FIRE MINISTER PARMJIT DHANDA has announced radical new measures to change the face of the fire Service over the next ten years and ensure it fully reflects the communities it serves.

Setting out a new national Equality and Diversity Strategy that includes the toughest ever recruitment targets for women and people from minority ethnic communities he said the Fire and Rescue Service has for far too long lagged behind the police, prison service and NHS which is why the biggest ever drive to attract the talent of all is needed.

Independent research has shown that Fire and Rescue Services which better represent the diversity of their local population can save lives by being better equipped to reach those most at risk, driving down the number of fires and incidents, and helping to ensure that all communities are fully aware of fire safety and what they should do if an incident occurs.

Currently just 3.2% of staff are from a minority ethnic background, and just 3.1% of firefighters are women; there is only one female chief fire officer, and none from minority ethnic communities. In the police, one in twenty are now from a minority ethnic background and more than one in five are women. Only 12 per cent of Fire and Rescue staff are graduates.

The Audit Commission criticised fire services for their lack of diversity earlier this year, as it hampers efforts to reach and educate different communities about fire risk.

All 46 local fire and rescue services will now have a target to ensure that at least 15 per cent of new firefighting recruits are women and that the number of minority ethnic recruits overall reflects the local working population by 2013. London for example will aim to achieve 29%, with West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester 21.2%, 11.5% and 9.2% respectively.

Under the new drive within five years there should also be parity in retention and career progression between men and women and between minority ethnic and white employees.

GBP2m of Government funding will be available to those that choose a more challenging 18 per cent target for women and a target that reflects the local minority ethnic working population plus 2-5% (ie: 31-34% in London). This follows a GBP3m drive announced last month to improve equality and diversity across the Service, for example encouraging people from groups which are currently under-represented in the Service including the gay community, people with disabilities and graduates to consider a career in the Fire and Rescue Service.

Parmjit Dhanda called on fire chiefs to demonstrate their commitment to equality and diversity by opting for the higher targets and applying for this cash saying: "People become firefighters because they want a rewarding career serving the local community and saving lives, but currently the Service often fails to attract the talent and potential that women, gay people, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds have to offer.

"It is without doubt that a more representative Fire Service will improve the working environment and culture of the Service.

"This is not about political correctness, but about providing opportunity for all and finding the best skilled and talented people across communities. This will ensure the Fire and Rescue Service not only better represents the diversity of the communities they serve but enhances protection for everyone. The challenge now is for Fire and Rescue Services to get out there and find and recruit them. This might be radical, but it's the right thing to do."

Charlie Hendry, Vice President of the Chief Fire Officers Association and lead on equality and diversity said: "The Chief Fire Officers' Association welcomes the publication of the new national strategy for equality and diversity. The Association has been frustrated by the relatively slow progress in achieving improvement and are committed to help bring about substantial success.

"The service is full of dedicated men and women serving their communities who deserve recognition for their efforts. We hope the strategy can give renewed emphasis to understanding the needs of different communities and making an already successful service even better. We hope also that traditional public images of firefighters can continue to develop to reflect a modern service."

Each service will set out an annual action plan with practical steps to improve recruitment. And services that lag behind will not normally be able to achieve an 'improving strongly' performance rating.

A new National Strategy also published today requires each fire chief to take action that leads to real progress, contributing details of what they have achieved to an annual report, published by the Government. As well as showing progress against the targets, the report will detail how Fire and Rescue Services are improving their employment practices and service delivery.

The need for a National Strategy has been highlighted by the findings of a new survey of firefighters. This showed that while most feel valued and have good working relationships, harassment, discrimination and even assaults are not uncommon in the workplace.

The survey reported on a number of issues including evidence of unacceptable behaviours: for example a third of respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months and a quarter said they had been verbally abused. There was also evidence of discrimination by individuals against work colleagues on grounds of age; gender; sexuality and race.

Parmjit Dhanda also said: "It is disturbing to see such unacceptable behaviour is taking place in today's fire and rescue service. No-one should be victimised, harassed or abused at work and I want to see much greater commitment from managers at all levels, to stamp out this menace wherever it occurs. We can really improve the culture by changing the make-up of the Service."