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People and Leadership Short Read

Communicate to Innovate – Positive Change in the Fire Service

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Meaningful verbal communication is a rare art these days, a form of listening that we have somehow managed to devalue.  In a world that sees progress and advancement accelerate quicker than it can be planned, managed or sustained for optimum productivity, we can too often find ourselves missing the positive impacts that the basic skill of constructive talking falling by the wayside simply because time is not made for it.  Here we use South Wales Fire and Rescue as a model for the concept ‘Communicate to Innovate’.  How the service has evolved through trial and error and how moving from a simple but polar opposite concept – A change from reactive to preventative – changed the way the service is perceived from the outside and therefore the demographic it attracts for recruitment. 

Bottom Line Up Front

‘Communicate to innovate’ outlines the unprecedented path South Wales Fire and Rescue Service paved in creating a workforce that now reflects the demographic it serves.  Through effective communication, getting the right people in the right roles, it achieved something that not even it could have predicted…..the journey inspired change that has cascaded throughout the service, for example, greater depth in its knowledge of what mental resilience means and looks like in all genders and the resulting trauma mitigation that followed. 

25 years ago, every fire service, not just South Wales, based its productivity and value on how many fire calls it went to.  Budgets were influenced by fire calls – the more calls attended the greater the need and therefore the more money that was required to keep performing well on the front line.  The basic philosophy was that other people’s disasters were the services gain.  That many years ago, this was perfectly acceptable – that’s how society worked – a little like watching a 1980’s comedy sketch today, that’s what we watched and that was the societal norm.  Back then, there were eight brigades in Wales, all with small budgets which meant there was little room to collaborate and evolve.  In 1996 there was change; the eight brigades merged to form three large brigades which meant more money and capacity to innovate.  The initial resistance was understandably to protect jobs but when the need to improve safer systems of work for its employees arose, the choice for prevention was an obvious one.  

Reactive to Preventative

So, what next?  Budgets increased, ok great.  However, the biggest change came when the way the service worked was brought into question.  Being reactive was no longer the way forward, it had to change to a way that produced more positive statistics.  Moving from reactive to preventive marked the beginning of something that not even the most creative mind could have foreseen.  With the squeeze on how the budget was justified (and they do say austerity inspires creativity), the service shifted its focus to prevention in the community.  It wasn’t a smooth transition; however, it was met with the predictable resistance to change.  The old heads, seen as the pillars of the service were being asked to communicate with the general public – shock horror you’d be right in thinking.  A concept unheard of in the traditional ‘Fireman’- talking to people, that’s not innovation in the usual sense.  But these were the people that the service needed to convince the most that this strategic redirection was a good thing.  People looked up to them for the wealth of experience and knowledge they had.  As puzzling as it initially was back then, the easiest thing to do was to start to see people as human beings, as valued members of a co-ordinated team, and not part of a numbers game.  It proved that reinventing constructive communication in the workplace was key to overcoming resistance which therefore led to the initial acceptance of change. Unsurprisingly.

The following years of the new version of productivity – community safety initiatives, business safety overhaul, driver awareness campaigns to name a few brought with it a newfound respect for the service.  It was changing from a very insular self-protective environment to one that was being perceived by the general public as one that cared proactively as well as a service that was there for those in the reactive stages.  The best of both worlds one might say. 

Reflect the Demographic

But surely, in order to have a balance of opinion and concepts that reflected the demographic it was serving, everyone needs to be invited right?  It’s no secret that most services went out of their way to recruit from minority groups when positive discrimination was an actual thing 15 years ago – now thankfully a distant memory, (it did nothing for women in the role except invite comments like ‘you only got this job because you’re a woman’).  But if you could take anything constructive at all from the term positive discrimination it would be that all of a sudden, people were seeing a front line, very masculine dominated emergency service, generally associated with men as a job that women could do to.  

Now this is something that even the most creative minds couldn’t predict.  By moving to proactive firefighting (an oxymoron I know) the service had succeeded in creating an environment that people on the outside felt like they could be part of. Opening lines of communication from the inside out to the public as part of fire prevention programs improved the perception of the service and therefore who it looked attractive to as a career potential.  However, beware – to do this you must be confident as an institution that you are secure with your operations and that you are confident that you are what you say you are.  Opening up and being transparent lends itself to scrutiny.  It’s an acid test for sure and in this scenario was very successful. Don’t get me wrong, there is still room to change, and for initiatives such as this to work, you need to have the right people in the right jobs, which leads me on to what staff and where their strengths lie.

