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Avon 2018/19

Effectiveness

How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?

Last updated 20/12/2018
Requires improvement

Avon Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) is good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies. But it is unstructured in the way it asks the community about local risk. The current integrated risk management plan has good information about the context in which the service operates. But it does not have enough information about vulnerable people. The service gathers risk information, has a system for updating it and an established process for sharing it.

The service needs to improve the way it prevents fires and other risks. It aims to provide home fire safety checks based on risk. The service takes referrals for home fire safety checks from other organisations and these are subject to an assessment of vulnerability. The service provides good community safety information to the public. Not all staff properly understand safeguarding, particularly frontline staff. The service contributes to road safety planning in Avon. But road safety work is not co-ordinated.

The service needs to be better at protecting the public through fire regulation. The service acknowledges it has not met the requirements of its risk-based inspection programme. Avon FRS enforces fire regulations and prosecutes successfully. Its enforcement model is good. It is keen to work with other organisations and we saw examples of effective joint working. But it does only limited work with businesses to reduce unwanted fire signals. 

The service needs to improve how it responds to fires and other emergencies. The service has a plan for introducing national operational guidance. But there has been limited implementation of this guidance. Control room staff work effectively and efficiently. But crews could not show effective use of mobile data terminals to view risk information. This could put them at increased risk. The service consistently meets the standards of its crewing policy for wholetime fire engines.

Questions for Effectiveness

1

How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?

Good

Avon Fire and Rescue Service is good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure that staff are aware of the procedures for gathering and disseminating risk information about temporary events that are held within the service area, ensuring that the information is relevant and up to date.

All fire and rescue services should identify and assess all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks. They should also prevent and mitigate these risks.

Understanding local and community risk

The service asks the public about its integrated risk management plan (IRMP) in a limited way. The public can give the service feedback through its website in some areas, such as compliments or complaints, but there is nothing specific to the IRMP. It is unclear how the service talks with communities to better understand local risk.

The service is currently developing and designing a new IRMP that it will publish on 1 April 2019. It has completed a new strategic assessment to inform the IRMP. This assessment gives more understanding, considering the political, economic, social, technological and organisational changes in the business environment.

The service uses statistical analysis to inform prevention activity. Staff at fire stations have access to this information and can use it to target community safety activity.

The IRMP refers to the Avon and Somerset local resilience forum community risk register. We found an example where the service responded to a community risk by enhancing its capabilities for dealing with large-scale fuel fires. 

Having an effective risk management plan

The current IRMP covers the four years until 2020. It will be replaced in April 2019 by the IRMP that is currently in development. The plan gives good information on the national and local context in which the service operates. It refers to strategic plans for housing and transport growth in the region. But there is no data or information about the community profile and vulnerable groups within the IRMP. This means that the service does not understand community risk well enough to allocate resources appropriately.

The plan includes a range of proposals to make the savings needed during the term of the IRMP. These are linked to prevention, protection and response activity. Other savings proposals include plans to reconfigure some response capabilities and to move staff to support functions.

Maintaining risk information

Operational crews gather risk information about premises in their local areas. The information is stored on a database, which tells the crews when a revisit is due. All operational crews across the service can access this information using mobile data terminals and portable laptops.

Avon FRS shares risk information about operational activity and learning across the organisation. It is a well-established process that requires staff to sign to confirm that they have read the information.

We found that risk information for temporary events, for example large festivals, was not readily available. Before an event, station managers email local crews and the control room about any risks. But this process would only benefit local crews and not those attending from other stations across the service.

2

How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it targets its prevention work at people most at risk.
  • The service should ensure staff understand how to identify vulnerability and safeguard vulnerable people.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Prevention strategy

The service’s prevention strategy aims to provide home fire safety checks based on risk. It first identifies those people in the community who are most vulnerable from fire. The level of vulnerability will determine the type of visit. Level one visits are lower risk and conducted by operational crews. Level two and three are higher risk and conducted by community safety advisers and by staff from partner organisations who have more specialist skills.

