Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service (DFRS) are an emergency service, covering over 1,000 square miles, which includes a variety of urban and rural communities with a population of approximately 1,050,000. The Service currently employs approximately 342 wholetime firefighters, 322 On-Call duty system firefighters, 38 Command and Control personnel and 176 support staff. The Service operates 31 fire stations, three area office and the Services joint headquarters and training centre in Ripley, Derbyshire.
The Services governing body is the Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Authority which provides strategic leadership, monitors the costs incurred by the service and sets the budget. The work of the service is split into three main categories; Prevention, Protection and Response.
The challenges faced
Nationally, Fire and Rescue Services are not representative of the communities that they serve. In England, 4.4% of firefighters are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background and 7% are women, showing that there is much to be done to improve workforce diversity.
There is a similar situation in DFRS, with 7.5% firefighters being women and 2.4% from BAME backgrounds. Although percentages of LGBT+ staff and communities cannot be compared nationally due to a lack of accurate data, more also needs to be done to increase representation in this area. A campaign of positive action has improved the diversity of our workforce over the last few years, with the latest trainee course comprising six individuals from under-represented groups.
DFRS are passionate about embedding equality, diversity and inclusion into all that we do, going beyond the legal obligation, to be an employer of choice who encourages our staff and communities to be their authentic selves. The lack of diversity within DFRS workforce, and in senior management, was recognised and understood that this needs to change. There was, however, an awareness that this would not happen quickly, and so something else needed to be done to ensure that a diverse perspective was heard and integrated into decision making.
The actions taken
After hearing about a reverse mentoring programme at a regional conference, the chair of the LGBT+ & Allies network, met with the Area Manager for Community Safety to consider implementing this within DFRS.
The chair of the network met with colleagues from Derbyshire Healthcare Community Trust, who had developed a successful reverse mentoring programme with their BAME network, and also researched larger companies that had trialled these schemes. Whilst some of the information suggested it was not always useful, the chair could see the potential for a scheme to help awareness and understanding within DFRS.
A training presentation was developed, outlining the purpose, benefits and structure for the programme, and delivered to members of the Strategic Leadership Team (SLT) and members of the LGBT+ & Allies Network who had indicated that they would be interested in taking part.
Seven pairings were made, and initial meetings were held to see if there was a rapport that could form the basis of a reverse mentoring partnership. Meetings were between one and two hours, with the frequency decided by the pairing, and saw a more junior member of LGBT+ staff mentor a member of SLT, discussing how their diversity impacted on their personal and professional life. An initial course of four meetings were suggested.
After the initial four meetings, an evaluation was completed by obtaining feedback from those who took part. The consensus was that the programme was positive, with benefits being gained from SLT hearing different perspectives on a wide range of issues, including community engagement, recruitment and the perception of the fire service. Members of the network enjoyed the opportunity to talk to a member of SLT over a regular period, and gained benefits from this.
There were tangible outcomes from the programme, including an increased involvement from the Fire & Rescue Authority in inclusion activities, new lanyards with a rainbow design and a change to DFRS pin badges to the progressive pride flag, incorporating the trans colours and people of colour.
Judi Beresford, Director of Corporate Services, said ‘Taking part in our reverse mentoring programme has enabled me to better understand difference in the workplace and as a leaders challenge me to think more specifically about how we in Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service can become even more inclusive. Our core values are at the heart of who we are as an organisation and they are well embedded – but we can do more. Having a greater empathy and ensuring that I can try in a small way to help people to be themselves at work is a long held personal belief – reverse mentoring has not only strengthened that belief but motivated me to help continue on the journey!’ This was echoed by other members of SLT, who felt that mentors gained a more rounded view of the organisation.
As a result of the first reverse mentoring programme, the LGBT+ & Allies Network began a second programme with Group Managers and Heads of Department, whilst the Multi-cultural Network were paired with SLT. This second wave is ongoing, but is already gaining positive feedback.
DFRS have also had an input into the National Fire Chiefs Council Mentoring workstream, and have been able to talk of their experiences in a national setting.
Helen Crampton, Head of Safety and Risk Management summed reverse mentoring up perfectly, when she said: ‘it’s like using a window into someone’s world and experiences rather than a mirror that just reflects me’. With more diverse thinking, better relationships cross the organisation and greater levels of awareness, we can’t wait to see how DFRS reverse mentoring scheme progresses.