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Sheffield event puts South Yorks at forefront of tackling UK fire service gender issues

A major national conference seeking to address the issue of gender balance in the UK fire and rescue service has been held in Sheffield.

More than 90 delegates from nearly 30 different organisations met at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s Handsworth training centre for the event, hailed as the most important gender focussed event ever to have been held within the fire sector.

Keynote speakers included the Chief Executive of Kent Fire & Rescue, Ann Millington, and Becci Bryant, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Staffordshire Fire & Rescue.

New research was also presented by researchers from the organisation Women To Work about the potential barriers experienced by women in the fire and rescue service, as well as possible solutions.

The findings were based on research carried out with employees at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue, placing SYFR at the forefront of addressing women’s development issues within the UK fire sector.

Sector leading research

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s Chief Fire Officer James Courtney, speaking at the event, said: “In my role as Chief Fire Officer I am rightly proud of much of the work we do in South Yorkshire- work that has helped make our communities safer than they have been at any time in my organisation’s history.

“But as someone who cares deeply about continuously improving and pushing myself and this organisation forward, I also try hard to be aware of our own challenges. We know that the issue of gender balance is a challenge for all fire and rescue services, which is what makes this event so important, providing an opportunity for real and lasting change.

“That’s why we opened ourselves up to the research. We hope that by opening our organisation up to this level of academic rigour and external scrutiny we can place South Yorkshire at the forefront of tackling gender balance within the fire and rescue service.”

Barriers and solutions

The research revealed the main barriers to gender balance in the fire and rescue service being the culture of an organisation. Although women are now an established part of the workforce, the pace of changes to organisational culture has often been much slower.

Other barriers cited included policies at work, including those relating to childcare and maternity leave, and promotion processes, where male colleagues often benefit from a certain level of informal networking and mentoring in a way which is not always open to women.

Women’s confidence and sense of self worth was also seen as a barrier, with many choosing not to put themselves forward for promotion even though they had all of the necessary competencies.

But research participants also came up with a long list of solutions to some of these issues, including more flexible working patterns, development programmes and mentoring schemes, a review of current promotion processes and developing managers to recognise talent beyond traditional command and control traits.

Benefits of a diverse fire service

Becci Bryant, Deputy Chief Executive at Staffordshire Fire & Rescue, spoke about the important contribution a diverse workforce and make to a fire and rescue service

“I strongly believe that effective leadership today requires a combination of skills that are viewed as traditionally feminine and those seen as gender neutral. Research shows that many skills needed for successful leadership today are often perceived as traditional female attributes.

“People who are collaborative, empathetic, loyal and selfless were shown to be more successful than those deemed proud, resilient or independent. I do think that we women are up for a good challenge and we are not afraid of making mistakes, I certainly know I have made plenty but that is how we learn and grow as individuals and as leaders.

“I do think that women have a fantastic range of interpersonal skills, which allow us to see beyond the immediately obvious and explore other avenues especially when it comes to working with other people.

“As we move forward in the challenges we face we cannot act as an island, we have to be collaborative and be prepared to work with others as well as admitting we don’t actually have the answers because the challenges we face are unique to ones we have experienced before,” said Becci.

Good leadership

In her keynote address, Chief Executive Ann Millington of Kent Fire & Rescue spoke about the important role senior managers play in promoting a diverse workforce and how perceptions of what makes a ‘strong leaders’ have dramatically changed in the last century.

“Leadership models have changed from a position as little as 75 years ago where physical size- first shorter leaders, then taller ones- was seen as being vital to strong leadership, which seems almost incredible to us now.

“Then, ‘traits’ like charisma, strength and authority became important- traits which are pretty difficult to define and ultimately poor indicators of what makes a good leader.

“Finally, we have arrived at a position where authentic leadership is being championed, with the ability to be yourself and be who you are at work now a much stronger indicator of good leadership”, said Ann.

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Fire Sprinkler Week plea for businesses

The fire service says sprinkler systems are key to preventing businesses going bust after a major fire, as it marks a national awareness week.

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue has tackled more than 500 fires in non-domestic properties over the last three years. The most serious of these incidents can take fire engines several hours to tackle, as well as potentially putting the company involved out of business.

But fire safety officers say sprinklers are the most effective way to ensure that fires are suppressed or even extinguished before the fire service can arrive.

Sprinklers save lives and reduce injuries, protect firefighters who attend incidents and reduce the amount of damage to both property and the environment from fire.

