The 2019 inspections by HMICFRS set a benchmark for the performance of fire and rescue services and a second round of inspections was scheduled to start in 2020. With the emergence of Coronavirus in the early part of last year, these inspections were paused. It was inevitable that the fire and rescue services’ response to Covid-19 would form the basis of their first thematic inspection. HMICFRS published its Covid-19 inspection report on January 22.

While this is not a routine inspection, the report makes strong links back to State of Fire and the recommendations set out by Sir Tom Winsor in early 2020. The Covid-19 inspection appears to have reinforced what the inspectors said before about the role of fire and rescue services, the issue of operational independence and conditions of service.

‘The employment arrangements in the fire and rescue sector are longstanding and, in our view, outdated’. HMI called for them to be reviewed and to consider if they are still fit for purpose. The pandemic provided an opportunity to show how far the current arrangements could be flexed.

Tripartite Agreement Angst

At issue is the Tripartite Agreement. Originally between the FBU, the National Employers and the NFCC, the agreement contained a range of activities that could be carried out by firefighters to assist the local response to the pandemic and was supported by detailed risk assessments. As reported in the last issue of FIRE, the agreement no longer exists.

The FBU did not get to see HMICFRS’s report before it was published, instead receiving a copy via a journalist. The online press briefing was fairly well attended, and journalists got to see the embargoed report the day before it was published. Matt Wrack’s Twitter feed of fury spelled out exactly what he and the FBU thought about the report.

Despite the emphasis in the report and the reporting on the industrial relations issues, the publication of the overarching inspection report and the 44 individual letters to each fire and rescue service provide an important insight into the great work being done by fire and rescue services across England. This deserves celebrating.

To write this article involved looking at all 44 letters to uncover the gems of good practice. Publishing reports in PDF is practical for HMICFRS but a nightmare for anyone wanting to do any analysis, so here is a plea to HMICFRS: please provide text-based versions or supporting data tables to ease comparisons between fire and rescue services.

Transforming Service Delivery

Transformation emerges as a strong theme in this inspection. The Covid-19 pandemic offered fire and rescue services the chance to do things differently, with the inspectors describing the pandemic as a catalyst for change and transformation. This change was not uniform across all work groups. ‘Transformation mostly benefitted non-operational staff whose working lives have been revolutionised with the introduction of digital and flexible working in many services’.

The experience of digital transformation to support extensive working from home is a common story across all fire and rescue services, with some in a strong position from the start and others playing catch up but quickly able to put in place the right technical solutions.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service

The inspection letter to Kent Fire and Rescue Service references Operation Domino, a 2018 pandemic flu exercise. The inspectors are very positive about how the learning from this exercise translated into practical solutions to respond to Covid-19, applauding the transition to IT-enabled home working. ‘The ability to operate the payroll away from the workplace was tested as a part of Operation Domino. It found that some adjustments were needed and so, for example, widescreen monitors were purchased to support home working. Forward planning has meant that the service was in a good state of readiness for the Covid-19 pandemic’.

London Fire Brigade

In London, the inspectors found that London Fire Brigade had accelerated its technological transformation. ‘It is considering how virtual platforms and remote working can help to promote innovation and new ways of working. It also recognises the need to bridge the virtual gap in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that staff still feel connected and supported’.

West Midlands FS

There is a similar story in the West Midlands. ‘West Midlands Fire Service has used digital technology well for engaging with its workforce, fire authority and local community. It told us that it had made more progress than it anticipated on its digital transformation and will look to continue this’.

Cambridgeshire FRS

It is clear that the changes to the workplace will not be temporary, as this example from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service shows: ‘The service intends to maintain changes it has made to its ways of working in response to Covid-19, including the reduced number of staff working in headquarters, flexible and home working and the use of webinars as part of its usual processes’.

Not all staff experienced the same pace of change, as the inspectors lament: ‘Transformation rarely translated into improvements in the working practices or productivity of operational staff’.

Nottinghamshire FRS

There is a rare example in the reports from Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service where the inspectors describe the increasing use of technology for operational benefits. Recognising how ‘information overload’ in a fast-moving period of change was causing difficulty, a video was recorded to communicate the role of the ‘partner assistance cell’ in the LRF. Examples such as this are encouraging. While we recognise that time will be needed to review new ways of working, the service’s modern technology has significant potential for transformational improvement’.

Northumberland FRS

The inspection highlights how control rooms were protected during the pandemic. Fire and rescue services put in place special measures for such a relatively small and specialist work group, critical to the frontline delivery of services to the public. This is well described in the letter to Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service. ‘The service had good arrangements in place to make sure that its control room had enough staff during the pandemic. These included effective resilience arrangements, such as the early decision to insulate control room staff from direct contact with other staff members; continuing with the recruitment and training of three new staff; ensuring minimum staffing levels; and reviewing fallback arrangements with Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service’.

