Mental Health and Wellbeing Support in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
7. The Operational Firefighter and Flexi Duty Officer Roles
The Operational Firefighter Role and Mental Health
97. The role of the operational firefighter has changed and evolved over the years. Discussion within the fire community has been ongoing for several years regarding how this evolution could shape the role of the firefighter going forward, and the SFRS has taken an active part in these discussions.
98. The variety of calls that firefighters attend has increased to include operational incidents that in previous years may have been rare. Amongst these would be accessing lock fast households where persons may have injured themselves, or tragically taken their own lives by suicide. SFRS firefighters have also taken part in trials to respond within their communities to persons who have suffered an Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrest (OHCA). WCs and FDOs informed us that they limited the exposure of the number of individuals to only those who would play an active role at any operational locus that may have the potential to cause negative mental health consequences.
99. We asked questions during interviews about the perception or impacts upon mental health and wellbeing of those who have responded to these types of incidents when compared to the traditional firefighter role. Firefighters told us that they believe that they are exposed to a higher incidence of fatalities from these incidents. They also had a concern regarding the preparation that they have for these types of incidents. An example of this was for OHCA. The practical intervention training for OHCA was delivered by Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) personnel and was very highly regarded by those who took part in the trial. Firefighters did have concerns however about their preparation for dealing with bystanders and family members of the person in need of OHCA care. In many instances they recalled extremely distressed family members who insisted on remaining with their loved ones as SFRS personnel attempted their intervention work. These instances were very difficult to deal with, this being in part due to a perceived lack of preparation for dealing with the holistic aspects of an incident of this type, which traditionally they would not have attended at a frequency as was experienced during the OHCA trial.
Recommendation 15: The SFRS should consider all aspects of training that may be required for any new or novel operational interventions that may be required to be performed by its staff. These considerations should include aspects of any operational work that may have the potential to cause psychological trauma and negatively impact the mental health and wellbeing of responding firefighters. Mitigations and support should be developed and implemented if harms are identified.
The Flexi Duty Officer Role and Mental Health
100. We considered the Flexible Duty Officer (FDO) role, in the context of our fieldwork, as being unique amongst the operational firefighter roles within the SFRS. The Service continues to operate a single point of entry for all operational firefighters within the Service, and this group supplies the future FDO ranks from a common personnel pool. Hill et al (2023) note that until promotion to FDO level, most individuals will have operated within the Watch based environment and would have benefited from the peer support of their colleagues. They will have experienced life within the Watch based system and benefited from the positive aspects that this can have in relation to the maintenance of good mental health. Upon promotion, they are then outside the Watch and the peer support system that they would have known until that point. As described previously in this report, there is positive value of the Watch in offering support for its members in pursuit of positive mental health.
101. One line of enquiry that was pursued with FDOs during our fieldwork was their preparation for these roles and the impact it may have on their mental health. In general, those that we questioned did not feel adequately prepared for the new roles and this caused concern e.g., “it felt like going into a new Organisation, it created apprehension for me”. Another common reply regarding preparation for the move to the Station Commander role was that “I got an incident command course, car keys and a radio and that was it.”, which again presented both a steep learning curve for those new to post and created a level of anxiety.
102. This is not only a cause for concern for the newly promoted FDO, but also an issue in that they may not be adequately equipped to care for the wider range of staff that they could encounter, and who need their managerial interventions to deal with mental health or other work-related issues. This may be an issue related to the development of personnel through the FDO roles and a declining level of managerial and leadership training that the SFRS has offered over the years. It should be noted that the Service will have faced challenges recently regarding the maintenance of operational FDO cover through the pandemic and the unusually high levels of retirements due to the pension remedy. Staff turnover through retirement remains a challenge for the SFRS.
103. There were some excellent examples of local areas putting together preparation packs for new FDOs, but these were not driven by the Service who offered a reading list that personnel should use as a guide. The Service does have a mentoring process for new FDOs in role during operational responses, but this does not offer wellbeing support. While the excellent examples of local support systems for the maintenance of positive mental health set up by local Officers for other FDOs are commendable, there was a level of comment to support a perception of a reduced level of support for this group when compared to their previous work life as part of a Watch. One FDO described it as “support tapers off the further up the chain you go”. Hill et al (2023) states that “The main potential stressor for this group (FDOs) is a consequence of the promotion into this role”, this combined with the loss of peer support (from the Watch) and a reported perceived lack of preparation for new FDO roles, leaves many of these individuals feeling anxious and under prepared for new roles.
Good Practice 14: There are examples of excellent local initiatives within the SFRS that help support positive mental health for staff groups e.g., support networks and promotion preparation packs for new FDOs.
104. Closely aligned to preparation for the FDO role, is the required and ongoing leadership and management development for these individuals. Leadership displayed by FDOs requires to be closely aligned to the values of the Service. However, if FDOs do not receive initial leadership training and then regular input at key stages of their careers, we are of the opinion that this may impact their ability to align with the mental health and wellbeing values that the SFRS is seeking from them.
105. The mental health charity Mind, in its ‘Mental Health in the Emergency Services Survey’ (2019), asked fire service respondents what aspects of their role cause them to “feel low, depressed, stressed or mentally unwell?”. Excessive workload (36%), long hours (26%) and exposure to traumatic events (38%) featured prominently in the survey returns. As part of their literature review Hill et al (2023) reported that senior managers (FDOs) ‘reported experiencing pressure from senior colleagues, increased workload due to staff shortages’ as being among the most pressing organisational work-related stressors.
106. As part of our fieldwork, we explored these issues and received strong comment back from FDOs in relation to ongoing workload. The workload experienced by FDOs was described as “mad and never ending”, and “you feel as though you should always be doing something (work), you don’t switch off”. Ultimately for those who felt that the pressure to work was near constant, their release was to switch off SFRS mobile phones and laptops, often at the behest of their spouse or partners at home. There was also a strong desire amongst FDOs to be available as much as possible to support SFRS personnel with a range of work related issues including mental health support. This has led to many FDOs feeling as though they are constantly on duty and with “little opportunity to switch off”. While we find the 24/7 effort by FDOs, and other managers within the SFRS, to support colleagues laudable, it leads to them “constantly being on alert” with an inevitable consequential impact upon the wellbeing of those who are offering the care.
107. Post incident, there are similarities between the FDO and On Call firefighter groups in that they may not often have recourse to peer support that Wholetime colleagues may have via the Watch. In effect, out with core office hours, they often return home to their families and may or may not wish to disclose the details of the operational incidents they have attended. This potential lack of peer support puts FDOs in a mental health care grey zone. Coupled with potential cumulative operational exposure and PISP application issues for the group, we believe this presents the SFRS with a challenge that it should plan to overcome. Both issues for the FDO group are explored further in the PISP and Support for SFRS Personnel Families sections of this report.
108. From our interviews we can conclude that many FDOs invest generous amounts of personal time, effort and care to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of SFRS colleagues is supported, but that they may in turn experience declining levels of centrally driven SFRS care and support themselves. We did note that some FDOs contact OC colleagues or return to stations at the close of incidents to offer support, and in effect be supported, but this was in a minority of cases. Where these attendances were made, the station operational crews were very receptive to the well intentioned efforts by the FDOs in question. It is worthy of consideration that FDOs are expected to, and do, take managerial responsibility for recognising and dealing with the early signs of mental health and wellbeing issues for SFRS personnel, but they themselves may not have the same formalised recourse to early peer or organisational support themselves.