As one of the first services in the country to implement a new command and leadership model, West Yorkshire has bought a fleet of 32 top of the range 4x4 all-terrain vehicles, giving watch managers the freedom of movement to respond to incidents separately from a fire engine.

The project has changed the face of our response and in recent months members of the public have become used to seeing the addition of the branded Toyota Hilux vehicles on blue lights across the region’s roads. We are using them in urban areas and out in our rural communities, even up on the moorland as part of our bid to protect our precious landscape from wildfires.

The vehicles have now become an integral part of our response and complements our fleet of 46 fire appliances.

The forecasted benefits are estimated year-on-year at about £1.24 million. Our watch managers will have hundreds of hours of additional capacity as they no longer attend incidents that can be brought to a safe resolution by a crew manager and firefighters riding a single fire appliance or undertake lower risk prevention activities.

Watch managers are dedicating this additional capacity to supporting and resolving fire prevention and protection issues in their communities and delivering more challenging training to local risks and contributing to wider partnership working. The mobilising model still ensures they attend incidents where their command skillset is required.

The response to house and building fires has been increased to three fire engines plus a watch manager in a 4x4. This provides the most effective speed and weight of response and enhances public safety and firefighter safety with the aim of making West Yorkshire safer.

The watch manager’s vehicle is equipped with a life jacket, handheld Peli light, throwline and thermal image camera, which can assist them particularly if they are first on scene or if they are assessing requirements for a special service call. Additional equipment including a tablet, toolkit and electric fan is also being evaluated.

We have been thinking about the delivery of this new model for almost a decade, and in December 2018 the fire authority gave us the greenlight to go ahead.

The concept draws on extensive data intelligence and risk mapping to understand the risks our region faces. The overall project came in at a cost of just over £1.1 million.

With some expected benefits yet to be realised due to Covid-19, the project has already delivered significant change across the service, innovating the way we deliver our service with minor disruption to our staff.

It has not been without its challenges, namely the pandemic, which halted the delivery of our driver training with the new model resulting in 102 watch managers requiring a five-day training course.

Despite the two-month setback, the project got back ‘on the road’ and still delivered on time and, having just undergone an end point evaluation in June, there are some impressive statistics that demonstrate the benefits the model can deliver.

In terms of our people, the project has allowed us to restructure the management of our district teams to ensure the right people are in the right place and offer training and career development to our operational staff.

At our 14 wholetime single pump 2-2-4 stations we have transitioned from the conventional system of one watch manager per shift (four watch managers per station) to one watch manager with managerial responsibility for two shifts (two watch managers per station).

Watch managers have taken over the day-to-day responsibilities of the station and longer- term watch planning with crew managers supervising the daily running of the shift. Assistant district commanders (station manager roles) are focusing their time on delivering district objectives concentrating on risk reduction, operations and training, and human resources.

Working in this way provides the assistant district commanders with more time to focus on partnership working, identifying and driving down local risk and vulnerability and preparing staff to deliver the most effective response possible.

There are now new development opportunities for firefighters and crew managers with an additional 56 initial incident commanders established within the organisation.

Watch managers have an increased capacity to support operational assurance at smaller scale incidents, which formed part of the service’s recommendations from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.

From a public perspective, we have a more visible presence in the community and are maintaining our excellent standard of response through financially challenging times. Additionally, the watch managers provide more capacity to deliver enhanced community engagement, higher risk fire prevention activities and contribute to the Building Risk Review programme and waking watch assurance.

In total during 2020, 87 per cent of the service’s overall incident activity was resolved without the need for a watch manager to be mobilised to the incident.

Watch manager cars were mobilised to a total of 3,084 incidents; this was 13 per cent of the service’s total activity of 23,793 incidents.

Of the 3,084 incidents where a watch manager in a vehicle was mobilised, a fire appliance arrived on scene first on 91 per cent of occasions with the watch manager arriving on scene first on nine per cent of occasions. In cases where a watch manager arrives first, their role is to put a tactical plan in place, communicating critical information back to the crews en-route so they have full operational awareness of the incident and can be effective immediately upon arrival.

On average, when mobilised, a watch manager arrived 1:34 minutes after the first appliance arrived on scene.

This way of working was implemented as part of our Integrated Risk Management Plan 2019–22 and through the reduction of 28 watch manager posts this will lead to significant annual savings. This has catalysed a change to more effective and efficient way of operating at district and station level. Staff have more freedom and ability to make decisions within their level of authority and the extra capability provided by operating the 4x4 vehicles has already applied to the wildfire, flood and snow-based challenges we have faced over the last 18 months.

West Yorkshire Fire Service took a bold step to deliver a major change to service delivery and we are now embedding and reaping the rewards of a new way of working that offers the very best provision to keep communities and our firefighters safe, now and in the future.

Scott Donegan is an Area Manager with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and is responsible for service delivery.