Against a backdrop of reviews into the culture of London Fire Brigade and the Met Police, it is timely to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the emergency services. Reflecting on her early experience of working as a firefighter, Alison Kibblewhite talks to me about how she was initially resented when she first arrived at the fire station, but it made her more determined to succeed.
As she rose through the ranks to where she is today as Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, Alison has dealt with people who said she only got there through some kind of preferential treatment. She sees apprehension from women firefighters who don’t want to stand out.
“I’ve tried to set up women’s networks and they work well for non-operational staff but less so for the frontline women who want to blend into the background.”
This contrasts with the experience of London Fire Brigade firefighter Chloe Cassar who wrote in the last issue of Emergency Services Times. “Being a female in a predominantly male workplace hasn’t phased me – if anything it’s pushed me on. It has helped me empower other females to stand proud in their position and make a difference.” Alison is hugely encouraged by Chloe’s response and wants to see more of this across the fire and rescue service.
Baroness Louise Casey’s report into the culture of the Metropolitan Police Service came out shortly before we spoke. I asked Alison if the systemic problems set out in the report about small tight knit groups creating toxic culture resonated with her and the fire and rescue service more generally.
“These are small numbers of people having a large impact on organisations. They are in the minority. We need the right mechanisms in place to deal with reporting and understand the ripple effect of doing so.”
We talk about watch culture and the continued relevance of the organisational model that sees small groups of firefighters work together on fire stations as teams that can stay together for decades in some cases. The negative aspects of watch culture, where toxic behaviours develop and grow to exclude those who don’t conform comes up in HMICFRS inspection reports and more recently in Nazir Afzal’s review of London Fire Brigade. Commissioner Andy Roe said at the LGA Fire Conference that he wasn’t looking to abandon the watch-based approach to organising his firefighters because for him, when it worked well it was the best approach.
But what happens when it doesn’t work? Alison considers this question and responds.
“Every service will have some staff who have been on the same watch on the same station since the day they arrived, and they could have been there 20 or 30 years. Sometimes if they are a strong character, they have an influence on the rest of the watch and as new firefighters come in, they adopt the same behaviours.”
That influence can be positive, but it can be negative as this extract from the London review demonstrates, ‘We heard of too many examples where the watch culture was rigidly enforced and anyone who didn’t fit in or was different was singled out for bullying or abuse.’
Independent whistleblowing services
Our conversation links to the whistle blowing services that Mark Hallas from Crimestoppers talked about in the February issue. Does Alison think that fire and rescue services have the right systems in place to give staff the confidence not only to use them but to believe that something will happen as a result?
“We are at a turning point. These types of behaviours won’t be tolerated, but we are reacting, and we are doing something about it. Most services are trying to get on the front foot. They’ve got people reviewing their policies and procedures, as well as previous discipline cases to understand if they are dealing with complaints properly and ensuring that people are heard. There is evidence that since the LFB review, more people have found the courage to speak up.”
This is good to hear, but it is a shame that it takes ‘lifting the stone’ to use Baroness Casey’s term, to uncover poor practice and unacceptable behaviours in one emergency service to spur other services to do the same. It should be normal good practice to ensure that staff are not bullied or harassed and can ‘bring their whole selves’ to their place of work.
South Wales experience
The NFCC hosted its own culture and values conference shortly after we spoke and in the same week HMICFRS published its review of the same topic. I asked Alison about South Wales Fire and Rescue Service where she spent over 20 years of her career before moving to Bedfordshire in 2021. Media reports back in December revealed evidence of sexual harassment of women firefighters and the service has recently appointed Fenella Morris KC to lead the service’s review into culture, discipline processes and historic discipline cases. It anticipates the work will complete by the end of 2023.
I ask her whether she recognises what has been reported? “It’s not my experience and I am fortunate that I have not had that experience. We must take allegations seriously and react to them appropriately. Getting third parties involved in the process will encourage people in the future to report their experience.”
Fresh out of an inspection by HMICFRS, Alison proudly shows me the display of her service’s values on the wall behind her as we speak over Teams. Savvy positioning for our call or coincidence? Either way, she proudly describes how the service is trying to embed the values and behaviours into everything they do.
The inspectors will have taken note and as they write up their visit and consider the ‘values and culture’ area. How will they know that they are meaningful to the firefighters on the watches across Bedfordshire? She tells me that the four values – we are accountable, we’ve got your back, every contact counts and we dare to be different – came from the staff themselves. If that’s the basis of the culture that she wants to see in her service, it seems like a good place to start.