorist Firearms Attack (MTFA). If you are reading this from GCHQ then have no fear I’m not about to go public on tactics and detail, but I would like to write about the value that the FRS can add to a multi-agency response. Nothing that you are about to read has not been published in the national newspapers, or cannot be found by using Google. 

Following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015 the Home Secretary talked about the role of the FRS, and paramedics, in such a scenario. It was reported in many newspapers, including the DAILY TELEGRAPH and has been discussed in a number of open forums since. I’m not going to suggest for one minute that the Telegraph article is anywhere near completely accurate, far from it, but the essential point is true – and has been for some while. In the STATEMENT (Column 870) which the Home Secretary made to the Commons following the events in Paris she discusses the existence of the capability and gives a general overview of the threat environment in which we are operating.  Members of the Fire Brigades Union will also be aware that the current and ongoing requirements of ‘Action Short of Strike’ are such that they are instructed not to participate in ‘duties associated with MTFA incidents’. Whilst I have a view on that position, this is neither the time nor the place to debate that view. But the very fact that it’s part of publicly declared ASOS means that it’s a fair assumption that people know what we are doing.

So what am I going to write about MTFA, given the list of things that I’m NOT going to write about? I want to discuss the fundamental point of whether I think the FRS should have a role in MTFA response or not. I’m NOT going to to attempt to tackle the issues that I know are at the heart of the FBU position, again there’s a time and a place, and this is not it. 

You may be aware that there have been a series of discussions ongoing at the National Joint Council (Fire) and one of the work streams in these discussions has been MTFA. A joint CIRCULAR has recently been published outlining the current joint position.

I have a role which I undertake for the Chief Fire Officers Association as the lead officer for MTFA. (I’ll also clarify for those that may wonder, that we don’t get paid anything extra for our CFOA work, we do it because it’s important and because we care about the future of our service, we are grateful that our Authorities allow us to lead and influence). As part of my role I recently spoke at a conference in London about our MTFA role, and followed an officer from the National Ambulance Resilience Unit (NARU) who gave his perspective on the same issue. In speaking with other delegates – it was a Counter Terrorism/Resilience ‘trade show’ – it was very apparent that many people who previously hadn’t considered the issue thought that it was a fantastic role for the FRS to undertake as we seek, to some extent, to redefine our role in society.

I’ve written in previous blogs about the need to consider how we are profiled in the future and what we do to protect the public. The number of fires is on the decline generally speaking, and despite all of the trust that we put in the public valuing their FRS, there are inevitable questions to be asked, and they will be. We can either answer the question when someone poses it to us or we can recognise that it’s coming and get the answer ready now. I will be the first to admit that there is probably not a firefighter on the books of any FRS that joined the service to wear balistic protective personal equipment, nor to operate in such a potentially hostile environment. But we are adaptable and flexible, aren’t we…..?

It will be lost on no one, and can be read in every newspaper, that we live in a world where the threat from terrorism is severe, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future – at least a generation some would argue. Our service responded magnificently to the post 9/11 new world order. New Dimension (latterly changed to National Resilience) assets were integrated into our response capability in very short order in the grand scheme of things, to the point where I would now argue that they are now part of ‘new normal’. Our ability to respond to terrorist related incidents has moved on hugely, as has our ability to deal with a range of other non-terrorist incidents as a consequence of the investment in equipment and training.

I describe our ability to deal with MTFA incidents as ‘work in progress’, as do most other, if not all, emergency service partners. We have spent some time getting a basic, safe, offering up and running. Now is the time, now is the threat climate, to develop and progress the capability so that it becomes an integral part of our national security infrastructure. This will require time, effort, funds and support from the whole range of FRS stakeholders – it’s too good an opportunity to miss.

A load of rubbish?

Firstly, thanks for the feedback on last weeks blog posting about the newspaper article suggesting that the Police and Fire & Rescue Services were on the brink of some sort of a merger. My blog stats show that it was one of the most well read to date, and that helps when I’m thinking of subjects to blog about. I do try and keep as topical as possible, and to choose subjects that are relevant to our service and hopefully which prompt some lively debate. The whole subject got a lot of air time this week, both in the office and at a meeting with the West Yorkshire Police & Crime Commissioner that I attended. Its fair to say that the article was getting ahead of itself somewhat though we will all watch with interest as new legislation is shaped up over the course of the next year, I’m sure that its going to come up again sooner or later. Nothing quite as contentious for this blog, but a serious issue none the less.

