Fire chief defends service following whistleblowers’ complaints
Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
A North Wales Fire Service boss admitted “we haven’t got everything right” as he addressed whistleblower complaints from firefighters.
Assistant chief fire officer (ACFO) Richard Fairhead made the admission in a frank interview over issues raised by anonymous firefighters to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).
Speaking via Zoom he accepted there were legitimate questions over recruitment of retained firefighters, coverage of North Wales’ largely rural geographical area and concerns over temporary promotions.
Firefighters raised a raft of complaints with the LDRS, including how some firefighters were sleeping in vehicles outside stations between shifts because they were not assigned permanent locations.
One whistleblower told the LDRS “there are a lot of people pissed off with the service”.
ACFO Fairhead said: “Yes we haven’t got everything right, yes there are concerns, but there’s a balance to that.
“I do believe we are an organisation that has demonstrated we do care for our staff.
“We do what we can to facilitate and make things better for everybody – but the bottom line is at some stage we have to say ‘this is how we do it’.
“It’s disappointing to see anonymous things coming out. I’d much prefer to have that discussion with people and reassure them and explain to them.”
Many Retained Duty System (RDS) firefighters work in regular jobs but also on call for the fire service, responding to shouts as and when necessary.
They can work anywhere across North Wales, four days on, four days off, and stay on-call between shifts. They are assigned to a base on rotas but have nothing in writing tying them to any particular station.
Whole-time firefighters work a 42-hour week for the service, based at a station but contractually required to cover anywhere in North Wales.
There are eight whole-time fire stations, three working on 24-hour cover. They are Rhyl, Deeside and Wrexham.
Five more work core hours of noon until 10pm: Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Caernarfon, Bangor and Holyhead. Some staff crewing these will be available on pagers between 10pm and noon the following day.
The remainder of the service’s 44 stations are crewed by retained (RDS) firefighters.
A major issue brought up by the whistleblowers who spoke to the LDRS was security for staff, due to contracts allowing retained firefighters to be moved to other stations.
One said: “With retained firefighters there are no permanent postings.
“Previously I would be posted to one station and given a month to find permanent accommodation for me and my family or to get digs.
“They won’t give people permanent positions and you can be moved the next day.
“With most digs you need to sign up for a certain amount of time but you can’t say how long you’re going to be there now.
“Because of this some people sleep in their cars or vans outside stations when they’re on call. It’s extremely common.”
ACFO Fairhead refuted staff would be moved at a day’s notice, saying: “They would be given two or three months notice if they were moved.
“If they moved (near to their base station) and bought a house there, I wouldn’t move them.
“If they wanted to commit to a move to that area that would be fine. A lot of people don’t.”
On the subject of sleeping in vehicles outside stations he said he “took a dim view” of the practise.
He added: “Everyone who works on a day crewed station is paid a rent, fuel and heat allowance.
“I am aware some people did start trying to sleep in a van at the station. As far as I was aware that had stopped.
“It’s not what I would want. I would want them to have a proper bed and facilities.
“If anyone was sleeping in a car or a van that wasn’t designed for it, I wouldn’t be happy with that.
“I would urge those people to come to us and say ‘I’m having real problems’. Nobody has come to us to say it is a problem.”
Whistleblowers claimed coverage and response by the service was not good enough with as few as one-third of pumps available on daytime shifts.
The nature of deployment meant that whole-time crews were being sent all across North Wales and this was hitting response times, they argued.
Crews were being sent from Llandudno and Colwyn Bay to wait at Betws y Coed until the evening because of coverage issues in the A5/A470 corridor.
Coverage on Anglesey and around the Llyn peninsula was also an issue, said firefighters, with response times being affected.
One of the factors affecting performance was a lack of Retained Duty System (RDS) firefighters, they added.
Addressing staff concerns about coverage and a shortage of retained officers, ACFO Fairhead said: “We do use whole-time pumps and staff to cover all of North Wales.
“Our whole-time staff and pumps in Llandudno aren’t allocated to Llandudno, they’re allocated to North Wales.
