Oxfordshire fire chief Simon Furlong pledges to improve diversity in service

A drive to make Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service more diverse has been made a top priority by the county’s new fire chief.

imgID105637491.jpg.gallery

Simon Furlong, who officially took over the role last week, says he wants to inspire more women and people from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds to join the authority.

At the moment 93 per cent of firefighters are men and 97 per cent are white.

But Mr Furlong, a father of three daughters, said that was ‘not good enough’.

He said: “We are slightly better than average in Oxfordshire and on par with London – but that is still pretty poor. If you take one example, 50 per cent of my potential recruits are women but only 6.7 per cent end up being firefighters.

“That needs to change. We should reflect the communities that we serve.”

It comes after Home Office minister Brandon Lewis criticised fire services nationally for their ‘woeful’ lack of diversity, with a new watchdog set up to scrutinise performance.

In an exclusive interview with the Oxford Mail yesterday, Mr Furlong said increasing diversity was one of the main issues he would focus on during his time in charge.

But he does not favour using quotas for recruitment and has instead called for a major ‘culture shift’ to encourage people from all backgrounds to join.

He said: “I don’t think targets are the right thing, personally, but I would love for 50 per cent of our firefighters to be women. That’s what the community is, so why can’t the fire service have that?

“That’s my aspiration, to represent the community we serve. I want to change culture, rather than just say we should do this to hit a target.

“With our 365Alive campaign, we started with numbers and figures but it was actually about saying to all our staff ‘we are changing direction and we are now thinking about safety, rather than just response’ and that was a massive success.

“If I just set a target, someone else could come in after I’m gone and say ‘I don’t want that anymore’. But we should be taking ownership of this, because it’s the right thing to do. We’re going to work hard at it.”

The fire service, part of Oxfordshire County Council, employs about 630 people, including more than 70 support staff. Three per cent of firefighters are from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, the service said. But these people represent eight per cent of Oxfordshire’s total population.

Mr Furlong said there would be outreach events to recruit more people, as well as coaching and mentoring.

He added: “We don’t always sell it enough, but there are so many career paths and opportunities in the fire service because of the range of things we do now.”