We’ve had a few incidents over the last week or so, one in HALIFAX, one in HORBURY, and one in BRADFORD,  all of which involved materials which were part of the ever growing waste recycling trade. Two of them were visible for miles around due to the size of their thick, black smoke plumes, and all of them required the commitment of a substantial amount of West Yorkshire FRS crews and resources for very extended periods of time. Whilst I’m all in favour of protecting and reusing the precious resources that we have available to us there is a downside when sites that store materials in the process are not well managed, or when fire breaks out.

I’m not going to write about the specific incidents referred to above because I haven’t been to any of them. I do know though that there are common trends that run through all of these fires, and are such that the Chief Fire Officers Association has being working hard with the Environment Agency, industry operators and the insurance trade to try and impact on the number and severity of such incidents. We held a forum a while ago when we all came together to discuss the issue, a report is available HERE if you want to know more about it.

We’ve had a focus on this type of incident for last 2 or 3 years, both here in West Yorkshire and nationally. The specific waste recycling industry is relatively new as research seeks to find ways to turn our waste into something usable, instead of just burying it in huge holes in the ground. Much of the UK’s waste is exported to Scandinavian countries for processing and conversion into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), and this often takes place from the East Coast ports. There is also the growing business of creating biomass pellets from waste and this sees organic waste converted into a usable fuel. It is safe to say that we are going to see more and more waste being stored, transported and processed in the years to come. The waste industry seems to be inextricably linked to the economy, so as the economy grows so will the risk.

The common perception that fires occur mainly in the unlicensed part of the industry doesn’t necessarily hold true, nor is it true that they are increasing in number. The numbers are holding pretty steady, it seems that media reporting and public interest is growing though.

Our primary concern as Fire & Rescue Services is the level of risk presented by such sites. As the industry grows, so do the number of sites, and many of them are now developing in urban areas. This means that if fires occur the effects are magnified, as we’ve seen locally over the last week or so, in that proximity to residents and housing adds substantially to the issues faced by services when dealing with incidents. The large amounts of smoke, the often large amounts of fire water run off, and the number of fire engines in attendance have a magnified effect when they directly affect people in their homes. The choices faced by the Incident Commander often involve a choice between a significant fire attack, or a controlled burn, the resource and environmental implications of both are very different, and the implied pressure to put the fire out can become overwhelming, though it often may not be the best use of resources to do so. There is much work to do on the pros and cons of the two approaches, and we will hopefully move to a position where a calculated and evidence based decision can be taken on the chosen tactic.

There is nothing different from other incidents in that prevention is always better than cure. Our strategic and local relationships with the Environment Agency are so important to us in this respect. We will strive to ever more effectively share intelligence about risk sites to allow us to provide prevention advice, and plan for the consequences of an incident should one happen. In West Yorkshire we are working hard to develop this relationship and we have involved other members of the Local Resilience Forum in our thinking and planning over the last 12 months or so.

I hope that the recent 3 incidents are nothing more than a blip in activity, these often happen for no discernible reason. The level of social media and main stream media activity that has surrounded them shows that they are of a key concern to the community that we serve. We have lots to do in keeping on top of this problem and hopefully, in the fullness of time, coming up with different ways to deal with them. Our evidence suggests that nothing has greater effect than a protracted response which takes the burning refuse pile apart bit by bit and extinguishes pockets of fire systematically. This ties up resources for extended periods of time, and takes crews away from valuable training and prevention/protection work. As our service changes this time is precious to us, and whilst fires will always occur and will remain at the heart of what we do, we will need to be able to deal with these incidents more effectively to protect our response resources.

My thanks to Graham Tyler for allowing me to use one of his images on this blog.

The ‘barmy’ Sunday Express article

At risk of being bombarded by naysayers who are apoplectic at today’s Sunday Express headline regarding the ‘barmy’ plan to ‘merge emergency services’ I wanted to take the timely opportunity to blog about the issue.

If you haven’t seen the article yet HERE it is. It’s worth a read before you carry on reading this blog – apologies for all of the other stories that will flash before your eyes in doing so!

Firstly, let’s try and take the politics out of it and look objectively at the article. Let’s (for one moment) ignore the outdated reference to ‘fireMEN’, lets ignore the sensationalist headline that talks about a bill that no one has even seen yet, and let’s pick out the strand of possible truth in that it has been hinted that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) may, in time, in some areas, and without being forced to by central government assume some sort of political control over the Fire & Rescue Service, if it suits the local agenda. As I blogged about earlier this week the new ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ may be seen as moving some way toward enabling such a position.

