“It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Louise Harrison, who is six weeks into the job of Chief Fire Officer for Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service. She arrives at a challenging time for the service, which is in special measures with the fire inspectorate, and as a woman from a non-fire background she has had to contend with her detractors too.
From understanding the acronyms and meeting new people to preparing to go in front of an HMICFRS led panel as the service strives to improve and get itself out of the spotlight, it’s a daunting start for any new leader. “It’s a supportive measure,” she says of the panel, after I suggest it sounds more like a massive telling off.
After 32 years in policing in a varied career in uniformed roles, with much of it in specialist areas, Louise had retired but she thought she still had a few years’ left to do something else. Despite spending 27 years working for Merseyside Police, she’s originally from Buckinghamshire and knows the county well. It was fortunate timing and apposite for her to move from blue to red and – as will become apparent through our interview – show how interconnected emergency service roles can be and that thinking in organisational silos is not always the best way to find the right leaders.
“I came down here with a degree of reticence, thinking do I really want to do this? I walked in on the first day and thought ‘I love it here.’ There was just something about the vibe; about the people who said we know we’re not doing very well at the moment, but we want to improve and we know what we need to do.”
Conversely, the Fire Brigades Union was not so keen on Louise’s appointment, saying that they were ‘deeply concerned’ that Louise did not have operational firefighting experience and that it ‘undermined both public safety and trust.’
I raise this with Louise who says that if she’s out there fighting fires, then something’s gone horribly wrong. She’s right of course, the leader of a fire and rescue service provides the strategic direction and provides ‘gold’ command at incidents. Her experience of resilience is strong; she has led many incident responses as part of the local resilience forum arrangements. She adds, “The technical work the fire and rescue service blows my mind, but from a command perspective I feel very comfortable.”
She has met the FBU and says they are starting on the same page, wanting more investment, keeping staff safe and providing the best service to the local community. “I understand the role that they play,” she confirms with a quiet confidence that comes through during the course of this interview.
HMICFRS published its report into the work of Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service in October 2023. It describes leaders as lacking visibility within the organisation, which suggests a certain aloofness and a gap between those in charge and those who work in the service. I ask Louise what her plan is to address this point. “Comms, comms and comms,” she responds in a heartbeat.
“It’s not just about face-to-face visibility of staff but transparency about decision making.” She has thought a lot about what the inspectors say about Buckinghamshire and taking this wider view on leadership speaks to the level of experience she brings to the role. She expands on this point by describing a new strategy that will see leaders providing information to staff “so that they understand what we’re doing and why.”
With the spectre of the detailed review of culture of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service looming in the background, it’s inevitable that this topic comes up. It should be top of all chief fire officers’ priority lists. All services will have read that report and wondered what it would look like if Fenella Morris KC reviewed their service.
“We’re never going to be complacent about culture. I think we have a positive culture here.”
She has moved to the service at a point where the inspectorate gave Buckinghamshire a ‘requires improvement’ grade for its values and culture, noting that the values were understood but not demonstrated by all staff. She needs to unpick what this means and has already commissioned internal work to look into what this really means. She’s sensibly checking her service’s previous misconduct files, as that’s where some of the problems about how people were treated emerged in South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.
The HMICFRS report reveals that in 2022, 75 percent of Buckinghamshire’s staff responded to the service’s own culture survey. Of those who responded, only 19 percent felt the survey results would be used constructively to make a change. That’s a worryingly low level of confidence in leaders taking note and making the change that’s required.
Faced with this, Louise remains upbeat. “What I take from that is that people care enough to respond.” She has committed to listening to staff, providing feedback on all questions she has been asked as she’s visited fire stations and other service locations. Having her communications manager in leadership team meetings is already paying dividends, she says as she returns to her commitment to ‘comms, comms, comms.’
Concerns about culture are not of course unique to fire and rescue and the Casey review into the culture of the Metropolitan Police was as brutal a read as that of South Wales. I ask her about her police experience and what the Casey review reveals about police culture. “It doesn’t surprise me,” she responds, citing social media as a place where the lines are blurred between what is banter and what is harassment and bullying.
Clearly there’s a lot to do and scope for a lot of improvement in Buckinghamshire. Louise speaks warmly of the fire and rescue authority and its support for her to turn around this service. They of course were there long before Louise and will be asking their own questions about why the inspectorate gave this service such a poor grade in the first place.
It’s only been six weeks, so there is plenty of time to make a difference. I suggest 12 months as timeline to emerge out of engage; she won’t be drawn but responds with a smile, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were?”
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