Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Third Report


9  Retained Service

An undervalued service

121. The Retained Fire Service provide 60% of fire cover in the UK.[170] In England there are approximately 13 062 retained firefighters, who provide 10 599 units of twenty-four hour cover.[171] The Government authorised number of retained personnel is 13 191 providing 24 hour cover, this means the Service is currently under resourced by 2 592 twenty-four hour units. Retained firefighters have other primary employment but respond to fires and incidents from their homes or workplace as required. In many rural areas, retained personnel provide the only source of fire and rescue cover. In the recent industrial disputes two-thirds of retained firefighters continued to respond to incidents.[172]

122. Unlike the wholetime Fire Service, where there are large numbers of applicants for each post, few people are applying to be retained firefighters, as we were told:

    "There is a high turnover. The average time a retained firefighter serves is about eight years. There is a 20 per cent shortfall at the moment; it does not seem to be getting any better. I think it is part of the second-class service. We have 40 applicants for every whole-time post and a 20 per cent shortfall in the retained. I am minded, for an example, to look at a recruitment document that came out of the ODPM a couple of months ago for the Fire Service, 24 pages, 23 of which were devoted to whole-time recruitment and one page devoted to retained recruitment. Now, it does not add up when you have 40 applicants for every whole-time post and a 20 per cent shortfall. There is a great deal of problems and a number of different ways in which you resolve the shortage of retained personnel and undoubtedly a refocusing of the Service, which has always been focused on the whole time, has to be part of that process."[173]

123. There is firm agreement from all groups that the contribution made by the Retained Service is under-recognised and under-valued. The White Paper clearly acknowledges the problems:

    "A major problem for the fire and rescue service is the recruitment of retained fire fighters. Nationally it is about 20% short of complement. [..] The recruitment problems stem in part from the level of pay, the lack of a pension, the lack of development opportunities, and the often inflexible availability system-in short, a lack of recognition of their contribution."[174]

124. A number of proposals outlined in the White Paper aim to tackle the 'second class' status from which the Retained Service has suffered. These include:

  • Considering the case for alternative pay arrangements linked to wholetime pay for the retained firefighters
  • Introducing an appropriate pension scheme for retained firefighters, recognising the variety of personal circumstances involved
  • Within Integrated Personal Development System, providing a harmonised training platform so that retained personnel can be used more flexibly in combination with wholetime staff
  • Supporting development and promotion opportunities for all firefighters; and
  • Encouraging a variety of working patterns using a flexible roster approach[175]

Although these aims are a positive step forward, they will not tackle the immediate problem of a 20% shortfall in personnel. In some areas where retained personnel dominate; a shortfall in personnel can mean appliances are unable to respond to incidents. The Retained Firefighters' Union warn, "This shortfall threatens the whole modernisation process and the reliance on Integrated Risk Management Plans to drive through the economies to pay for the recent pay deal."[176]

125. We understand the Government is conducting a review of the Retained Fire Service. However this review is not due to report to the Minister until this summer.[177] There is immediate pressure on Fire Services because of the shortfall in retained personnel. Swift action must be taken to address the shortfall. We are disappointed that the draft Fire and Rescue National Framework paid such little attention to this issue; Government must double their efforts to find solutions. As a start, we suggest immediate implementation of the following measures, which require no legislation:

  • Introduction of a more flexible retirement age. Currently retained personnel have to retire at 55, regardless of their ability or desire to remain in the service. We were told of occasions when appliances were taken out of service because forced retirements of retained firefighters had produced a shortfall in the crew.
  • A national recruitment campaign, along the lines of that used for the Territorial Army and other Reserve Forces.
  • Faster processing of applications: We were told it can take over eight weeks for an applicant to secure a medical appointment..[178]
  • Leading by example: Government and the public sector should set a positive example by encouraging staff who want to undertake such a role. We were told in oral evidence that some local councils are not prepared to release staff to act as retained firefighters.[179]

Other issues must also be considered as part of the Government's review:

  • Job Seekers Allowance Guidelines: We have been told that unemployed retained firefighters are being forced to pursue employment beyond the call out range of their station, forcing them to leave the service or lose their allowance. The cost of a retained firefighter is significantly lower than a wholetime firefighter. Government should consider the balance of these costs in an immediate review of the Job Seekers Allowance guidelines.
  • Entitlement to paid leave: Existing legislation requires employers to release workers for public duties, for example as councillors, magistrates and school governors. Government should consider extending this entitlement to retained firefighters.
  • Incentives for meeting fire prevention targets: Retained firefighters help disseminate fire prevention skills in their community and primary workplace. If a Local Authority meets its fire related Service Delivery Agreement Targets and Best Value Performance Indicators, retained firefighters in that Authority should receive a bonus payment.