Looking at the current model, Chief Constables remain operationally responsible for their force areas, and are accountable to the PCC for delivering the Police and Crime plan. The PCC, in turn, is scrutinised by a local Police and Crime Panel. PCCs also swear an oath of impartiality in respect of how they discharge their duties, in recognition of the fact that whilst standing for election as members of political parties they are required to represent all of the people once elected.

Fire & Rescue Services have a range of governance models, in the case of West Yorkshire we have a Fire & Rescue Authority (FRA), 22 elected councillors from the 5 constituent authorities who hold a range of legislative responsibilities and who employ a Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive to lead and manage the operational service whilst remaining accountable to the FRA.

At the time of writing I genuinely have no idea about what may be in the forthcoming Policing and Criminal Justice Bill, and I’m no cheerleader for any particular political direction, but I do think that it’s important that we have the debate. That’s what our democracy is about, and there are clearly a range of conflicting views in existence.

Let’s be honest and admit that there is a lot of synergy in what the 3 principal emergency services do, let’s also be clear on the fact that there are a lot of differences.

For the purposes of this blog I’m going to rule the Ambulance service out of this discussion as they are (currently) an inseparable part of the NHS, and deliver critical care responses as part of the wider NHS model. Sure there are all of the discussions about co-responding and all of that, but I’ve blogged about those in the past and I’m sure that I will again. I don’t believe that it’s a likely outcome of the issue that the Sunday Express article is referring to. Not never, but very certainly not now.

If we confine our definition of the fire service to being a service that rushes from fire to fire, all day and all night, and if we confine our definition of the Police to ‘Sweeney’ car chases and public order incidents then we are a long way apart in what we do. If, however, we recognise that we are both in the business of making the communities that we serve safer, and that we do this for the vast majority of our time, then we have a lot in common.

We both serve the same communities, have very similar operational and administrative boundaries, have statutory powers and duties in respect of community safety, already sit around the same tables and attend the same neighbourhood meetings and we both face the challenge of austerity. We also both have HQ functions delivering HR, Finance, Estates Procurement, Media, Vehicle workshops, training and development teams etc. We both have local district structures and buildings that often work together on issues that involve the same vulnerable people. We also both have 999 call handling, despatch and incident management centres. A simplistic overview, but you get my point.

Yet despite all of this we are also both very different in purpose, and in the way that we are perceived by the public. The Police have a very definite role in enforcing the law. Many will argue that it is this single issue that means we should forever remain as two distinct and separate services. It’s also worth remembering that the FRS have such responsibilities too, though not in the same types of law I grant you.  There is no suggestion by the way, unless something comes from entirely left field, that the Governement is about to create a combined fire and police service.

I don’t believe for one minute that a step such as the one alluded to by the article should be taken solely because it is cheaper in these austere times, that would be wrong. If, however, we were to take an objective look at how the safety of the communities that we serve could be best delivered, and if we thought that the synergies could provide a better and more effective service, that also happened to be cheaper, then surely it’s worth the debate?

I don’t believe that the current models of delivering either policing or fire and rescue services are fundamentally broken, but I think that if we had the debate, without forcing it down one line or another, we could all come up with improvements to both services. I don’t believe that this debate is about police officers turning up to fight fires, and I don’t believe that it’s about firefighters arresting people. I think that the skill sets of professional officers in both services (and the Ambulance for that matter) are extensive, and I don’t for one minute think that one person can be fully competent in every aspect of all of the individual roles. People will undoubtedly raise the CORNWALL issue with me where one guy has a tri-service role, read carefully because it’s nothing like this article is alluding to. I do believe that it’s about providing a better service for the people that we serve.

We’ll probably see a nudge towards closer working, perhaps even under a PCC/mayor.  I hope that it will only be the case when local communities want it, that’s what democracy is about. The bottom line is though, that it’s a trashy, sensationalist article. It has however, prompted me to blog about it, it’s caused a ripple on social media, and I’m sure that it’s been the basis of many a debate between fire, police, and ambulance officers. It may even have got some members of the communities that we all serve to have a think about what THEY want – and I can live with that!

I haven’t made my own mind up, nor will I, until I see what (if anything) is proposed when a new bill is tabled. If it’s anything like the Sunday Express article alludes to then we need a sensible, mature and well informed debate. Only then can we get a true sense of the future for the future of emergency services in our country, they’ve changed before and they’ll change again.

