The swinging of the pendulum – An immediate response to Grenfell September 2017
The way that firefighters ‘got-in’ and rescued people at Grenfell Tower, and the managerial organisation of such a complicated incident exemplified everything that the public hold dear about the fire and rescue service (FRS). As I write this article the media are still reporting on Grenfell, and almost as a positive counterbalance to the horror of the main story, they frequently celebrate firefighter’s bravery in preventing an even greater loss of life.
But the news could have been different. Since 2003, there has been a widespread transformation and organisational restructuring to modernise the FRS, prioritise Community Fire Safety (CFS), transform the imagery associated with FRS and change the culture. This was led at that time by a newly appointed Service Improvement Team placed within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). With this as a backdrop, this article will be a discussion about some of the intended consequences behind FRS modernisation since 2003, why it took place and about the resilience of firefighters (who took on board the notion of CFS and yet avoided FRS attempts to change their priorities).
New forms of work and prioritizing CFS
In 2003, after a long and bitter dispute in which the Fire Brigades Union stood against Blair’s government in an attempt to stop cuts and increase firefighter’s pay, the union affectively lost. As a result, the 2003 pay agreement was conditional on the acceptance of an uncompromising series of radical changes that put the FRS firmly under Ministerial control. Most of the changes were based on recommendations of Bain (2002) and selected parts of his report are repeated here:
The Fire Service needs to be changed from top to bottom and every aspect of its work reformed … Transform the Service from an old-fashioned, white, male dominated, manual occupation … The new emphasis must be on the prevention of fire, rather than the methods of dealing with fire after it has started … [this] challenge has been evaded many times in the past.
What followed was a new Fire Services Act (2005), but even before that went onto the statute books ODPM established a Ministerial team that used New Public Management ideology to
refocus priorities, demilitarise the service and to change its image. As a result, officers became managers through ‘rank to role’, and they were chosen without formal external examinations through assessment centres, where the codification of non and emergency work became a means of testing and forming new managers. Gone was the requirement to follow the hierarchy as opportunities were provided to accelerate promotion in order to shorten the time to a reach senior role. Other central constructs of reform included driving equality and diversity agendas and Integrated Risk Management Planning to make transparent (to Ministers) how the FRS would create efficiencies. Within the turmoil of change, there was a taken-for-granted assumption that managerialist principles and prioritising CFS would create such a dynamic that a new vision of the organisation would emerge to counter the ‘troublesome’ aspects associated firefighters’ informal culture.
I was a firefighter for over 30 years and after retirement I went to university and now I am a sociologist of management, leadership, culture, masculinity and equality in the FRS – I have also acted as a consultant internationally, in a number of services and to the LGA. It is from this position that I have been a critical friend to the FRS. My research has unpacked firefighter’s culture arrangements to identify these as a powerful influence whereby each generation of firefighters fits in the next to ‘the way things are done around here’ (Baigent 2001). Though I have tended to focus on the difficult outcomes of the informal culture (particularly in regard to equality and managing the FRS), I also view firefighters’ cultural arrangements to be a necessary means by which each generation held in trust and then handed down the skills that firefighters have developed to do their operational work. An arrangement that ensures each cohort of firefighters is equipped with the necessary experiential skills to get in at a fire and do their job.
As I have suggested above, firefighters’ cultural arrangements do provide problems for managers. My use of the term ‘their job’ (above) was deliberate. Firefighters do actually believe that they own their work in a contract with the public. This public service ethos is recognised by the public, who in turn recognise firefighters as heroes. But there is a Janus face to firefighter’s culture. Research has also shown that in the defence of their service, firefighters were responsible for some difficult practises concerning who should be a firefighter. It is my view that part of the reason behind Government bringing about such a
radical change in 2003, was an attempt by to change firefighters’ powerful collective consciousness about how their service was delivered and who delivered it. From this position, I then watched Government promote change and the enthusiasm of principal managers to establish this change. This is understandable, because modernisation offered dividends to those managers who believed that firefighters were living in a past age and that they and their trade union needed to move on. One clear example of a necessary change was firefighters resistance to carrying out CFS.
The reordering of FRS priorities to make its primary job to prevent fires rather than fight them, was not well received by firefighters. Firefighters are a conservative bunch that rarely welcomes change. However, given that firefighters’ culture embraces an implicit understanding about helping the public, there have been difficulties understanding firefighter’s resistance to CFS. However, in a very clear case of practise informing practice, firefighters have been socialised into taking the next logical step, which was to accept that CFS could save lives. What has not changed though, is firefighters’ belief that their emergency response is actually their most important role. As a consequence, all the time they were being managed into carrying out CFS, firefighters continued to hand down their experiential skills.