We recommend that in response to this report the Government respond in detail to each of these seven proposals.

Primary Employers

126. Retained firefighters are dependent on the goodwill of their employers to release them to attend incidents. It is not an insignificant gesture, at certain times of the year employers can regularly be short-staffed:

Employers receive no compensation for releasing retained firefighters for duty. In many areas it is only local businesses committed to their communities who are prepared to release personnel. We were told that fewer and fewer employers are prepared to release staff to undertake retained duties: "There were ten employers thirty years ago, now there are three of us."[181] The Retained Firefighters' Union highlighted their disappointment at the lack of consultation with employers of retained firefighters to determine their thoughts and needs. [182] They told us that: "[…]now is the time to consider a proper remuneration and compensation policy, particularly for those employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the release of staff."[183]

127. However not all employers want financial rewards, we were told that employers want recognition:

    "Many local employers are happy to support local organisations through sponsorship, in return for some acknowledgement of their involvement, for example providing the "strip" for local football teams. Businesses would be more likely to support an employee being a retained firefighter if there was some similar tangible acknowledgement of their involvement, for example on a board at the front of the fire station, or even suitably placed on fire appliances or equipment."[184]

128. The Retained Service, as we have established, is under valued. Many employers are probably unaware of the benefits employment of a retained firefighter can bring. The Retained Firefighters' Union believe that employing retained personnel can offer many advantages:

    "I also think we ought to be going actively/pro-actively to companies and firms through organisations like the Business Forum and say, 'Do you realise what benefits you get out of employing a retained firefighter? They are loyal, they do not move around, they bring an awful lot of knowledge on safety and risk assessment, they can bring huge benefits to you as a company and of course you are also helping the community.' Many companies really want to get involved in community activities and this is an absolutely wonderful way of doing it and acknowledging what they are doing in supporting the local fire station."[185]

One employer of retained personnel reinforced this view. He told us that there needs to be more proactive engagement with employers:

    "Someone from the Fire Service actually has to go and see those employers to see if they can persuade them. I am sure if you work around someone's work schedule, for instance someone working in Tesco's stacking shelves, why could he not be released? But nobody actually goes to see them. Nobody goes to Tesco's, for example, to see the manager. There is nobody from the Fire Service actually involved. It is all done from the local station office."[186]

129. The draft Fire and Rescue National Framework recognises some of these issues and includes a promise from Government to work with the business community to:

  • Highlight the benefits of having in their workforce the skills which retained firefighters can bring
  • Find out the barriers to releasing retained staff for their fire and rescue duties; and
  • See what can be done to remove those barriers[187]

However there are no details as to how Government intend to deliver any of these promises. None of these issues are new: it is disappointing that Government were not able to produce more detailed proposals.

130. We congratulate those employers who release staff to attend incidents as retained firefighters. However too few businesses are prepared to let staff undertake activities as retained firefighters. With a 20% shortfall in retained personnel, this situation must be addressed. Government's promises to work with the business community are encouraging, but vague. We suggest Government use the Business and Community Safety Forum it proposes in the White Paper, to investigate why so few businesses employ retained firefighters. The Forum should examine whether the Fire Service needs to be more proactive, targeting employers to extol the benefits of employing retained firefighters; whether businesses want more recognition and whether there should be more incentives, potentially through tax and business rate concessions. In response to this report we expect Government to describe detailed proposals for tackling the problems we, and others, have outlined.

Payment

131. Retained firefighters are paid a small annual retainer fee[188] but earn most of their pay from attending incidents. This conflicts with the philosophy outlined in the White Paper which refocuses the Fire Service on preventing incidents. These conflicting philosophies are not ideal, especially when there is a danger that the income of retained fire fighters will reduce dramatically if a preventative approach is successful.

