Fire chiefs reassure public after inspectors say service 'requires improvement'
Northumberland’s fire chief has given his assurances that the service is ‘safe, resilient and effective’ despite a ‘disappointing’ inspection outcome.
Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has been rated as requires improvement in a report published on June 20 by HMICFRS, the national inspectorate for police forces and fire services.
This is the first time HMICFRS has inspected fire services across England and its focus is the service they provide to the public and the way they use the resources available.
Their inspections assess how effectively and efficiently fire and rescue services prevent, protect the public against and respond to fires and other emergencies, as well as how well they look after the people who work for the service.
Northumberland was rated as requires improvement for each of the three main areas – effectiveness, efficiency and people, but work to ‘take positive action to address the issues’ started immediately after the inspection team visited in autumn last year.
The report found that the fire service was good at responding to national risks, highlighting its efforts during the Beast from the East last year as ‘a good example of the wider role that a fire and rescue service can play in supporting its communities’.
It also accepted that one of the biggest challenges is managing an operational response across a large, sparsely-populated county, with 3,404 incidents responded to over the 12-month inspection period up to the end of September 2018.
However, the report also raises concerns about fire engines being unavailable, increasing response times and commanders lacking appropriate training, while saying that the service needs to improve the way it uses resources and the affordability of what it provides.
‘We knew it would throw up challenges’
Chief Fire Officer Paul Hedley said: “We knew that, being a new process, it was probably going to throw up some challenges. What we tried very hard to do was take an honest look at ourselves and we had identified areas for improvement.
“I would much rather be good and it’s a bit disappointing, but as a service, you are always trying to improve.
“What it doesn’t say is we are running an unsafe service or that people are at risk. We are well-equipped, well-trained and have a workforce which punches well above their weight.”
Coun Nick Oliver, Northumberland County Council’s cabinet member for corporate services, added: “We will continue to invest in the fire service, we will continue to protect front-line services and make resources available for the senior officers to make improvements to take the service from where it is now to being a good service.”
On the response times, CFO Hedley explained that these figures fluctuate from year to year and, in a county as large as Northumberland, are affected by where the incidents take place.
The inspectorate’s worries about staffing are also evident in the report, which references the service being ‘reliant on staff working extra hours to complete workloads’ and full-time firefighters providing on-call cover during their time off.
It highlights the ‘large reductions in staffing numbers’ in specialist departments; for example, the community safety team dropping from 37 in 2008 to nine in 2018 and fire protection inspectors going down from 10 in 2010 to five in 2018.
Coun Oliver said: “We will make sure there’s adequate funding to protect front-line services and make sure it continues to be a safe service.
“The very first thing you read in the report is that the public has confidence in the service and that figure is above the national average.”
CFO Hedley conceded that there is ‘never enough money and never enough people’, but said that since his 32-year career with Northumberland FRS began in the 1980s, it has always been small. “That doesn’t necessarily equate to it not being a really good service,” he added.
Concerns over behaviour of managers
HMICFRS also has concerns with the service’s culture: ‘Some staff told us they felt unable to raise concerns and give feedback, and that the behaviour of some managers was poor. We also heard examples of bullying and harassment.’
CFO Hedley said: “I would join the fire service again tomorrow if I had the chance and I would recommend it to anyone as a place to work, so I want people to feel safe and welcome and it be a tolerant place. I want people to enjoy coming to work.
“I absolutely assure you that we deal with reports of bullying and harassment and will not hesitate to deal with it with decisive action.”
He explained that the results of a recent staff survey suggested that progress was already being made on this issue, but added: “It’s such an important issue, there’s no place to be complacent about it.
“This will be front and centre of the improvement action plan we are developing.”
Following the inspection, a review of the fire and rescue plan has already taken place and residents will be asked for their views in the coming months.