A matter of priorities
As an ex-firefighter and as an academic, I have always been concerned that a shift in the primary role of the fire service may have some repercussions – particularly if it undid all the cultural arrangements that firefighters had developed to hand on experiential skills. As I prepare to sum up, it is fair to say that firefighters continue to argue that their prime purpose is to save life. However, firefighters no longer only save life by their heroic actions. Increasingly, firefighters are engaging with CFS as a ‘new’ form of work and CFS is now part of firefighter’s culture. Nonetheless it is equally clear that firefighter’s prime focus remains their readiness to help the public at emergencies (O’Connor 2017).
In the dark hours of June, Grenfell Tower caught alight. On arrival, firefighters were confronted by a situation that challenged everything that had been written. A whole hi-rise
building was being engulfed in flames and 100’s of people were trapped. Faced with this situation, firefighters did what their predecessors would have done – they worked with what they had, and set about rescuing people and fighting the fire. The rescues that took place and firefighter’s actions on that day did not follow rules for firefighting in hi-rise buildings – because the rules were written on the basis that fire could not jump from floor to floor. However, as firefighters know – fire does not follow the rules and as if instinctively, they set about drawing on the accumulated knowledge that had been handed down over time in all those mess room chats to find a way to get in safely.
To gather so many crews and their appliances and then manage them successfully in such fraught circumstances highlighted the importance of strategic management. Nonetheless, at the forward control point, the strategic managers had to let go and let the firefighters do their job. In managerial speak firefighters used ‘operational discretion’. An academic’s view is that ‘firefighters used their experiential knowledge to make plans based around naturalistic decision making’ (Flinn 1995) – which simply put is making instant decisions based on a wide range of experience to come up with a good enough answer. However, firefighters would likely have described their actions in far simpler terms as, ‘adapting to the circumstances and getting the job done’. To have achieved this, without the loss of a single firefighter indicates the skill and knowledge involved.
My summing-up provides a dual perspective synthesising knowledge of my work and experiences as a firefighter and an academic. From this position, I identify how firefighters have modified a major attempt by Government to re-engineer and transform their culture. Instead of continuing to resist CFS they have gathered the softer skills needed to do this work, but at the same time firefighters have kept alive the experiential skills needed to be a good and safe firefighter. This ability has meant that at Grenfell and other incidents where new risks for which there is no written instruction occur, tacit knowledge is available and a leader emerges to make naturalistic decisions to get the job done.
There has been much said and written about what is wrong with fire service culture and very little made of what is right and valuable. I hope this contribution will go some way to redress that situation. This is important, because after over a decade and a half of Government
prioritising CFS, when the chips are down, firefighters were still able to use their experiential skills to adapt to new circumstances and go the extra mile to help the public. Had the initial 2003 project been entirely successful, then of course firefighters would have responded to the fire but the toll in terms of lives lost would have likely been much higher
After the events of Grenfell Tower, those in charge of the FRS may want to rethink about how to move the service forward. In so doing I hope they recognise that pushing so hard against firefighter’s traditions may not any longer be so important. Firefighters are used to resisting – in fact, their very purpose is to challenge against seemingly impossible situations. Managers may now wish to acknowledge that data shows that firefighters are carrying out CFS. If from this position managers were able to use a scalpel rather than a large axe, it may well be possible to think about a fire service where experiential knowledge is protected and entrepreneurial leadership is respected. In such a fire service, managers should be able to manage the difficult aspects of firefighter’s culture without changing firefighter’s belief that their number one priority is to protect the public. If this is managed successfully there is every chance that the original aim of the 2003 project, which was to co-opt firefighter’s culture can be achieved.
Baigent, D. (2001). Gender Relations, Masculinities and the Fire Service: a qualitative study of firefighters’ constructions of masculinity during firefighting and in their social relations of work. PhD thesis. Department of Sociology and Politics, Anglia Ruskin University: Cambridge. AKA ‘One more last working class hero’. Available at www.fitting- in.com/baigent.pdf
Bain, G (2002)The Future of the Fire Service: reducing risk, saving lives. London: ODPM. Available at www.fitting-in.com/bain.pdf
HMG (2004) Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Available at www.fitting- in.com/frsact2004.pdf
O’Connor, S. (2017) The career, role and occupational identity of watch managers within the modernising agenda of the UK Fire and Rescue Service. PhD Thesis. School of SPSSSR, University of Kent. Available at www.fitting-in.com/oconnor
Flin, R. (1995). “Incident Command decision making and team work.” The Journal of the Fire Service College 1(1): 7-15. Oxford: FSC.