Resourcing and running a fire service the size of Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service (GMFRS) is not a straight forward matter. To achieve the required level of 24/7 coverage its operational staff are employed on a range of contracts. The vast majority are full time firefighters reporting to their stations on a rostered shift basis, but other options range right through to retained firefighters who are employed elsewhere but can be called in during an emergency to staff a fire appliance.
A number of full time firefighters are also retained at night, which means they can be called in to emergencies and must live on or extremely close to the fire station. Some live in provided accommodation at the station, while others live locally and are provided with an allowance to supplement heating and lighting costs. While wages are negotiated nationally, allowances such as these are managed at a local level.
GMFRS HR Director Alyson Hall explained: “We re-evaluate allowances periodically, but because the service as a whole has not been awarding pay rises through this difficult economic period, we had not reviewed allowances for some time. Last year the trade union approached us and pointed out that although salaries were not rising, inflation and the cost of fuel were. Therefore their members’ earnings were eroding more rapidly and this was causing difficulties. We concluded that a review was overdue.”
Alyson and the Deputy County Fire Officer decided to undertake a thorough review of the entire allowance system, benchmarking the allowance not only against other fire services around the UK but also against companies in the private sector. “We wanted to establish whether this was still a relevant way of remunerating our staff and whether our process for calculating the allowances was correct for today,” she said. “We also wanted to do this in a way that was completely independent and transparent. So we decided to commission an external organisation to do the research.”
Several organisations were approached and EEF was selected. “We felt EEF provided the degree of independence we needed,” she continued. “They have a proven track record and considerable expertise in this area, and coming from outside the fire service sector they have extensive knowledge of private sector organisations. So they would bring a fresh perspective to the review, looking at the issues in a different light.”
After initially contacting EEF in September 2013, Alyson provided a comprehensive brief on how the fire service was structured and operated. Following this, a four stage plan was agreed upon for tackling the research. “We found this a positive experience and one we would definitely want to repeat,” Alyson said. “The individuals from EEF were very responsive, and worked hard to understand exactly want we wanted, and to deliver quality work that would be of value to us.”
Leigh Freeman Senior HR Consultant at EEF set to work in November 2013, laying the foundations for the report by reviewing the current practices at GMFRS. Working with the EEF’s Information and Research team she then switched her focus to identifying comparable schemes both within the UK fire service and other private sector companies and benchmarking GMFRS against these approaches. The final element of the project was to draw all this material together and articulate the findings in a written report, adding any appropriate comments and recommendations. “The fire service can be a little reticent about sharing information about local pay,” Alyson admitted. “Some services operate like us. Some have consolidated the pay, while others pay in different ways.”
Leigh, however, was very pleased with the outcome. “I received a 32 per cent response rate to the questionnaire sent to the other fire services,” she said. “The data provided was certainly very interesting and showed the variance in the methodology used to calculate allowance payments and the levels of payments made to its fire crew. There were some clear comparisons that proved extremely useful when making my summary comments and subsequent recommendations for future practice.”
The report, submitted in January 2014, provided clear evidence that the GMFRS approach to allowances was comparable with other fire and rescue services. The Police Service operated similar schemes, but other examples in the private sector were more difficult to find. Moreover, the report concluded that the formula that had previously been used to calculate allowances was fit for purpose and would continue to deliver a reliable and fair outcome. It also recommended backdating allowance rises to the date the union requested the review.
“We presented the report at our corporate leadership team meeting which was well received.” Alyson said. “It was very detailed and thorough, enabling us to make informed decisions on allowances, and then to present to the unions.”
One of the significant issues for GMFRS throughout this process is that as a public service they are spending public money. In the current climate of economic restraint they are very exposed to scrutiny. “We have to be completely open and transparent in our decision making, and demonstrate that we’ve taken that responsibility very seriously. The report provided the level of credibility and independence that we needed,” Alyson continued. “But it has achieved more than that for us. It has also raised some questions about other accommodation issues, and we will be taking a look at those in the future.”
- Improved relationships with the ‘fire fighters’ union
- Increase in staff morale and an uplift in allowances
- Demonstrated a professional and transparent approach to spending public money
- Established the optimum model for calculating allowances in the future
- Seen to deliver value to the tax payers of Greater Manchester
About the company
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) is the second largest fire service in the country employing some 2,057 staff. Of these, 1,551 are operational and the remaining 506 provide a range of support services including finance, fleet management, HR and IT.
The service operates across an area of roughly 500 square miles, serving a very diverse population of over 2.5 million people through a network of 41 fire stations. The area is organised into 10 different boroughs that range from modern inner city developments to traditional mill towns, each with a Borough Command Headquarters. GMFRS responds to around 52,000 emergencies a year.