“They’re based in Llandudno. We won’t move a pump from Llandudno if we haven’t got the retained cover in Llandudno to cover that.
“We do have to move them around to provide that balance of cover across the service. It does happen. It’s something we would like not to happen.”
He refuted claims up to two-thirds of pumps might be unavailable for daytime shifts.
“I don’t think that’s correct,” he said. “That has never happened. I have never seen that. There will be days when there’s only 50% of them available.”
The service works on a model of 20 pumps available during the day and 38 at night when fires are most dangerous, because people are asleep.
“Based on the planning we do that’s an acceptable risk,” he explained. “That doesn’t include pumps on RDS stations so we may have four or five of those as well.
“Two of our stations on Anglesey – one’s in Beaumaris and one’s in Rhosneigr – they’re quite small towns.
“The number of people who want to be firefighters in those towns, villages really, are quite low and we struggle.
“So yeah there are places on Anglesey, the Llyn Peninsula and the A5 corridor…I’m pleased our staff are concerned because it concerns us, which is why we spend an awful lot of time with availability looking at how we can make sure that cover’s there.
“There are issues in some of the rural areas. We are working really hard to change that.”
ACFO Fairhead said the service had increased its retained firefighters complement from 390 to 423 since 2016 but he accepted getting the numbers in was a constant struggle.
He said: “I’m proud of our RDS staff during the pandemic. I don’t doubt their commitment to balance their home life and their work and finding time for duty.
“If we could get more RDS staff in that would be fantastic and we are recruiting. If they live within five or six minutes of a station we will be recruiting.”
Another bone of contention for the whistleblowers was around promotions, with many moves being classed as temporary, some as long as four years they claimed.
They said being temporary meant their salary and position was not factored into their final pensions.
They also claimed it stopped anyone raising issues with senior officers for fear of being stood down to their former roles with immediate effect.
ACFO Fairhead said it was “not uncommon” for all fire services to use temporary promotions.
It gave people the opportunity to see if they suited the role and employers used them as a “development tool”.
He said there were three temporary managers currently in the service that had spawned many moves behind them and there would be a selection process at some point, which would solve many of the vacancies.
The fire chief said the service was “committed” to reducing the numbers of temporary positions.
However he said with staff leaving and vacancies needing to be filled straight away, appointing all the roles as permanent was like “painting the Forth Bridge” – meaning it was a perpetual task.
He added: “We do accept there’s a lot of temporary promotion across the service but every one of those people has a full-time job and permanent contract in their other role.
“I know there’s some concern about detriment to their pension. It’s extremely complex.
“If people are temporarily promoted, yes they’re on a slightly different way of being calculated but they get an additional pension benefit for the pay they are getting.”
He said half of the service’s 14 operational staff were in temporary roles and three of the training department’s 16 staff were also not in permanent positions.
On the subject of temporarily promoted staff not speaking up, ACFO Fairhead said: “That’s human nature. Equally that’s human nature with people looking for promotion in the future.
“I’ve been a senior or principle officer for 15 years. I’m approachable. I know our senior managers are approachable.
“I understand people, I’ll use a term I’ve seen on an anonymous account, have a fear of being ‘blacklisted’.
“That’s a bit unfair. I’d like to think if people have concerns they could raise them.”
He also pointed to the service’s “excellent” rapport with the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) and said they could, and did, bring concerns to him with no recriminations.
Asked why he thought firefighters had spoken out, ACFO Fairhead said: “I honestly don’t know. I’m a bit disappointed and upset they couldn’t speak to their managers.
“I’m pleased they’re concerned about cover and I’d like to reassure them and the public we are doing everything we can to improve it.
“I understand their concerns around temporary promotions. I would just like to plead to them to come to us.
“We do communicate but if more can be done we will do what we can.”
A spokesman for the North Wales branch of the FBU said they had a “positive working relationship with management” and were making progress.
He added : “The FBU in North Wales is fully aware of the concerns raised by staff, our officials remain committed to the ongoing negotiations with NWFRS senior managers.
“The FBU’s priority is to find ways to address these issues as a matter of urgency.”