HEALTH AND SAFETY Minister Edwin Poots has told the Assembly their needs to be a mindset change at the top of the Fire and Rescue Service.
And he has told MLAs on the floor of the Assembly that NIFRS must embrace change at all levels, Health Minister Edwin Poots has said.
He came to the house following three separate investigations in the management and governance of NIFRS.
Mr Poots said change needed to be led “from the top”.
The investigations followed whistle-blowing allegations which centred on fraud, unapproved bonuses and failings to deal with staff grievances.
He said existing grievances had to be concluded as soon as possible.
The probes followed whistleblowing by members of staff who angry at the way NIFRS was being run from the top.
And the Minister took the opportunity to thank the whistle-blowers for coming forward and called for a culture where it is safe and acceptable for staff to raise concerns at any level at any time.
He told assembly members that a new interim chief executive was appointed in a series of measures to strengthen the management of the NIFRS.
He said there has been an “unacceptable management culture” which stretched back for more than a decade.
“Our firefighters need to work in an organisation that commands the respect of all – an organisation that is managed effectively and efficiently, with integrity and transparency, with a clear sense of accountability to the public,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there have been instances where the management and governance of the Fire and Rescue Service have been called into question.”
In response to a question from the UUP health spokesperson, Roy Beggs, Mr Poots said that too often people were moved sideways and discipline did not take place.
He added that the reports clearly identified deficiencies and there was a recommendation in one which said that “the human resources side of it” should be looking at what disciplinary steps should be taken.
In a statement the chief executive of the NIFRS, Jim Wallace, said they welcomed the reports and recommendations, describing them as a “watershed”.
“Reassuringly, many of the recommendations reflect what we are already doing and our current practices,” he said.
“We fully accept that mistakes have been made in the past. We are corporately responsible for the organisation and we will not shy away from what still needs to be done.”
He added that the reports did not reflect on the front-line work of firefighters and that people should remain confident in the service
NIFRS, with its headquarters in Lisburn, Co Antrim, had been under the spotlight following several investigations involving senior managers.
The audit revealed how former assistant chief fire officer Peter Craig accepted and retained a Land Rover from car dealers Charles Hurst despite being told by his boss to return it.
In 2008, payments were made to the deputy chief fire officer, Louis Jones, and assistant chief fire officers Peter Craig and Tom Wright.
The £15,000 figure was not disclosed as required in the 2008/2009 pay documentation.
And it wasn’t authorised by the Fire Service board or the Department of Health.
It added further weight criticisms in an earlier report of a lack of governance oversight in NIFRS.
Louis Jones said yesterday hat he was not aware that the payment was irregular.
He said: “In 2006, the Fire and Rescue Board considered my performance and as a result agreed to pay me a bonus for my work activities. I wasn’t aware that the payment was considered inappropriate.”
The 2008/09 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts revealed that £50,840 was paid to three non-uniformed directors – Terry McGonnigle, Ann Conley and Doros Michail – on the basis of a job revaluation.
It is understood that one of them, Doros Michail, is challenging the payments issue in the High Court.
The evaluation was carried out by Belfast City Council.
However, among its conclusions the 2008/09 report reveals that the payments were not properly approved and the process was described as unlawful.
The process by which the payments were awarded was also described as unlawful.
The report said: “The arrangement by which Belfast City Council was selected to undertake the job evaluation does not follow public procurement best practice as established by HM Treasury and endorsed by the Department of Finance and Personnel.”
As a result of the revevaluation, the process was later put out to tender.
The audit is also expected to reveal how former assistant chief fire officer, Peter Craig, accepted a vehicle from car dealer Charles Hurst in 2009.
Despite being told by his boss, Colin Lammey, to return it, it was found to have been stored in a lock-up garage in Carryduff.
The Charles Hurst Group is currently the major supplier of tyres to the Fire Service.
In a letter to Peter Craig, Mr Lammey, the then chief fire officer, instructed that the vehicle be immediately removed and given back.
But instead of being driven to the car dealers on Boucher Road it went to Carryduff.
When Peter Craig himself became chief, he overturned the previous decision that it should be returned.
However, when questioned, he said that it had all been a “genuine mistake”.
Yesterday, Charles Hurst said the vehicle had not been supplied for anyone individual and that the tyre contract was awarded by the government’s central procurement agency rather than directly by the Fire Service.
“We can confirm that in 2009 we made a vehicle available to NIFRS with full NIFRS & Charles Hurst vehicle livery – and not any one individual – on the basis that it was to be used, on loan, by the community development team in support of a road traffic collision education programme.
“As a company which tangibly supports the communities in which we operate, we regularly contribute to a wide and varied number of initiatives as part of our corporate and social responsibility commitment.
“Charles Hurst is one of four appointed suppliers to NIFRS and was subject to precisely the same tender process by the procurement team of the central purchasing agency as all potential bidders,” the company said.
The internal investigation centred on managers and not the fire fighters at the coal face of the service.
It had already been revealed how a senior member of the Fire Service was allowed to run a private business selling uniforms at the same time as he was in charge of the organisation’s stores and procurement.
The man, had secured contracts with some leading local and national companies. But the Fire Service said it was satisfied there wasn’t a conflict of interest.
Details were revealed of how the service dealt with 126 grievance cases in the past decade – 22 remain outstanding despite being lodged several years ago.
At the same time the service has been involved in 54 industrial tribunals.
It has been a turbulent time for the organisation with three chief fire officers in as many years.
It is hoped the current investigations and the appointment of the interim chief fire executive Jim Wallace will bring a measure of stability and confidenc to the service.