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A new direction
Published:  17 July, 2017

A new standards body for the fire and rescue services in England is now under development, reports Joy Flanagan of the Professional Standards Body project.

There is widespread agreement in England about the need for high quality, measurable, evidence-based common standards for how fire and rescue services operate. In February 2017, Brandon Lewis, at that time the Home Office Minister for Policing and Fire, laid out his plans for the fire reform agenda in England. This included the establishment of both an inspection regime and a professional standards body.

In March, the Professional Standards Body project team was formed to develop a business case for the formation of the proposed standards body. Team members have been drawn from across the sector and the team is led by Chris Bigland, Deputy Chief Fire Officer from Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. Bigland is supported by myself (Joy Flanagan, formerly of JESIP), Karl Smith (Hertfordshire FRS), and Dan Tasker (Hampshire FRS), who have all been seconded to the project.

The team report to the project board through the project executive, Dave Curry, Chief Fire Officer for Hampshire FRS. The project board is chaired by the Home Office and provides oversight and governance for the project. Membership of the board includes representatives from the key stakeholders including: the Government, employers (through the Local Government Association), the fire and rescue services (via the National Fire Chiefs Council), and the Devolved Administrations.

It is recognised that the Devolved Administrations operate in a different environment. However, they will be consulted throughout the process to gain their input and to allow them to see how a standards body could enhance current arrangements across the UK.

The aim of the project is to develop a business case that includes a range of options for the establishment of a standards body. The project board will then make a recommendation to the minister on how to proceed, with a view to the body being established by the end of the year.

The body will be independent from the National Fire Chiefs Council but will ensure that all relevant stakeholders are involved, consulted, and have representation in the governance structures once these are established.

The project team is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that its work is complementary to the emerging inspectorate arrangements.

In the early stages of the project, there was confusion about what the project itself, and the body it will propose should be created, will actually do. To help clarify this, the PSB project team has summarised exactly what it will and won’t be doing.

The project team will identify and collate existing standards; recommend a scrutiny and approval mechanism for new and existing standards; explore and recommend models for how the body will operate, be funded and staffed; and consult and engage with stakeholders throughout the project.

The project team will not develop or amend any standards - this will be a role for the newly established body post September; establish the professional standards body; create a work plan for the body; appoint or recruit staff.

Initial planning work was completed in April, when key outputs and milestones were identified. These include establishing the current standards landscape and identifying the standards and qualifications in use now against FRS business functions and the staff working within them.

The project team has also developed options for a standards-setting process, including scrutiny and approval of either new standards or amendments to existing standards. It has also developed options for operating models for the proposed body, which include funding and resourcing implications.

All aspects of how a fire and rescue service operates have been considered as part of the research the team has carried out. While the standards that cover what may be considered ‘the profession’ include the functions of prevention, protection and operational response, those functions are supported by good back office services, which in turn lead to a fire and rescue service functioning well.

Areas such as finance, human resources, procurement, and information technology are professions in their own right and have their own professional standards both for organisations and individuals.

Where there are recognised standards for business areas that operate within a fire and rescue service, the body will simply signpost these. This might include standards developed by other organisations such as the British Standards Institute, or it could include acknowledged industry standards recommended by the respective professional or regulatory body.

The project board will define the exact scope for the standards body once it is established, but it is not the intention that it duplicate or reinvent recognised standards that may already exist and that are fit for purpose. The aspiration is for the body to signpost existing standards as required and generate a framework for both fire and rescue services and the inspectorate to reference.

With the changing world of national occupational standards alongside the drive for apprenticeships, the body will be well placed to help fire and rescue services maximise the opportunity to enhance the profession by bringing some consistency and commonality to this area.

In any sector, the body that identifies or sets standards for its profession must have the means to review and amend them if required. Once the body is established, a core part of its activity will be the ability to review, amend, develop, or even abolish standards for the benefit of the sector, based on a solid body of evidence. Consequently, the team has spent some time understanding how this works in other sectors to establish the options that could work for the proposed standards body. This included understanding the BSI’s own standard for how to review standards.

The majority of organisations follow a pattern that can be summarised into the stages outlined below. The process begins when a request for change is received.

The first step is identifying the need for change and reviewing the evidence as to why. This includes understanding who is currently responsible for the standard, if there is one, and what it entails, why it is being challenged, and who will be affected by any changes. This is followed by a risk/impact assessment.

In order to commission the work to progress, some form of strategic-level, stakeholder-led forum is usually established to review the proposal for change and approve whether work should continue.

Then there is a period of research and development. Work is carried out to build on the evidence provided, facts are checked, and the current landscape is assessed for the development of a new or revised standard. This includes liaison with subject matter experts and advisors to ensure the best information is gathered and considered.

The next step is consultation with the sector on the proposed changes, which are revised and amended if required before submitting for approval.

The approval and publication process generally involves the same strategic-level stakeholder-led forum, which reviews the revised standard and approves it. The standard is then published for implementation.

Following implementation, further supporting information, training materials or guidance may be produced and shared to help end users. The nominated owner of the standards is then responsible for maintaining that standard as part of an agreed maintenance cycle.

This process is at the heart of the research the team has carried out, because the standards body will be responsible for supporting this process for the fire and rescue sector. The resources required inform how the body will need to operate, which in turn has led to a number of options being explored.

The project has now reached the halfway stage and the team is busy finalising research and putting together the outline business case for the project board to approve.  All organisations from across the sector will have the opportunity to get involved in the consultation of those options, which is due to start in August 2017, and are encouraged to do so.

The team is actively encouraging all interested parties to look out for the consultation when it is launched to ensure that all voices are heard and all feedback is considered before the final case is put the minister in the autumn.

To find out more, contact the team on PSBProject@ukfrs.com.