The Speak Up culture in the fire service has been a discussion point for several years. As operational firefighters with experience of being Freedom to Speak Up guardians, we know firsthand the barriers and obstacles that many workers face when speaking up. Barriers that many workers find themselves up against vary, such as the fear of retaliation, or simply not knowing where and how to raise concerns.
We have found ourselves dealing with several issues around the fear of retaliation and career development. One officer wanted to raise a concern over a procedure that they were involved in that they felt was not fair and all involved were not being treated equally. The officer was not sure how to raise the issue, and that if they were to, this would go against their career development opportunities. The Freedom to Speak Up Guardian gave them the opportunity to raise their concern confidentially, giving them confidence the issue would be highlighted with an opportunity for full investigation, without their name being mentioned.
All fire stations are staffed by groups of firefighters known as ‘watches’. Our work relies on watches trusting each other and working together as a team to be able to deliver the best service in emergency, life and death situations. Your watch is your family and relationships are so strong we socialise with each other outside of work. For a firefighter to Speak Up about a watch member would take extreme courage.
Discipline is another key part of The Fire Service, so much so that it is mentioned in the ‘ERICPD’ hierarchy of control measures with ‘D’ standing for discipline. However, we are aware that discipline has, at times, acted as a barrier and been used to camouflage behaviours such as bullying and harassment. For example, we know that our new recruits are some of our most vulnerable workers, yet on their training courses, sometimes acts of bullying and harassment can be masked as ‘character building’, making it highly unlikely that a new recruit would Speak Up against any unwanted behaviour from a course instructor. To combat this, lots of great work has been done with our training centre staff to teach in a way that promotes getting the best out of our recruit firefighters.
Carl was appointed the first Freedom to Speak Up Guardian at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service in 2021. Andy is the current Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, taking on the role earlier this year “I am conscious of the hard work that Carl, the previous guardian had achieved in breaking the barriers and building the confidence within the organisation. Moving forward, I aim to continue building the awareness of Freedom to Speak Up and help improve the culture of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service. With the help of the Chief Fire Officer and the senior leadership team, we can build an organisation where employees feel valued and respected.”
The Freedom to Speak Up platform gives assurance that workers feedback will be listened to, treated fairly and responded to, giving people confidence and a comfort that they are valued.
One of the reasons why Freedom to Speak Up has been so successful in Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue is because everyone who speaks up gets a response. This was an early guarantee after hearing during engagement with workers, a common feeling that no one was listening, which was consequently stopping workers speaking up.
Having senior leadership endorsement has also helped embed a Freedom to Speak Up culture. Having the full support of the Chief Fire Officer has helped to reassure firefighters that if they Speak Up, they will be listened to.
We are now seeing more fire services introducing Freedom to Speak Up Guardians in their service.