Chief fire officers aren’t just responsible for the smooth running of the fire service in their area – they’re ultimately responsible for the safety of their firefighters and the public. But how are they adapting to spending cuts and operational changes? Rachel Potter reports
In common with other public sector organisations, the fire service is currently faced with the challenge of delivering critical services with less money.
As the only emergency service to operate within the local government setting, it receives much of its funding from council tax, and it is having to compete with other services for a share of the funds. Meanwhile its other source of funding from central government will reduce by an average of 25% in the five years to 2015.
“We can’t go on doing things in the same way as we will have significantly less money,” says Des Prichard, chief fire officer (CFO) and chief executive at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. “If we need to continue to deliver all of the services we currently deliver, then we have to look at different ways of delivering them. Politicians will be making some tough decisions on what we can afford, and as senior officers we will be engaging in the debate on how to deliver their vision.”
These tough decisions include examining options such as merging control centres, closing fire stations, outsourcing, and even merging neighbouring fire services. And though there is a strong desire to protect frontline services, job losses seem inevitable, though as much as possible is being achieved through turnover, redeployment and incentivised early retirement.
Pritchard is one of 59 chief fire officers in the UK, and almost all of them began work on the front-line as firefighters.
He says that the role involves a challenging blend of operational, management and leadership skills. When a major incident takes place, the CFO is expected to take command at the scene. CFOs also need creative skills to plan and manage services with dwindling budgets, and the negotiation and persuasion skills needed to deal with politicians.
We’re a blue light service and we have to make instant decisions. When we deliver our frontline service our average response time is eight minutes. What other local government service does that?
Graeme Smith is another of the UK’s chief fire officers. Based at Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, his job involves running a countywide organisation with almost 500 staff and an annual budget of over £21 million. ?Smith says he could be called away from his desk at any moment to oversee a major emergency situation: he can mobilise 100 frontline staff and millions of pounds worth of firefighting and rescue equipment anywhere in Warwickshire within 40 minutes.
Smith feels that the rapid response nature of the fire and rescue service means it sometimes sits uncomfortably within local government. “We’re a blue light service and we have to make instant decisions,” he says. “When we deliver our frontline service our average response time is eight minutes. What other local government service does that?”
The role of the fire service and the people within it has already changed dramatically over the past decade, as the service has shifted towards fire prevention. In fact, just one in three emergency calls is now about a fire. Firefighters’ other duties include attending road, rail and air crashes and chemical spills, rescuing people trapped in buildings, vehicles and lifts, and even helping pump floodwater from homes and businesses.
As the job role has evolved, Smith says that one of the big challenges has been to engage middle managers in decision-making so that they can support senior management in driving through changes. “We’re asking our middle managers to do a lot,” he says. “They are sandwiched between the firefighters and strategic leaders, so they have to interpret the vision and strategy, [and now] implement it with less money.”
Despite these changes and challenges, Smith points out that the fire and rescue service retains a loyal workforce who boast a level of commitment (and who inspire a level of public trust) that other public sector organisations can only dream of.
“It’s not everybody that can spend their working lives contributing to saving lives,” he says. “There’s no better feeling.”