Risk attitudes and safety culture in the English fire and rescue services
Item statusRestricted Access
Wood, Geoffrey Tempest
In the ten year period between 2004 and 2013 the UK lost 13 operational, and one non-operational, firefighters at fires, a relatively large number in relation to previous losses. These fatalities occurred during a period in which fire fatalities of members of the public were at an all‐time low but fire and rescue services (FRS) and their staff were being accused in the media of becoming risk averse. This research was focussed on investigating the risk attitudes and safety culture in the English fire and rescue services. The research question asked how the safety culture manifests itself in the English fire and rescue service and what are its implications? A mixed approach to the research was adopted utilising both quantitative and qualitative methods. The research strategy was inductive using a multiple case study. A safety culture questionnaire was designed and then piloted in one FRS with the responses being subjected to a factor analysis the results of which indicated there were four dimensions: management, procedures, competence, and work pressures. The final version of the questionnaire was then distributed across five FRSs from which 845 were returned, of which 823 were used in a series of statistical analyses. Two independent variables were used in the analysis; the first consisted of the individual FRSs, the second consisted of three groups based on Schein’s three generic subcultures of executive, designer and operator. These were aligned with principal officers (PO), senior officers (SO), and Watch based (WB) staff respectively. The analysis of the completed questionnaires indicated that the WB group had a negative attitude towards their FRS safety culture, while the SO and PO groups had a more positive attitude with the PO the most positive. All three groups were significantly different to each other. In conducting the qualitative part of the mixed methods the researcher rode with three Watches at a station in each of three FRSs to observe the behaviour of WB staff and attending SOs at incidents and during their daily activities. During the course of the fieldwork nineteen members across all of the participating FRSs were interviewed, and twenty‐four focus groups were conducted. What was clear was that the competence based training system was not popular with WB staff who believed it to be too bureaucratic, whilst SOs and POs believed that it had not fulfilled their expectations of what it would deliver. There were also concerns expressed that the promotion system, associated with the competence‐based training, was producing managers and not the leaders required on the incident ground. It was concluded that safety culture within the FRS is associated with the systems, policies and procedures reflective of FRS management’s level of risk tolerance producing a rule-based decision‐making bureaucracy; this level of risk tolerance then influences how operational firefighters operate on the incident ground. In the world of the operational firefighter a typical incident, which by its very nature is a temporary event, is laden with uncertainty, complexity and in which all the potential risks may not yet have been identified with decision‐making being focussed on problem‐solving. FRS personnel find themselves operating in a risk climate in which they build temporary command structures, construct temporary processes and controls reflecting the incident commander’s risk appetite for the purpose of moving towards operating in a safety climate in which to resolve the incident. The combination of the FRS’s safety culture and the operational firefighter’s risk climate determine what the researcher has defined as the FRS operational culture.