Fire in the Northern Powerhouse!

I hope that I’m not the only one who has yet to figure out exactly what the Northern Powerhouse is? I’m pretty clear that I can’t go to it and pay a visit or take a photo of it, but beyond that its difficult to be more certain about what it actually is. It is of course a political term in the first instance, and there are pages and pages of speeches about it, both pre and post General Election. However on Wednesday this week Her Majesty the Queen referred to it in her speech at the state opening of Parliament so it must exist – mustn’t it? So, what do we know for sure?

  • It has a Minister – James Wharton MP
  • Its not just about Manchester
  • Its boundaries are (approximately) Liverpool to Hull going West to East, and Sheffield to Newcastle upon Tyne going South to North
  • West Yorkshire is definitely a major part of it
  • Approximtely 15 million people live and work in it
  • There is going to be a new Government bill – the ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ to help to make it a reality

The whole concept of devolution to cities and regions is the one that interests me most as the powerhouse rises from its newly laid foundations, and I do wonder what the implications are for the Fire & Rescue Service. The suggestion is that by creating regional/local hubs of devolved power and influence then these areas will coalesce to form this huge economic engine that will help to balance the power and prosperity of the country between the south east and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. There can of course be other devolutionary arrangements in other areas but none are promised a powerhouse in return. Sounds good so far? There is a catch (there are probably quite a few that I haven’t even thought of) in that the Chancellor has made it very clear that in order to take on the powers and responsibilities that devolution brings there will have to be a Mayor (a ‘metro mayor’ no less). – “I will not impose a mayor on anyone but nor will I settle for less. My door is open to any other major city (other than Manchester) who wants to take this bold step into the future.” In West Yorkshire we already have the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) comprising Calderdale, Kirklees, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield and the City of York. Its current role is about driving economic growth across the region. The WYCA, whilst previously not convinced of the merits of the mayoral model, now accepts that in order to secure the newly promised freedoms they may have to reconsider this position and accept a ‘metro mayor’ (ARTICLE Yorkshire Evening Post) The new bill is interesting in that it passes all functions of the current Police & Crime Commissioner to the Mayor and it also removes current restrictions on what may come ‘in scope’ for a combined authority. Currently the WYCA has responsibility for economic development, regeneration and transport. With the move of policing into the mix it is not difficult to forsee a similar move for the Fire & Rescue Service too. Though not explicit in anything that I’ve read there is mention of ‘community safety activity’ being in scope. So what could be the benefits?

  • In these austere times anything that promotes, incentivises or otherwise enables improved collaboration and sharing between the many different facets of local governement can only be a good thing. Removing the often artificial barriers that exist will surely provide for more effective and more efficient delivery of our services to the communities which we serve.
  • Providing a coherent direction best suited to local needs, accountable to local people, and free of conflicting agendas must also be a good thing.
  • Sharing common boundaries, sharing data and intelligence, and working even more closely together can only lead to improved services.
  • We all know that the most vulnerable in our society are generally known to one or more agencies in the public sector. Newly empowered combined authorities would be able to improve the focus on these individuals and families.
  • Opportunities for improved joint procurement and use of the public estate would benefit all

Interestingly the Home Secretary made mention in her speech to the Police Federation only last week of the new Policing & Criminal Justice Bill, in particular that she would “enable the fire and rescue services to engage in much closer joint working with the Police”. Having had a look at the scope of the bill published on Wednesday there seems to be no reference to the FRS. I personally expected some announcement regarding PCCs and the Fire & Rescue Service given the Home Secretary’s previous suggestion that there was scope for greater integration. Perhaps this is for a later date? I am of course looking at this through the lens of a public sector organisation, there are many benefits to other sectors in terms of growth and prosperity. That said, any improvement to the local economy when budgets are so tight would be welcomed by all. A single pot of public money will present new challenges in deciding priorities and in forming partnerships in the wider public interest. There must be some downsides too, not least of which would be the size and complexity of some of these proposed governance arrangements. It will also be interesting to see whether devolution can be delivered without adding extra governance and burden to already slimmed down and lean organisations. There seems to be a fair degree of cross party consensus on the idea, though as ever the devil will be in the detail. It does seem, however, that we are inching towards a new model of governance for our area and we should embrace it to help us to deliver an even more excellent service.