Life in the hot seat – Rita Dexter from the London Fire Brigade in profile

Published:  22 August, 2011

With a background in local government management, Rita Dexter is now the most senior women in the world’s largest fire and rescue service. Michael Burton talks to her about a career that began in Birmingham at the age of 16.

Rita Dexter has enjoyed a meteoric career. Brought up in a Birmingham household of factory workers and leaving school at 16 she is now the most senior female fire executive in England – but her heart remains in local government which forged her.

As deputy commissioner of the London Fire Brigade – the world’s third largest after New York and Tokyo -  since 2009, Rita is also unusual for reaching the number two slot as a non-uniformed executive. She explains:  ‘What was more significantly different was not so much being a woman as being non-operational. Being a woman was by no means the most significant change. We have a female deputy assistant commissioner who is the most senior operational woman in the fire service in the country. And we have three women chief officers covering non-operational work like strategy, equalities and health and safety.’

A principal focus is inevitably on people management. There is no shortage of applicants – ‘being a firefighter is a great job, particularly for young people and we’re hugely over-subscribed’ – but retirements occur just at a time when an employee’s experience is at its peak. ‘There is a strong sense you need to serve your time first so progression is more slow than in local government. But the trouble is staff can become valuable at just the time when they’re leaving. We’re losing first-class people and we expect this to get worse.’

On budgets, she is sanguine. ‘Our revenue budget is £409m. Our grant settlement was 3% lower than last year for 2011/12 but other metropolitan brigades it was 9% down. We still have to reduce by 25% over four years but our cuts are back-loaded.’

There is inevitably a social aspect to fire prevention. As fires tend to occur more often in poorer households the brigade uses Mosaic to target at risk groups. Rita says she is ‘shocked’ at the number of fire tragedies in the homes of vulnerable adults which could easily have been prevented such as through proper smoke alarms or domestic sprinklers. She also wants more joining up between council departments like adult care and housing and fire services. Last year some 2000 homes were rendered uninhabitable because of fire, a huge cost in financial and human terms with councils often having to find temporary accommodation for those made homeless.

Rita Dexter was brought up in Birmingham, the daughter of factory workers, and at the age of 16 wrote to the city council for a job and was offered a position as a junior clerk in social services. She was to remain there for 23 years, recalling: ‘I regard myself as made by the city council.’

In her long career there she progressed through various clerical and junior roles in social services and also became involved in union activities as assistant chair of the council branch of town hall union NALGO which had 10,000 members.  ‘I was always interested in politics but didn’t want to go into it. I regarded myself as a Bennite and at the time failed to see what people like [then council Labour leader] Dick Knowles had achieved.’

But it was also the start of the period when far-sighted city leaders began to reshape the city leading to today’s sophisticated centre that includes the Convention Centre, Brindley Place and the renovated Bullring.. The council was also trailblazing in his drive to boost inward investment. Rita recalls: ‘I was full of admiration for the way the council set out to remake the city. The economic development department had 400 staff in the 1980s.’

At the age of 25 she entered management and decided her union activities were no longer compatible. She worked in the central policy unit of the chief executive’s department under Roger Taylor (‘a fabulous leader for whom I have huge admiration’) dealing with such issues as compulsory competitive tendering, quality programmes, early versions of customer services and child protection.

In the last 18 months of her Birmingham career she worked in the directorate of public affairs on marketing and communication. At the time the council made the pioneering move of appointing a head of comms, Linda Longbottom, at chief officer level and Rita worked alongside her. Rita recalls: ‘There was huge scrutiny by the morning and evening papers with both looking to the city council for news.’ Eventually the former (and now late) BBC political commentator Vince Hanna was brought in to do a review of the council’s communications. She adds: ‘Birmingham is where I learned to love local government and realise it could change people’s lives.’

She left the city in 1992, undertaking a secondment at then department of the environment where she met her husband (‘he still works in the DCLG so we have our own version of central/local relations’). She worked

with Paul Rowsell at the DoE on secondary legislation dealing with local authority interest in companies and on an idea for Trust Councils, a forerunner of freedoms and flexibilities. She recalls: ‘I had a fabulous time at the DoE and it was full of clever, agreeable people like Chris Brearley and Robin Young but it did tend to work in branches.’

When a new position opened at Barnet LBC in 1995 as assistant chief executive responsible for communications, economic development and strategy she applied and was offered the job. There she worked under Max Caller, becoming deputy chief executive in 1998.

She was approached by headhunters seeking to fill a senior post at the London Fire Brigade, becoming director of corporate services. ‘Members of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority wanted to see more women in the organisation and this was a new post below deputy commissioner and commissioner.’ In 2009 she was promoted to deputy commissioner under commissioner Ron Dobson who has spent his entire career with the LFB.

There are 46 brigades in England but only London’s has a commissioner and deputy commissioner, while the rest have chief fire officers. It is the largest fire and rescue service in the UK with 7000 staff of which 5500 are operational and over 250 are women. Last year it attended 7000 fires, some 22% lower than in 2000/2001. The LFB reports to the LFEPA whose 17 members are appointed by the Mayor of London, of which eight are nominated by the London Assembly, seven from the London boroughs and two are Mayoral appointees. The LFB has 130 fire stations, 169 fire engines and 70 special appliances. It is the only force where all operational staff are full-time rather than retained.

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