Public Services Management: Having to fight fire with fire: Paul Gosling looks at why the brigades may take strike action

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The Independent Online
Firefighters are considering strike action, having rejected the 1.5 per cent pay limit that has been reluctantly accepted by many public service workers. This would be only the second firefighters' strike - the first, in 1977, led to a pay review formula linking pay to the private sector, which prevented further pay disputes.

'It took us from poverty wages to a reasonable living wage,' Ken Cameron, general secretary, told the Fire Brigades Union conference this year. 'It ended the situation where our kids relied on free school meals, and we qualified for rent rebates and family income supplement because our wages were so poor.'

Pay is only one of the issues creating friction between employers and firefighters. Echoing the debate raging in the police force, the FBU says that emergency services should not be subjected to new management procedures that are now widespread in the public services, such as business units, cost-centre management and performance-related pay.

The Sheehy Report on police organisation brought forward recommendations similar to those already in place in parts of the fire service. The proposed abolition of some police ranks, such as chief inspector, is comparable with the removal by some fire services of senior posts such as divisional officers and assistant chief fire officers, creating the flatter hierarchies and devolved management systems increasingly adopted in the private sector.

Cleveland Fire Brigade undertook a comprehensive management restructuring earlier this year. Two-thirds of officers went, younger and more progressive officers were brought into senior positions, and all the principal officers replaced within 12 months.

John Doyle, Cleveland's deputy chief fire officer, one of those brought in, says: 'We streamlined a couple of ranks and devolved much of the management, passing responsibilities to the lowest possible level, closer to the customer.

'Fire brigades have been very hierarchical, which has meant that officers have not been accorded the responsibility and accountability that is suitable for their level of judgement. Traditionally we would sanction someone to be in control of a pounds 500,000 incident, but they couldn't buy a pair of shoes. Perhaps we're working on the coat tails of the private sector, but the quality of officer is improving.'

Cleveland has four principles that it believes will bring improved services: devolved management, performance management, business planning and staff appraisals.

The operational branch of the brigade is to be a business unit, entering into service-level agreements with other parts of the fire service and the local authority, and its training unit will be encouraged to sell services outside. A client/contractor split is being introduced into some activities, and it is envisaged that some support services could be bought in.

Berkshire's chief fire officer, Garth Scotford, believes there are advantages to outplacing more functions, such as maintenance of vehicles, communications equipment and breathing apparatus.

'It is not necessary for uniformed officers to do this, I would say it is better for non- uniformed staff or contractors to do it,' he explains. 'It is a developmental process, though - we are not sacking our people overnight.'

Mr Scotford adds: 'The prime thing is full cost-centre management, and middle and some junior management holding their own budgets, producing value-for-money measures for spending.' Performance-related pay is in place for the three most senior grades but has not, as yet, been extended.

'Nafo (National Association of Fire Officers) and the FBU are opposed to it, so it is not being offered to lower ranks,' says Mr Scotford, adding: 'We certainly do performance appraisal, which is taken into account in staff's future moves.'

Ian Linn of Northern College reported on new management initiatives for the FBU. He says: 'Performance indicators are going to be increasingly critical, not just about comparing one brigade to another, but also about brigades judging divisions against each other, and stations one to another.

'It gives management the mechanism to highlight less cost-effective parts of their own teams, their own service. But I believe it will take longer to put into place than they expect. People were saying to me that one of the problems was that senior officers were first, working for the fire service; second, members of the FBU; but only third were they managers.'

The FBU supports some of the new management practices, but is opposed to others, claiming that more time is now going into paperwork and budget preparation, and less into staff training. Mike Fordham, assistant general secretary, says: 'It is very different over the country.

'Many forces are restructuring, introducing devolved management decision-making systems, others are staying exactly as they are. Some of the changes are proving effective, but we are worried at the concept of turning firefighting into businesses, concentrating on presentation instead of content.'

The FBU is firmly against performance-related pay, and claims that all the chief fire officers that have seriously investigated it support its view. Mr Fordham says: 'The FBU is not against performance, but it is a question of how you measure it.

'Firefighters do not perform as individuals, but as a team. How the hell you measure that I do not know. The danger of performance appraisal is that you will get demarcation. That is the system in the United States, where you have specialists on platforms, and others on hydrants, and it is inefficient, and you get more people dying.'

The Adam Smith Institute, the right-wing think-tank that has influenced much of government policy on the public services, wants to see performance-related pay introduced in the fire service, and believes this could be achieved by assessing and rewarding teams rather than individuals.

The ASI wants to see a more harmonised approach from the three emergency services, working as a joint emergency service, which it believes would cut waste and delay. It is also in favour of competitive tendering for all fire service functions, including that of firefighting.

Dr Madsen Pirie, president of the ASI, says: 'It has been done effectively abroad, sometimes through privatisation of the entire fire service, or it could be done commercially by the public sector. A private company, Falck, provides a fire service in most of Denmark, and Scottdale in Arizona started the process.

'They are far more effective than their public sector counterparts, they are cheaper, and have a faster response time. Insurers give lower rates than to businesses elsewhere, which is a pretty good output measure.

'There could also be a mixture of professional core and local volunteers, who are paid money to be on bleepers. In studies of response time volunteers are seen to be first on the scene. I would also like to see much greater technical development, such as smaller vehicles which can fit in smaller garages - they are very good for smaller blazes.'

The FBU replies that many forces are already using smaller vehicles, according to circumstances, and describes the ASI's other proposals as 'lunatic'.

(Photograph omitted)