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Neil Spencer

Statement: The Black Country Flag

West Midlands Fire Service Crest

Statement from Phil Loach, Chief Fire Officer of West Midlands Fire Service,
and Councillor Greg Brackenridge, Chair of West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority
. 

Last week, West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) asked staff not to fly the Black Country flag at our sites but, instead, to find alternative ways of marking Black Country Day.  
 
In our statements to media outlets we explained that we were seeking to form a fully rounded view of the flag’s chain imagery and questions it raises in the context of slavery. 
 
It has never been in question that the flag’s design – created by Gracie Sheppard when she was a schoolgirl – was honestly conceived as a celebration of all that is positive about the Black Country’s heritage. Many people, predominantly from the area, have clear pride in the emblem.   
 
However, for some people, the flag’s chain imagery is a reminder of links between Black Country industry and slavery. This is all the more relevant for our service, given the support of WMFS and West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority (WMFRA) for the global Black Lives Matter movement, which resonates directly and personally with many of our staff.  
 
Our association with Black Country Day has involved various activities over many years. It is an important association, not least because of the employment we provide in the area and services which make the Black Country and the entire West Midlands safer, stronger and healthier.  
 
We have now given detailed consideration to the issues raised, gathering views and information from within the service and a range of external sources     
 
WMFS and WMFRA will support the continued use of the flag throughout celebrations of the Black Country’s rich heritage, in which many of staff and our communities have a clear and unquestionable pride.

Steve scoops women’s ‘ally’ award

Colleagues from fire and rescue services gathered for a Women in the Fire Service Event

Congratulations to everyone recognised with a ‘Women In The Fire Service’ (WFS) award this week – including one of our own officers!

Men and women were among the recipients, all hailed for championing women in the fire and rescue sector.

Group Manager Steve Harris, who heads up our Organisational Learning and People Development, was recognised for having gone the extra mile to promote gender equality in our organisation and for helping his female colleagues to realise their potential.

He said he was “pleased and honoured” to receive his ‘Men as allies’ runner-up award.

“It’s humbling to know that colleagues took the time to nominate me and I thank them for it,” he said. “Encouraging and supporting everyone to develop themselves and to continually learn is a passion of mine. It’s very nice to be seen as an ally for the Women in the Fire Service network.”

Women continue to be under-represented in the UK fire and rescue sector, with just six per cent of operational firefighters being female.

Here at West Midlands Fire Service we are committed to a having a workforce that reflects the diversity of our communities, and one that is welcoming to all. We are proud of our recruitment and selection processes.

Through an approach known as ‘positive action’ we seek to attract, recruit and support progression for individuals with protected characteristics, including women and people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Jules King, WFS Chair and Awards Panel judge, said: “Steve has supported and developed several women in the fire service. He judges without bias and inspires leadership through a coaching style which empowers, and so has made the learning experience a confident and positive outcome.

“Last year he attended our Training and Development Event and has become a great supporter, going the extra mile.”

Established as a self-help group, WFS UK is a volunteer-led non-profit organisation managed by a board and an elected national committee of women fire professionals.

It delivers training and development events aimed at women, which provide opportunities to network, learn new skills, and mix with peers from across the service.

The organisation provides information and advice to women who are contemplating a career in the fire service, speaks in schools and at careers fairs and at fire and rescue service equality, diversity and inclusion events.

2,000 deliveries and counting!

Policy & Assurance Officer Jim making the 2000th #ReadyWillingAble delivery

Our Ready, Willing and Able staff volunteers have today (13 May) delivered their 2,000th parcel in support of residents who are shielding from COVID-19.  

Working alongside Sandwell Council, we dropped off a box of essential items to 80-year-old Barbara Mason from Oldbury. 

Barbara cares for her daughter who has a rare genetic condition and has, herself, recently been diagnosed with secondary cancer. On receipt of her food parcel, she was extremely grateful and couldn’t thank enough everyone involved in getting it to her.

Fire Safety Officer Darren and Policy & Assurance OfficerJim, who made the 2000th delivery, are two of more than 70 WMFS staff volunteers who have been working with councils, charities, community groups and health organisations across six hubs, to ensure the most vulnerable receive essential food and medical deliveries, during the pandemic. 

Additional activities for UK fire and rescue services were agreed in March between the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and national exployers.

In the West Midlands, these activities have included delivering food and medical parcels which has played a pivotal part in our involvement in the Ready, Willing and Able campaign launched by NFCC last month.   

Phil Loach, our Chief Fire Officer, said: “As a fire service, our communities are at the centre of what we do. I am very proud of the work of the whole team over the last few weeks, from those who have continued to respond to incidents, carry out safe and well visits and support local businesses to those who have stepped forward as volunteers, to deliver food and medical parcels.

“I have heard many heart-warming stories from our staff volunteers and it’s clear that theirtime, patience, and can-do attitude have made a big difference to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities during these very difficult times.”

Food and medical deliveries will continue over the coming weeks to support the most vulnerable in communities across the West Midlands.

We’re #ReadyWillingAble!

A member of WMFS staff in a car ready to deliver parcels

West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) is taking part in the National Fire Chiefs Council’s (NFCC) Ready, Willing, Able campaign launched today (Wed 15 April).

