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Swift and sustained action needed

19 December 2018

MOST FIRE and rescue services are good at keeping the public safe from fire and other emergencies, but there are concerns about how services carry out protection duties and the environment in which their staff operate, according to a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

HMICFRS has published the results of the first independent inspection into fire and rescue services (FRSs) for 12 years. This is the first of three tranches of reports to be issued over the next twelve months, as a result of ongoing inspections of the 45 fire and rescue services in England.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, Zoë Billingham, who led the report said, “We looked at 14 fire and rescue services in this first phase of our reports on the fire and rescue services, and we were pleased to find that overall, when people really need them, fire and rescue services respond quickly, and they do this with bravery and dedication. Anyone who saw coverage of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower will appreciate the danger that firefighters put themselves into, in order to keep people safe. The public rightly hold the work of fire and rescue services in high regard.

“This is the first time that fire and rescue services have been independently inspected in 12 years, and so it is not surprising perhaps that we found that there is some work for services to do. For example, a vital part of a fire and rescue service’s role is to ensure that premises are being kept safe, but protection work is not a priority currently. This integral part of a fire and rescue service’s role has not been given sufficient focus and that needs to change.

“We were also concerned to find fundamental cultural problems in too many services. We found extraordinarily outdated practices, like no dedicated provision for female firefighters to change or shower, or staff being humiliated by their peers. Too often these outdated practices are not occurring under the radar – most worryingly they are seen as the norm. Swift and sustained action is required for fire and rescue services to create a modern, inclusive environment, where everyone feels welcome.”

The 14 fire and rescue services were assessed against:

  • How effective they are in keeping people safe from fire and other risks;

  • How efficient they are in keeping safe from fire and other risks; and

  • How well they look after their people.

Fire and rescue services were given overall graded assessments for each of these questions as well as graded judgments for each sub-question that made up the overall.

Overall most fire and rescue services are operationally effective, with ten services judged to be ‘good’ and four ‘requiring improvement’. This judgment is reached by HMICFRS’s assessment of services’ activities in understanding risk, prevention, protection, response and responding to national incidents. Generally, services were effective in keeping the public safe, but the report detailed concerns over the way services regulate fire safety, with fire safety audits almost halving (42 percent) since 2010/11. In this respect, there were eight services ‘requiring improvement’ and one service was found to be ‘inadequate’, with many teams understaffed and under-resourced.

Half of the services were judged to be good at how they use resources to manage risk and how well they are using their resources to ensure they are affordable now and in the future. Five services ‘require improvement’ and one service was found to be ‘inadequate’. The report also notes that some fire services carried very high levels of reserves, which should be used to invest in things that will help them to be efficient in the future. Inspectors found that some services had out-dated processes and systems in place that prevented staff being as productive as they could otherwise be.

The area of greatest concern highlighted in the report was how staff were treated in FRSs. Only three services were graded as ‘good’, with ten requiring improvement and one judged to be ‘inadequate’. A particular concern highlighted in the report is an environment in which inspectors were present when insensitive and inappropriate language was used and in which they were told of autocratic and domineering behaviour by managers. The report emphasises that services needed to improve significantly the culture in which staff work, encourage diversity and develop talent to ensure that the public is better served.

HMICFRS will report on the next tranche of 16 FRS inspections, alongside an additional overview report, in June 2019.