This article was written by West Midlands Fire Service Chief Fire Officer Wayne Brown and originally appeared in the June 2023 print issue of Emergency Services Times. Wayne died on 24 January 2024 and it is re-published here in his memory.
People say ‘you must proud’ when I tell them West Midlands Fire Service was voted the UK’s most inclusive employer in the recent Inclusive Top 50 Employers List. And we are. This accolade marks the high point of a journey on which we have been for many years, but there is still work to do to improve Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in our workplaces and communities.
The recently published HMICFRS report into value and culture in fire and rescue services shows this all too clearly. Our response to the report’s recommendations cannot be a tick box exercise; it needs teeth. The inspectors challenge all services to analyse their Equality Impact Assessments to judge whether they are truly fit for purpose. It tells us not only to look at our data but demands how we use it to drive our EDI practices and initiatives.
Chief Fire Officers, me included, are being held accountable to specify how we will improve diversity across all levels within our workforce. We are also tasked to develop clear plans for progression paths within our workforce to reduce inequality.
WMFS has prioritised EDI over the past seven years and is in a relatively good position to build upon the foundations we have carefully put in place. But this is a constantly changing scenario and there can never be any room for thinking, ‘We’re on top of this.’ We will continue to develop and innovate in the search for equality, and this will mean looking very carefully at what we have achieved and where we need to go.
Serving our community is at the heart of what we do
You could say our journey started in earnest when WMFS entered the Inclusive Companies’ Top 50 List in 2017, its inaugural year. Like so many organisations, we entered this to see where we stood and put our practices under the scrutiny of the EDI experts. Each year we re-entered and as we developed our EDI policies and practices, we rose up the ranking each year until in 2023 we were recognised as the UK’s most inclusive employer.
Serving and protecting one of the most diverse populations and communities in the UK, our EDI ethos is hugely important for us and to us. By understanding our communities, we can understand the risks they might face and are better able to work to mitigate those risks as well as target and tailor our interventions.
Not only does a deeper understanding of our communities lead to innovation based on cultural intelligence, but it is also vital in creating a work environment in which everyone can thrive.
Regularly review recruitment processes
We have been cited as being the gold standard in fire and rescue services by the Home Office with our firefighter recruitment process continuing to exceed expectations for our new entrants. From having only 5 per cent women firefighters in 2014 we now have 12.8 per cent, double the national average for fire services across England. Our Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) firefighters account for 14 per cent of our workforce, almost three times the national average. The figures speak loudly to the fact that we have had continued success in recruiting from underrepresented groups and it’s our Positive Action which enables this to occur.
This Positive Action includes targeted social media messaging which has, undoubtedly, had a very significant positive impact on the diversity of our workforce. We also have a very active internal social media platform, posing daily equality articles, updates and information relating to EDI and our employee engagement group pages regularly post about inclusion for all staff to read.
In reviewing our recruitment processes, we have displayed behavioursas a key focus, using role-play exercises to help us to select the best applicants. We were determined to be as open and inclusive as we could with our own staff, encouraging them to get the right training so they could sit on trainee firefighter interview panels. As a result, our panels have become more diverse in the broadest sense with colleagues of all grades and roles actively involved.
Networks: discussion and challenge
We have network groups for ethnicity, women, LGBTQ+ and Neurodiversity. These are helping us all to learn from the experience of our colleagues. They have brought about constructive challenge which has offered opportunities for all staff to appreciate our evolving workforce.
Our Brave Space Talks began when colleagues wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter. They have massively increased in popularity and now cover all sorts of topical subjects including neurodiversity, disability, sexism, race, anti-racism, faith, menopause and misogyny. Just like the networks, they are not clubs to which only certain groups belong, these sessions are open to all. Education is so important, and we are all learning, every day.
I’m not listing our practices and initiatives in any rank order, but training is right up there as essential to making positive moves, changing a culture and creating that welcoming and inclusive environment which is our goal. Working with Inclusive Companies gave us expert knowledge and an invaluable outside view, as well as enabling us to train managers and empower colleagues as champions or allies in specific areas.
As a result of training and raised awareness, the vocabulary of our managers at all levels is far more sophisticated and we have moved from being a non-discriminatory workplace to being anti-discriminatory. True inclusivity takes all colleagues on the same journey.
I urge you to be bold and not frightened to try something new.
Initiatives will evolve from your first decisions and approaches: some will be great successes; others won’t work as well. That is life. But so long as you are transparent in your intentions and clearly communicate the ‘how and why’, you will still be travelling in the right direction.
So, yes, we are proud of all we have achieved and committed to achieving more. When we first entered WMFS for the IT50 List in 2017 we were eager to receive an external audit on EDI within our organisation. Our internal audits were telling us we were making progress, but this external view and feedback showed how others – including the communities we serve – viewed us. I believe the professionalism our communities expect of us goes together with our commitment and understanding of EDI. So, while I’m proud of helping to shape a truly inclusive workplace, our efforts continue, and our work remains ongoing.