INDEPENDENT experts are demanding urgent action to resolve an ongoing dispute with Essex’s chief fire officer who has been suspended for two years on an annual salary of £224,954.

An expert advisory panel was tasked with helping Essex Fire Service make a series of improvements after after a damning report in 2015 highlighting “intimidatory culture” and “dangerous and pervasive bullying at every level”.

The panel has now identified the continued suspension of chief fire officer David Johnson as the biggest barrier facing the service as it seeks to turn a corner.

Mr Johnson first went on sick leave in April 2014 and was formally suspended on full pay in April 2015. It is believed the suspension has cost the fire authority more than £600,000 in salary costs associated with his absence.

In 2015, the Lucas Review identified the “toxic culture” in the fire service that needed addressing and the panel believes Mr Johnson’s suspension is stifling progress.

In the most recent report, published on April 12, panel chairman, Steve McGuirk said: “The panel has consistently stressed the urgency and importance of resolving this situation.

“The continued delay in finding a resolution remains a very high risk to the development of the organisation and continues to have a major impact on the progression of culture change.”

A spokeswoman for Essex Fire Authority said: “Progress continues to be made regarding this situation.

“We are committed to ensure that the process remains robust, thorough, independent and fair, and fully complies with the law in relation to statutory officers. This is to protect David Johnson’s rights and position as well as our own.”

Improvements made include an inclusion and diversity group, launching in June and a Women’s Forum to look at how to retain more female firefighters.