Making sense of standards

“The absence of existing national standards has resulted in local variations in almost every aspect of what each fire and rescue service does.” This is the conclusion made by HMICFRS in their tranche 1 summary report of the first inspections in 12 years. It’s helpful then that a Fire Standards Board is now in place to deal with the issues and provide some reassurance to the inspectors that inconsistency is being tackled head on.

From a conversation with the new independent Chair and Vice Chair of the Fire Standards Board, it’s clear that it’s not just the inspectors that they are concerned about. Chair Suzanne McCarthy explains, “You’ve got to be able to ensure that wherever you are in England, you will still get the same level of service from your fire and rescue service because they are working to the same standards. It is a way of judging for the public’s benefits that the service they are paying for is actually delivering”.

It’s a nice thought that the views of the public about their fire and rescue service should be based on fact and evidence, when the reality is that most people don’t much care about fire until they have one in their house, or it affects a friend or a relative. Then they expect the fire and rescue service to turn up quickly and put it out.

That over simplistic, but sadly fairly accurate view on fire masks the complexity of the fire and rescue service and what it delivers in communities. Suzanne and Vice Chair, Alison Sansome, have been out and about learning about the fire and rescue service, mostly chatting to senior officers but slowly talking to staff from all areas of service delivery. Neither of them comes from fire backgrounds and while they both argue that it isn’t a prerequisite, having some first-hand contact with fire and rescue services staff will greatly enhance their understanding of the challenges the services currently faces.

The Fire Standards Board for England is funded by the Home Office, forming a key plank of the reform programme. The intention is to establish a suite of professional standards to define what good looks like as far as the running of an efficient and effective fire and rescue service is concerned.

Suzanne and Alison bring a wealth of experience from working with other parts of the public sector, creating codes and standards in areas as diverse as fundraising and immigration. They are both attracted to establishing a new organisation. Asked whether the Grenfell Tower fire had been a motivation for them applying, they both agree that while the impact of Grenfell forms part of the landscape relating to fire they would have applied regardless.

After just three meetings of the Board, much of the work has been to establish a standards framework that looks at priorities, process and delivery. The Board is also interested in impact as well as outcomes although there is no formal evaluation system to deal with that yet.

Suzanne says, “I don’t think you should see the Board as isolated. It is a conjunction of organisational developments, groups working on different elements of standards that we will draw into a suite of standards”.

There is real potential to develop meaningful and acceptable standards with Board membership drawn from the NFCC, LGA and the Home Office, supplemented by access to the wider fire sector through the new Strategic Engagement Forum chaired by Avon Fire and Rescue Service CFO Mick Crennell.

There are echoes of the National Operational Guidance Programme here but, like NOG, the Board knows that it cannot force any organisation to adopt its work. The collective approach that leads to quality products is a great incentive – along with the stick of HMICFRS of course.

The Board is due to meet for the fourth time in September and will continue to shape its forward plan. They have identified a priority criteria and how the suite of standards will be organised in terms of its governance. “We do know it’s important that we get some standards published, we don’t want to be seen as a talking shop. However it is important that the standards are good and not driven by time.” Suzanne explains, “We are not here just to have meetings. We need to produce things.”

There will be a pilot first. This will take two standards through the draft process, starting with consultation in September, to see if it works. One is related to NOG, the other emergency driver training.

It’s possible that new standards may bring new costs but Suzanne is robust in her response. “We’re not naïve about the implications and that’s part of the consultation discussion. That should produce responses that influence us – economic considerations included – we are open minded but remember we don’t have any standards in place so far.”

In terms of who owns the standards, Suzanne is clear that the Board owns them. “We are accountable to the members of the Board who represent different organisations. They all have an interest in ensuring standards are applicable, consistent and create an environment for improvement.”

And then there’s the point about success. How will the FSB know that it has been successful? There is no evaluation in place yet, but as Suzanne points out, they are in this for the long term, so they are relaxed about that for now. She does have a clear concept of the elements of success which she describes well.

“To me, success would be that we create a suite of standards that is meaningful to improve and reinforce the professionalism of the service. Services should see them as a positive contribution to their work. I would want the inspectorate to find them to be suitable tools to be able to inspect and to be able to give the public the assurance it needs to know that the fire and rescue service they have is the one they should have.”

A suite of standards sounds static but both Alison and Suzanne and quick to highlight the need for the Board to be agile and responsive. “The Board is not rigid. We are flexible, reflective and responsive to issues that come up. We want to hear what the concerns or issues are as we go along.”

It will need to be when Sir Martin Moore Bick publishes his Grenfell Inquiry interim report later this year. It is likely to have significant implications for the fire and rescue service and the Board will need to be alive to that.

Spending an hour with Suzanne and Alison is instructive; their personal commitment and enthusiasm to driving standards forward for the fire and rescue service is evident and they are a welcome addition to the fire world. They talk about improvement arising from an amalgamation of standards but proving that this new way of working is successful will take many years, but as they say, they are in it for the long haul, so let’s watch and see.

Article written by Catherine Levin and originally published in the September issue of Fire Magazine.