The initiative, backed by the Home Office, shows how fire and rescue services in the UK are going the extra mile to protect and support their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firefighters and WMFS staff across the West Midlands will be taking to social media to share stories and videos about how they’re using their wide range of skills to offer community reassurance and help, in response to the national crisis.

As well as continuing to respond to emergency calls, the National Fire Chiefs Council has agreed with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Fire and Rescue Employers that the UK’s fire and rescue staff will carry out additional activities. These include assisting the ambulance service with driving and body retrieval, supporting the most vulnerable through deliveries, carrying out ‘face fitting’ for masks used by frontline NHS and clinical staff and delivering PPE and medical supplies.

Already across the West Midlands, almost 250 food and medicine parcels have been delivered by WMFS staff who have volunteered for the extra activities, with many more scheduled for this week from six hubs across the WMFS area.

Deliveries have included more than 40 food parcels to vulnerable people in Darlaston and Willenhall, 30 food and medical supplies packages across Sandwell and Birmingham, 60 food packages to a health centre in Winson Green and a special delivery of Easter eggs to children over the bank holiday weekend.

Phil Loach, Chief Fire Officer for West Midlands Fire Service, said: “I am immensely proud of WMFS staff for being ready, willing and able to carry out these additional roles, supporting our local communities. This national campaign drives home not just their commitment, but the vital role they are playing in minimising the impact of COVID-19.

“There are so many heart-warming stories already, which we’re looking forward to sharing across our website and social media platforms over the next few weeks.”

Councillor Greg Brackenridge, Chair of the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority added: “I am overwhelmed by the response of the entire WMFS workforce who have immediately volunteered for the additional duties. The Fire Authority is extremely grateful. It is testament to the commitment and dedication of WMFS personnel to serve the communities of the West Midlands and keep them safe during this crisis“.

The additional work taken on by firefighters to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will initially be in place for two months.

The NFCC’s Ready Willing Able campaign is being rolled out here on our website and via our social media channels using the hashtag #ReadyWillingAble

‘Urgent agreement needed on our funding’ – Chief Fire Officer

Pound coins

Band D Council Tax payers in the West Midlands will pay just £1.21 a year extra for their fire and rescue service. At £61.81 a year, it’s the lowest fire service charge in England.

The 1.99% increase was approved on 17 February by members of West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority (WMFRA). Please click here to read the full report.

But the Chair of WMFRA has called for additional central government funding to replace the deep cuts of the last 10 years and the lifting of a Government cap on how much extra Council Tax fire and rescue authorities can raise.

And Phil Loach, the West Midlands’ Chief Fire Officer, says that funding for the fire and rescue sector urgently needs to be reviewed, increased and allocated on a more sustainable basis.

Pound coins

CFO Loach said: “Metropolitan fire and rescue services have been the worst hit by reductions in Government funding, and West Midlands Fire Service more than any other.

“In spite of this, our staff continue to provide our wide range of prevention and protection services and emergency response that is officially recognised as second to none.

“Yet we only have certainty around our Government funding settlement for one year. If we are to maintain and improve upon our ‘good’ grading from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, then we urgently need more clarity around how we will be funded in the future.

“As the budget report to WMFRA makes clear, our sector faces a volatile funding environment. This hampers any meaningful financial planning and threatens the high standards for which our service is known and the confidence our communities place in us.”

CFO Loach said “huge questions” hang over fire and rescue finances.

“We await the Government’s next Comprehensive Spending Review and an indication of our likely funding beyond 2020/21. But we need urgent agreement on how the sector will be funded in the longer term and on other significant issues such as who will meet the future costs of firefighter pensions.

“Our funding needs to take account not only of demand we experience, but of the known and emerging risks we identify in our communities.

“Our firefighters and fire safety officers regularly visit high-rise buildings across the West Midlands, to familiarise themselves with how they are built and laid out. They record the information, which can later be accessed via mobile data terminals, to help keep our crews safe as they provide an assertive and effective response at incidents.

“However, I have no doubt that there are buildings in the West Midlands which, were they to catch fire, would potentially behave in ways that would be very difficult for our firefighters to fight.

“These buildings need to be found, our firefighters need to know the risks they face and remedial works need to be carried out. This is in addition to the extensive and urgent work we have already done post-Grenfell, which required an extra £600,000 investment by our Fire Authority.

“In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, building safety regulations and systems remain in sharp focus. Our sector needs significant extra investment if we are to take an enhanced role in future building safety regimes.”

Councillor Greg Brackenridge, Chair of WMFRA, said: “Our Government funding settlement for 2020/21 is better than we expected. However, it is only for one year and we are guarding against a false sense of security when it comes to future settlements.

“We are constantly having to argue the fire and rescue sector’s case. What we need in future years is the £38m we have lost over 10 years of austerity replaced and greater flexibility in the amount of money we’re allowed to raise from Council Tax.

“At the moment we are only allowed to increase our share of the Council Tax by 1.99%. Anything above that would have to be put to a costly referendum.

“However, as an example, an increase of eight per cent – or, to put this into context, £5 per year for a Band D property – would raise an extra £3.5m to keep safe a population of nearly three million people. It wouldn’t come close to what we’ve lost in recent years, but it would be a great help and I know that the leaders of the West Midlands councils would support this.

“The firefighters and staff of West Midlands Fire Service do a fantastic job in keeping our communities safe. The service is recognised as one of the very best in the country. But without improvements in funding over a sustained period it will be very difficult for our already stretched fire service.”

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