Who Watches The Watchmen?

You may have seen in the press and media somewhere, the ‘#WeAre5FRS’ campaign, celebrating that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has reached it’s fifth birthday. And like most toddlers, it’s just learning to walk after crawling and stumbling, often incoherently, and not without a few accidents along the way.

At the outset we had 8 Fire Brigades, each doing things very differently, effectively having firefighters around the country on different rates of pay for doing the same job. So we all had to be brought on to the same terms and conditions, and quite rightly, the FBU said that they wanted this to be done to the highest level and that nobody should suffer any detriment as a result.

The negotiations on the ‘Harmonisation of Uniformed Terms and Conditions’ began way back but only really started around 2 years ago. When I say started, I mean that the FBU met with a committee made up of members of the Fire Board, who said no to everything on numerous occasions up until last June when they put together a document that brought together all the things they said no to, and sent it to the FBU. They rightly decided it wasn’t anywhere near good enough to bring to their members and rejected it out of hand.

The next round of talks began again and carried on in the same vein, until they gave us a new document with some amendments which didn’t really amount to much of an improvement and again was rejected in January. I think I touched on this in my last post.

Back to the negotiating table and things continue to go badly. The FBU team being continually frustrated that there is still no uniformed presence in the talks. That’s right, nobody who’s ever worked on a fire engine or gone to a fire call, nobody who’s had to jump up from their dinner and get back to the station 6 hours later, manky and soaking wet. Or needed to get time off for their mate’s wedding when they’re due to be working. Or been late for that wedding because they’ve been turned out to a fire in a disused hospital that afternoon while on day shift, and weren’t let away from the fireground until half 10 that night.

So who are these people on this panel? Who exactly are the Fire Board? What do they do? Who do they work for? How much do they get paid? Why the f**k are they negotiating with us about things that they have absolutely no experience of? Why are they so set on giving us so little? Why do they treat us like we’re somehow being greedy in suggesting that some (the Service themselves estimated at £3m) of the £56m in savings we’ve made should be used to bring us all to the highest level of terms and conditions if we are to be properly ‘harmonised’.

Before I get to that, I should bring you up to speed on the negotiations. In March, once things had really hit the wall, the Strategic Leadership Team, members of the mysterious Fire Board, and the Scottish Exec of the FBU, met with the Executive Council of the national FBU, and our collective bargaining body, called the NJC and crucially, the Chief Fire Officer of the SFRS. These talks began in the morning and concluded the following morning, and produced a new document, with a new set of terms and conditions that reflect a huge change in direction, a level of understanding and an appreciation of how the job works in practice, and a move away from the punitive narrative that seemed to overshadow what had gone previously. This new document has now been recommended by the FBU’s Regional Committee to the membership, who are about to be balloted, and that they accept.

So, what made the difference? The involvement of the highest levels of the FBU certainly, having the employers side and our side represented by the NJC also helped enormously but maybe the Chief Fire Officer being there was the deciding factor. Having someone on the other side of the table from the union representing the firefighters, who wears a uniform, who served on a fire station and did the things I listed before, maybe that’s what changed things.

So, that brings me back to the topic of this blog. The Fire Board is described on the SFRS website as follows:

The Board provides strategic direction, support and guidance to the SFRS ensuring that it operates effectively and that the Scottish Government’s priorities are implemented.  Board members are personally and corporately accountable for the Board’s actions and decisions. They also scrutinise plans and proposals and hold the Chief Officer and Senior Leadership Team (SLT) to account.

The Board is able to establish its own committee structure and delegate responsibilities to such committees as it considers fit.  In addition to giving leadership and strategic direction, a very important role for the Board is the scrutiny of risk, financial management and performance.

The Fire Board are meant to hold the top level of management of the SFRS to account, to provide scrutiny. What it seems to us is that the Fire Board and the Senior Management seem to have swapped roles and are hard to distinguish from one another.

If us, the membership, accept these new Terms and Conditions then we’ll be moving into talks on Service Transformation, the thing that you might have seen in the news – more money, less jobs, wider roles, fewer stations. When those talks start, will we pick up where we left off? With a will to treat the workers like the professionals that they are, involving them in the process and listening to their concerns? Or will we be in a room with people who have worn a suit to work everyday, or have come from the halls of academia or the corporate world? We keep hearing from friends and colleagues in the Health Service and the Police and across the public sector, of the dangers of having executive levels of management filled with people who have no idea of life on the frontline.

At the moment the SFRS are looking for new members of the Fire Board and applications have just closed. (You need to commit to 5 days a month and you get £280 a day, plus expenses for childcare, travel etc, in case you’re interested). The Chair of the Board has a wee video talking about the Board and what kind of people they want, why they should choose this board etc. She says that this Board is different from others she’s served on (do people just work on Boards as a job? I’ve no idea), and that it gets ‘under your skin because you’re in the business of saving lives and making communities safer’. I don’t know what you make of that as you read it but it’s a difficult one for me. And I think it’s at the crux of all this.

We, the men and women who work on stations, who crew the fire engines, who attend the emergency calls, we’re the ones that save the lives and make the communities safer. The high level decisions of the last few years haven’t brought the results that you’d expect when you watch the cheery youtube clips of the new tier of Fire Service management.

We continually have appliances unavailable or ‘off the run’ daily. Just last weekend 4 of Aberdeen’s 6 pumps were off the run. Every day at least 1 or 2 of Edinburgh’s city centre pumps are made unavailable to provide personnel to bring up other stations with a shortfall. And when that’s not enough we fill the shortfall with overtime. Nobody has ever seen overtime levels like this.

Who’s been providing that ‘scrutiny of risk, financial management and performance’, who’s role was it to ‘scrutinise plans and proposals and hold the Chief Officer and Senior Leadership Team (SLT) to account’?

Who’s watching the Watchmen?

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