It was exciting to see the first HMICFRS inspection reports last year. In a post Grenfell world, what would the inspectors find lurking in fire and rescue services? They found, based on the first inspection reports of 14 services, fire safety audits were not happening in sufficient volumes, the Service is not diverse, it has problems with being inclusive and it has not caught up with the times when it comes to embracing modern technology.
It was gloomy reading, with the poor performance of Avon and Surrey showing just how bad it was in some services. There was only one ‘Outstanding’ grade – Lancashire got that for values and culture. Against that backdrop, what would the inspectors say that would be very different by looking at another 16 services?
Inconsistency was the word of the day. That relates mostly to the way things are done when it comes to IRMPs and measuring things like response times. The push in the report towards some national standards was pretty strong and provides yet more evidence for the Fire Standards Board to work with to determine where to set its priorities as it begins its work.
It is no surprise that fire and rescue services do things differently: there are many different governance models and there are wide variations in the size of fire and rescue services across the country. The impact of austerity has hit some services much harder than others.
The push for localism from government when fire came under the communities and local government brief meant that the intentions in the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act could be realised but at a cost. The cost is that there are now 45 different ways of doing things in English fire and rescue services. Fifteen years on from that seminal Act, the consequences are now being realised and the Inspectorate is saying there should be more consistent (read national) approaches to delivery.
Roy Wilsher, responding as Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, is explicit about the need for a better funding solution. “It is also apparent there is a clear difference between larger and smaller services; we cannot ignore the impact almost ten years of localism has had on fire services and what they can deliver. Smaller services have struggled more with this and they simply cannot mirror large services; this needs addressing in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.”
The push for the government’s spending review to ease the financial problems is also picked up by the LGA. “With local government facing an £8 billion funding gap by 2025, the government needs to use the spending review to ensure fire and rescue services are properly resourced and funded to ensure they can continue to protect the public in all circumstances.” The big issue at the moment is the uncertainty about when the spending review will happen; until Brexit is resolved, a full blown spending review is not on the cards.
Helpfully the Inspectorate provides some detail on what could be done in the meantime to improve consistency without an injection of cash from the government. In the first of two recommendations in the tranche two report HMICFRS set out four priority areas to focus efforts:
2. Identify and measure emergency response standards
3. Define high-risk premises
4. Set expectation for frequency of high-risk premises inspection.
The NFCC is already doing some work in this area as part of its Community Risk Programme and, of course, the Fire Standards Board will be looking carefully at this recommendation to see how that will influence its own priorities. Good job really, because the Inspectorate is expecting to see what it calls ‘significant progress’ towards a common set of definitions and standards by December 2020.
The second recommendation is framed around the national work that is going on and how it needs more financial support from the government. Perhaps there is more cash down the back of the Home Office’s sofa that it can use at the tail end of this spending review.
Some ‘Outstanding’ Services
At the other end of the spectrum HMICFRS handed out six ‘Inadequate’ grades. Northamptonshire got two – one for response to fires and other emergencies, the other for getting the right people with the right skills. Greater Manchester and West Sussex come out poorly under the People pillar, with ‘Inadequate’ grades for ensuring fairness and diversity. They both received the same mix of requires improvement and inadequate grades, but only West Sussex is graded ‘Inadequate’ overall under the People pillar. West Sussex also gets the lowest grade for its fire protection activity.
Overall the inspector notes: ‘We have concerns about the performance of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service in keeping people safe and secure. In particular, we have serious concerns about how it looks after its people. In view of these findings, we have been in regular contact with the chief fire officer, as we do not underestimate how much improvement is needed’.
There are four areas where HMICFRS sets out a cause of concern: prevention activity does not always align with risks in the IRMP; risk-based inspection programmes to identify high-risk buildings are not good enough; staff act in ways that go against core values that leads to bullying in the workplace; and it does not engage with or seek feedback from staff.
The first two concerns were the focus of a revisit made by the inspectors in January 2019. HMI Dru Sharpling notes in her letter to the service that she would like to see quicker action to deal with backlogs in home fire safety visits and fire safety audits. It is not clear why the other two concerns are not discussed in this correspondence, but with another revisit schedule for September 2019, West Sussex will have to show some real progress in the first two areas if not all four.
Neil Stocker, the Acting Chief Fire Officer for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, issued a response to their inspection report on the same day. He addresses the areas of concern and sets out the work he and his staff are doing to address the deficiencies. He does not mention budget as a reason why the work is not up to standard. Conversely, the local FBU response squarely places the blame on budget cuts.
“The Fire Brigades Union has challenged senior leaders and councillors in West Sussex for years about the systematic decimation of the service as result of austerity measures. Since 2010, WSFRS have cut £7 million from their budget, axed 11 fire appliances and removed 305 firefighters – a loss of 37 per cent of its workforce. We are not surprised to see that the outcome of these cuts has been a failure to adequately protect the residents of West Sussex.”
The Inspectorate is concerned about funding in other services too. It cites the examples of Northumberland and Northamptonshire where any further budget cuts will have severe impacts on the delivery of services to the public.
The Northumberland report shows ‘Requires Improvement’ across the board with the exception of responding to risks, where it gets a ‘Good’ grade. The Efficiency write up is alarming and provides a stark example of the impact of austerity.
‘This is a fire service which has already had to make significant savings. It has done this by reducing the numbers of support staff and management, and by changing its operating model. But the service is struggling to align its plans to the significant cuts in staffing it has made. The cuts have created gaps that have affected its activities, including its core functions of prevention and protection, as well as its broader ability to change and improve’.
How is Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, trapped in the county council, expected to make all the improvements set out by the Inspectorate when further savings are expected to be made in future years? Moreover for a service that has the third lowest budget for operational firefighting activity after the Isles of Scilly and Isle of Wight, how can it be expected to make further savings without risk of not being able to fulfil its legal obligations for the safety of its own community?
HMICFRS put this in stark terms: ‘The service has been asked to make further budget reductions of £1.1m over the next three years. It has yet to develop plans to ensure it can provide a resilient fire and rescue service that meets the level of service set out in the IRMP’.
A rescue by the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner is not on the cards for now. PCC Dame Vera Baird stepped down recently and her replacement will only be in office a short time before facing the electorate in the May 2020 PCC elections. Northumbria covers two PCC areas and for now the PCC has a place on neighbouring Tyne and Wear’s Fire and Rescue Authority. It is unlikely that Tyne and Wear, a large Metropolitan authority, would countenance a takeover by the PCC as part of a bid to rescue Northumberland.
Of course, this is exactly what happened in Northamptonshire. This has been well recorded in previous issues of FIRE, but with the spotlight on them from HMICFRS the depth of the financial problems in Northamptonshire is clear for all to see. Bullish PCC Stephen Mold, now Police Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire, is on a mission to make improvements to fire and the inspection report will likely show no surprises for him.
Inconsistency and a National Approach
While the summary report of tranche two places a different emphasis on where it is concerned, it does not diminish the areas where work still needs to be done. Focusing on the inconsistency that is the result of 15 years of localism tells the Fire and Rescue Service what it already knows, as IRMPs are about local risks and each service will have different ways of measuring and responding to them.
If the answer to the problem of inconsistency is some kind of national approach, then it will need to be carefully considered to see how a new balance of national and local can be achieved to deliver improvement across all fire and rescue services. Gaining consensus for national approaches will require time and the NFCC’s Community Risk Programme looks like the place to start. With HMICFRS recommending that the Home Office put some more resources into national organisations, perhaps there will be more money to get this work done soon.