Lincolnshire and Suffolk FRSs

Northumberland’s experience was certainly not unique and in other areas of the country, like Lincolnshire, further measures were put in place to increase resilience by providing refresher training for former control room staff who had moved on to other roles. Lincolnshire also fast tracked the recruitment and induction process for new control room staff, and this was the same in nearby Suffolk, which streamlined its recruit control training course.

Cornwall FRS

In Cornwall, the service re-engaged retired members of staff to bolster the workforce. ‘The service gave enough consideration to making sure its re-engaged staff were operationally competent for the work they were asked to do. It assessed their knowledge and skill levels and provided tailored training. They also had the opportunity to work closely with existing control staff to consolidate their skills prior to taking on full duties’.

Collaborative Control Rooms

Some services have collaborative arrangements in place for delivering control room functions, like North West Fire Control and the East Coast and Hertfordshire Control Consortium. This helps with reinforcing resilience for this small, specialist but important group of Fire and Rescue Service staff.

Fire and rescue services faced the same challenges as many organisations with the transition of staff to working from home and on top of that had to maintain frontline response. Control rooms are a significant part of that, and the measures described here indicate what had to be done to keep them operational. As well responding to the consequences of a national pandemic, fire and rescue services also dealt with major incidents such as the large-scale fire in Wareham Forest in Dorset.

Dorset and Wiltshire FRS

‘In addition to the challenges of the pandemic, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service responded to its largest fire in recent history at Wareham Forest. This incident lasted over eight weeks. This large-scale incident needed more than 1,000 firefighters and the use of considerable resources across the service. We were impressed by how the service worked with its neighbouring fire and rescue services and the National Fire Chiefs Council, as well as accessing and using national resilience assets during this incident. This gave the service assistance and support, as well as helping it to seamlessly manage the demands of the pandemic’.

Staff Wellbeing

The wellbeing of staff is also a major theme for this inspection. The inspectors asked all fire and rescue services to share how they identified staff most at risk of Covid-19. They reference the July 2020 NFCC guidance for employers and employees on working safely in operational and non-operational environments.

There is huge variety in the responses to questions about wellbeing, with some services being told that more could have been done to identify and address the specific needs of certain groups of staff, including those from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service worked with the service’s occupational health doctor to develop a ‘Covid risk estimator’ and this has been adopted by other fire and rescue services, including Nottinghamshire. It helps to establish the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 as well as the likely consequences for an individual. Where someone has a high score, they can access a tailored support programme. The inspectors report that this approach is used to inform decisions about who should return to the workplace and when.

Other examples of approaches to workplace risk assessment include:

  • A Covid-19 Individual Consideration Assessment in Norfolk, where occupation, comorbidities, obesity and vulnerability to serious illness are taken into account
  • Work by South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue to create ‘be well at work’ guidance and an individual personal risk assessment tool
  • The introduction of the Association of Local Authority Medical Advisors (ALAMA) risk assessment tool by Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service that is used by all employees so that reasonable adjustments can be made where needed
  • The use of a ‘health and wellbeing passport’ in Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service
  • In Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service an online personal risk calculator from Polbridge Occupational Health is used to assess vulnerability to serious illness.

In addition to workplace risk assessment, HMI revealed examples of how fire and rescue services are providing other services to staff as well as evaluating the impact of these new measures. West Midlands Fire Service provides occupational health mindfulness sessions, access to the services of a psychotherapist and cognitive behavioural therapy sessions.

West Sussex FRS

When it comes to considering what works, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service features strongly here: ‘The service carried out an internal evaluation process to capture learning from all members of staff. This learning includes wellbeing as well as operational issues. It set up the Reset and Reboot group to consider how to use this learning in the future’. West Midlands Fire Service is also looking at the potential long-term effects of Covid-19 on the workforce and is doing so through its networking group, Inspire, and with the representative bodies.

There is so much good work going on in fire and rescue services there simply is not enough space to cover it all here. The highlights set out above are a flavour of the range of innovation emerging from across England. The HMI reports, plus the report commissioned by the National Fire Chiefs Council featured in last month’s issue of FIRE (declaration of interest here as a co-author of that report), provide valuable evidence of the work of fire and rescue services and how they are responding to the challenge of pandemic.

As all this good work continues at a local level; it is now for the FBU and the National Employers to resolve the issues about the role of firefighters as part of the continued response to Covid-19 because they are a key part of the response to and recovery from this awful pandemic.