Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Helen Bailey

Wayne Bowcock is a Chief Fire Officer in the Fire and Rescue Service. When the National Leadership Centre spoke to Wayne in October 2020, he was leading Gloucester’s FRS and was the Director for Community Safety at Gloucester County Council. Gloucester is a predominantly rural fire and rescue service covering over 600,000 people. This interview reflects his experience at that moment.

What has been the biggest change to your role since the start of the pandemic?

COVID-19 thrust the Fire and Rescue Service and County Council into a public emergency response arrangement. We were on a phenomenal journey of improvement, but we then had to balance between that and the response to the pandemic. 

There has been an interesting tension between the bodies to which I report. The National Fire Chief Council (NFCC) coordinates and tries to get a degree of consistency across the way we operate within the fire and rescue sector. But as part of a County Council, I have a corporate leadership role sitting alongside other Directors. This corporate role has focused a lot on the Local Authority’s response. Juggling the ask of the Fire and Rescue Service on one hand  and the needs of the Local Authority on the other has been interesting. 

What have those changes meant for your organisation on a day-to-day level? Has there been quite a shift away from business as usual?

With a 28 year background in the Fire and Rescue Service, I’m pretty used to responding to emergencies, and we took it in our stride and reacted pretty well to deliver some phenomenal services to the public with little guidance. We looked after the most vulnerable, and we kept providing risk critical services to people.

For example, the NFCC has been in negotiations about the extended role staff have been undertaking in response to COVID-19, for example driving ambulances, delivering food parcels, delivering PPE training. We were doing that in Gloucester before any of the national negotiations or national risk assessments had taken place. 

Effectively it was an across the table ask from colleagues in those departments that I work with saying “we need boots on the ground to do X” and my response was “I can put boots on the ground straight away. Let’s do a risk assessment, let’s ask the staff if they’re willing to get involved, and let’s get on with it.” 

It meant we broadened the role of fire fighters significantly in the first few weeks of COVID-19. They’ve been operating in support of a variety of agencies, whether that be packaging and delivering food parcels, managing the receipt and issuing PPE equipment, running temporary mortuary facilities, supporting South West ambulance services to crew ambulances with paramedics, which is something we’re looking to continue. 

To what extent do you feel like those things have happened faster because of your dual role?

Being part of the County Council absolutely helps them happen much more quickly. It was like asking a colleague in a different department, “can you help me with X?”

This has been consistent across a range of things such as delivering food parcels and laptops. The County Council is in receipt of different flows of government funding or requirements. They look across the table and say, “Wayne, you have people and vehicles, can you help?” And we say, we’ll sort it out. We have the people and we have the means.

It makes for an easier and a more seamless end to end delivery arrangement. So effectively, if you think about the National Leadership Centre and the systems leadership approach on a macro level, this is an example of systems leadership at a local authority level.

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

It has been a lot to contend with. I am increasingly concerned about the longer term impacts on people’s welfare – from both the impact of working very differently in a very quick period of time but also from a resilience perspective. People are very, very tired. 

Across the local authority they have been in response mode since February / March with no signs of that disappearing. So fatigue amongst people is an increasing concern. 

What have you learned during the pandemic?

The pandemic has drawn sharp focus to the reality that organisations probably don’t pay as much attention to business continuity management as they should. I think it’s probably one of those subjects that, if that’s your day job and your bread and butter, you’re probably quite interested in it. If it’s not, you’re probably quite glad it’s someone else’s. 

The pandemic has demonstrated the value of good business continuity management. But that is only as good as the breadth of your own perception. 

It is important not to underestimate your role and responsibility in being a category one or a category two responder. In being able to respond, you need to be aware of your role and responsibilities, and then you need to adequately train and maintain the competence of your directors on call and executives. Because they are highly likely to have not practised in a live environment for a significant period of time. 

So you’ve got to be running regular exercises which should be testing your business continuity plans and your emergency plans held by  your local resilience forum. And in running through that cycle of testing plans and exercising, you’ll become familiar with the structures that should be put in place that are laid down in the guidance and concepts of operation that come out from the government.

You need to be match fit before the start of the match. It’s no good trying to get match fit once the game has started. That makes it really difficult.

What have you learned about yourself as a leader during this period?

At times, when to be a little more assertive. There are key points when I’ve had to be assertive and I’ve had to have difficult conversations with people. You can see them going down the wrong path. Picking the phone up early to avert that, even if it’s caused a few upsets at times. Breaking a few eggs to make the omelette. 

I’ve been fatigued at times. Have I had any time off? No – I’ve been on leave, but when I’m on leave, I’m on call. It’s difficult to step away from the pressure cooker.

But overall, I am optimistic that we will recover to a new and better normality – so things like agile working and supporting more staff choice about the way they work will be a real positive benefit that we’ll hold on to.

Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Susan Lea · Helen Bailey

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022