Currently, only commercial premises greater than 20,000m2 must have sprinkler systems installed. The fire service, through the Chief Fire Officers Association, is currently campaigning for this threshold to be lowered.

Technical fire safety manager Amy Jenkinson, said: “A sprinkler system can quickly suppress a fire before it gets out of control. When you consider the huge costs associated with a commercial premise fire such as rebuilding, relocation, loss of equipment, stock and trading, it seems like an obvious move to install a sprinkler system, but many businesses still don’t.”

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue has already helped pioneer a drive for sprinklers to be installed in residential properties. In 2011, sprinklers were retro-fitted into a block of flats in Gleadless after a grant from the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association. It was the first scheme of its kind in the country.

It is also working with Sheffield City Council on a scheme to fit domestic sprinkler systems in hundreds of social housing properties across the city.

Fire Sprinkler Week (16 to 20 March), coordinated nationally by the Chief Fire Officer’s Association (CFOA), seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of sprinklers to businesses and educational establishments.

The theme of the 2015 week is business continuity, focusing on the support that fitting automatic fire sprinkler systems can provide to business and to educational continuity.

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Fire officers back minister’s smoke alarms in rented homes announcement

South Yorkshire fire officers have welcomed the announcement that the government plans to introduce vital life-saving legislation on smoke alarms in rented properties ahead of the General Election.

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue called for new laws requiring smoke alarms to be fitted in all privately rented homes, following the death of a young child in Conisbrough.

Libby-Jayne Hornsby, aged two, died after a fire at a rented property on Don Street, Conisbrough, Doncaster in October 2013. Fire investigators found no evidence of working smoke alarms inside the property, an inquest heard last year.

Campaigning on this issue, which will also require privately rented homes to be fitted with carbon monoxide detectors, has been led nationally by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA).

Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt MP, speaking at the Local Government Association conference in Gateshead, said:

“Fire and rescue authorities will be very pleased that tenants in the private sector are to be given the protection from fire that they need. We will be working with them, and with the Chief Fire Officers Association, to make the transition for landlords as smooth as possible.”

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Area Manager Phil Shillito, said: “The lack of legislation requiring smoke alarms to be fitted in privately rented properties was highlighted at Libby’s inquest. Although we will never know for sure if smoke alarms would have made a difference at that incident, fire services nationally have been campaigning on this critical issue for some time, so it’s excellent that all that hard work has paid off.”

Preparations for the new powers requiring landlords to fit detectors in private rented homes have been completed, so the legislation will now be laid before parliament before the end of this parliamentary session.

The government’s own impact assessment suggested that over 200 lives could be saved nationally over the next 10 years by the introduction of this legislation. The draft new laws would be enacted by the Government as part of the Energy Act, which was given Royal Assent in December 2013.

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Dramatic blaze rescue prompts top fire service bravery gong

Members of the public who helped rescue a man from a serious flat fire have been awarded the fire service’s highest honour.

When a fire broke out at a flat on Carr Road, Deepcar, Sheffield on 22 December 2013, two members of the public Zoe Evans and Mathew Evans were driving past and noticed blackened windows and smoke issuing from the flat.  The pair went to investigate and discovered the flat on fire with a man trapped inside and unable to find his keys to unlock the door.

Zoe quickly called 999 and alerted her stepfather Paul Bennett, who arrived moments later.  Paul and Mathew were able to kick the door down and lead the man to safety before extinguishing the blaze with buckets of water.

Now all three members of the public have been awarded the Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation – the highest fire service award for displaying outstanding bravery, quick thinking and placing their own safety at risk to carry out this life saving rescue.  They were presented with their certificate at a formal ceremony in front of fire crews, family and friends at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s Rivelin fire station in Sheffield.

Mathew Evans said; “We got out of the car and went to have a look, we knocked on the door and realised it was a lot worse than we thought. There was that much smoke we just thought we had to do something.”

Paul Bennett said; “We opened the kitchen window and saw the chap inside. We went round the back and kicked in the door.  We just knew we had to get him out”.

Zoe Evans said; “I just remember seeing smoke and telling Mat there was a fire. I was scared for Mat and Paul – there was thick, black smoke.  But I’m glad they did it and today has been brilliant.”

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark Shaw, said: “Had it not been for the combined efforts of these three brave people, this fire could easily have resulted in a fatality.

“Our advice to the public in the event of a fire is to get out and stay out until we arrive on the scene.  However, we recognise that in exceptional circumstances such as this one, acts of bravery are appropriate and should be recognised as such.”

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