132. There have been a number of trials experimenting with the payment of retained firefighters. These experiments focus on rewarding retained firefighters for providing a guaranteed commitment to attend, rather than payment for attendance. One trial of this type in South Wales resulted in a 35% increase in costs. The Retained Firefighters' Union argue that "there is no 'one size fits all' for retained pay".[189] They told us:

    "We do not see any one option that is suitable to be used across the country. The pattern of availability, employment, turnout and call-outs is different from one fire station to another. You have very quiet stations in parts of the country that are doing 30 or 40 calls a year and you have others that are doing 800 or 900 calls a year. So, there have to be different payment systems. I think we are moving gradually to an acceptance that there is a perverse incentive in paying retained firefighters according to the number of calls they attend. When I joined, it was on the basis that the more calls the merrier and we are all happy, but it is not actually a particularly good thing from the point of view of the public, so we are changing to the idea that it should be availability that should be rewarded. Having said that, I think the current pay restructuring for the retained that has just come out recently is an absolute dog's breakfast and does not achieve any of the objectives at all."[190]

133. We have concerns that the White Paper advocates prevention, whilst retained firefighters are paid on attendance. The current Government review of the Retained Service should consider how retained firefighters are paid and should assess lessons learnt from the recent pay trials. Retained firefighters should be consulted as part of this review.

Training

134. The White Paper will give the Fire Service statutory responsibility to respond to a whole range of incidents, including water and animal rescues and terrorist emergencies. Although many Fire Services already carry out these activities, statutory responsibility is likely to bring increased training requirements to satisfy legal and Health and Safety Executive pressures.

135. Fulfilling these training requirements may be more difficult for retained firefighters because of the pressures of time and their primary job:

136. In oral evidence the Minister acknowledged the importance of this issue and promised it would be examined in the review of the Retained Service.[193] In addition, the draft Fire and Rescue National Framework promised that Government would:

    "Examine ways in which it can best meet the needs of retained staff, who, by virtue of being part-time, may not have the same opportunities for workplace development as wholetime staff. We will look at the scope for more use of, for example, e-learning and weekend training."[194]

137. All firefighters, wholetime or retained, should be adequately trained. We welcome the Government's commitment to examine how training can best be achieved with retained firefighters. We look forward to receiving full details of the Government's plans.


170   Ev 27 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

171   Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, Fire Service Statistics 2000. 2002. Data from 2000 is the most recent actual, as opposed to predicted, data available at time of writing. A retained firefighter may not offer 24 hour cover, therefore 24 hour unit figures calculate the fractions of time committed to form 24 hour units. This offers a more realistic impression of cover than counting the number of personnel.  Back

172   Ev 27 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

173   Q 150 [Mr Chadbon, National General Secretary, The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

174   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions, Our Fire and Rescue Service, Cm 5808, June 2003, p 8.27 Back

175   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions, Our Fire and Rescue Service, Cm 5808, June 2003, p 8.28 Back

176   Ev 28 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

177   Q 477 [Mr Norris, Director, Fire, Health and Safety, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister] Back

178   Ev 28 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

179   Q 86 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

180   Q 84 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

181   Q 84 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

182   Ev 56 [The South West Forum of Fire Authorities] Back

183   Q 84 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

184   Ev 29 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

185   Q 158 [Mr Chadbon, National General Secretary, The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

186   Q 89 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

187   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions, Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework, December 2003, p5.6 Back

188   Currently between £1969 and £2396/annum for a retained firefighter providing 24hour cover. The higher figure includes the recent 7% pay increase, although most retained firefighters have not received this increase yet.  Back

189   Ev 30 [The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

190   Q 149 [Mr Chadbon, National General Secretary, The Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU)] Back

191   Q 92 [Mr Howell, Chief Fire Officer of Cornwall Fire Brigade and Secretary of SW Forum of Fire Authorities] Back

192   Q 85 [Mr Merritt, employer of retained firefighters in Devon] Back

193   Q 478 [Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP, Minister for Local and Regional Government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister] Back

194   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions, Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework, December 2003, p 5.5 Back


 
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