The introduction of, lets call them, ‘more feminine traits’ into the service, required trainers to be more aware of the changing requirements of the workplace.  The attitude of ‘just fit in’ and ‘be one of the boys’ as it was back then is no longer acceptable. It seems very dated now thankfully but consider this; how did it feel for all those women joining up being told to fit in as ‘one of the boys’?  Ludicrous is being polite.  Back then, there was a clear line of what was masculine and what is feminine…and yes being a preventative workforce was defined as a more feminine trait.  We now redefine what it means to be feminine or masculine – is masculine brave, no emotion, don’t cry.  Is feminine tearful, emotional, shy.  Out of these words, which ones do we associate with men and which with women: strong, forceful, maternal, dominant, tender, bold, tough, confident, irrational, leader?  The reality is that everyone can be all these things and more.  So, getting the right people into the right roles that reflected this philosophy was vital and once again required the power of communication.  No longer was it acceptable to just pass a process and then assume that that individual was the best person for the job, everyone must possess the ability (like it’s a new thing) to talk to people as human beings, to ‘buy in’ and live the new brand that the service had evolved into. 

OK, great.  So, it achieved in us becoming an employer of choice, it got us out into the public and demonstrated that we were capable of encouraging free thinking without worrying too much.  It achieved more women into the service without the compromise of positive discrimination which meant that those coming in now weren’t facing gender base ridicule.  Wonderful news.  Community risk reduction was acceptable across the board, which meant a reduction of fire calls by over 50%.  Outstanding.  However, what this meant was that firefighters and tactical officers weren’t getting the experience in the field and as we all know, and love (otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this job) real life experience is vital to build resilience.  This real-life based resilience is what helps us to learn certain behaviours to cope.  There are still people in the service who are lucky enough to have this resilience.  To have the foundation of experience to help others too, to help with diffusing tragedy.  But what happens when these people retire?  Who and what do we turn to, to replace this knowledge?  We can have simulation, virtual or real.  They will always be options but, what we have inadvertently armed our self with, is a growing workforce that is diverse, that can experience a full range of emotion because that is the new norm now.  Where everyone can be anything.  Where the protected characteristics of an individual are recognised and nurtured not just tolerated.

Well, let’s take a breath for a moment, we’re not quite there yet in society and the romantic ideal of having 100% of the workforce being open to all this concept is progressing and developing all the time.  But we should never stand still – the moment we become complacent is the day we fail as human beings capable of doing so much more.  

We had innovated to the point where the service was at risk of not attending certain types of high stress incidents that built resilience to cope with the worst when it does happen. Having created a work force that has expanded the presence of women and the value of traditionally feminine traits to operations, where both men and women can comfortably display a healthy full range of emotion the service may now have alternative means to sustain firefighters when the worst happens. If experience could not be relied upon to deliver resilience, at the very least a broader emotional range allows an alternative path to coping. So where am I heading with this?  To be candid, women have always been seen as being more let’s say, outwardly confident with displaying emotion and of being capable of talking about things that aren’t nice, or not going well – and as we all know this is key to positive mental health.  So, it became a real-life demonstration that you could be a bold and brave firefighter AND display a healthy range of emotion AND be good at your job.  A revolution. This meant that the male firefighters were realising that this was perfectly acceptable, that you can be a man, confident, resilient, a leader and demonstrate healthy emotions.  In fact, it actually helped with communication – after all, it’s not a dirty word.  

Looking beyond the direct lessons of this worked example, the broader implications that can be drawn from this is that innovation is a process, not an end.  Some choices and corresponding results will be unexpected, some more than predictable. While the unintended twists and turns can be daunting, they should be embraced, not met with suspicion.  Institutions must accept that significant trade-offs are a given, not a threat as real change in contemplated and implemented. 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” 

Charles Darwin 1809

Georgina GIlbert

FIreFighter

Georgina Gilbert is a Firefighter with 21 years of operational experience. Georgina’s commitment to improve inclusion, gender equality and LGBTQ+ balance in todays outdated societal norms has been a passion of hers since joining the service.  She has always maintained that you should strive to “Be the person YOU needed when YOU were growing up”.  Georgina was approached to present at DSET 2020 as not only a Firefighter with knowledge and passion in this field but also as one of the team members of the Antarctic Fire Angels who are in the midst of planning an expedition traversing Antarctica in November 2023 -  Inspire the next generation, raise mental health awareness and achieve through adversity being their key messages.

You can email Georgina should you require any further information -

georginafireangel@gmail.com

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