The service has access to external data and uses it to direct resources for home fire safety checks. Operational staff can also use this data to direct their own prevention activity within the station area. Staff did not demonstrate to us that they understand this process. The service completes some home fire safety checks without any assessment of risk or vulnerability.

We found some inconsistency with the performance management of home fire safety checks. Avon FRS has removed targets for the number of home fire safety checks that crews need to complete. The service now focuses more on the quality of the visit and the time spent with the individual. But we found that some station managers had set local targets while others had not, which was contrary to the strategic direction of the service.

The service works in partnerships with other organisations, who can refer people to the service for a home fire safety check. The service does assess these partnership referrals according to the individual’s risk and vulnerability. Members of the public can also book a home fire safety check through the service’s website for either themselves or someone else. But when making a referral there is no facility to input information explaining the level of risk or why the individual is vulnerable. So public referrals are not necessarily targeted to the most vulnerable people.

Promoting community safety

The service’s website clearly displays information on community safety. The range of information is good and is easy to navigate.

We found that staff’s knowledge and level of understanding of safeguarding, and how to make a referral, is poor and inconsistent across the service. This is particularly evident among operational crews, both wholetime and on-call. Many of them could not describe when a safeguarding referral should be made.

The service’s prevention team works with public health, West of England Road Safety Partnership, safeguarding boards and police. The success of these partnerships is variable. The service is not clear about what outcomes it wants to achieve from these partnerships.

The service works with the charity Search and Rescue Assistance in Disaster (SARAID). It has also supported the training of community resilience teams (CRT). CRT members receive training from all three emergency services. They support the service in a range of ways when needed. Operational crews support this partnership and spoke highly of its benefits. The Avon CRT has initiated harbour patrols during the night, which have prevented four people from drowning.

Road safety

The service, through its IRMP, contributes to the joint local transport plan (road safety). The plan aims to save lives and reduce the effect of road traffic collisions on the emergency services. But, the service does not target road safety in a co-ordinated manner, rather, its activity is more sporadic.

The service’s website does provide a wide range of information covering all aspects of road safety. It has links to other organisations who can give further information.

3

How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?

Inadequate

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it addresses effectively the burden of false alarms (termed ‘unwanted fire signals’).

Cause of concern

Avon FRS isn’t doing enough to keep the public safe through regulation of fire safety. Its risk-based inspection programme is entirely reactive, as its inspection department doesn’t have enough staff.

Recommendations

  • By 31 March 2019, the service should make sure it has allocated enough resources to a risk-based inspection programme. This allocation must be informed by local risk and enable the service to fulfil its statutory obligations relating to technical fire safety.

All fire and rescue services should assess fire risks in buildings and, where necessary, require building owners to comply with fire safety legislation. Each service decides how many assessments it does each year. But it must have a locally determined, risk-based inspection programme for enforcing the legislation.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Risk-based approach

We found that the service’s protection team does not have sufficient resources to conduct the risk-based inspection programme.

There was a drop in the number of staff who were competent to carry out protection activities (fire safety short audit, fire safety audit, serve an enforcement notice and service a prohibition notice) from 12 (FTE) as at 31 March 2017 to 9.5 (FTE) as at 31 March 2018.

The service responds to fire safety concerns and complaints as well as post-fire incident audits. But through lack of capacity it has failed to meet the statutory building regulation consultation deadlines. And it has failed to meet the requirements of its risk-based inspection programme. The service acknowledges this and has recorded it on its corporate risk register.

The service has assessed those premises that have a sleeping risk, for example, hotels, as being the highest risk. But the service is not managing this risk with enough speed or priority. Protection activity operates on a reactive rather than proactive basis. Those premises that the service has identified as high risk are not audited within the timescale it has set.

Data provided by the service shows that there are 9,317 premises categorised as high risk (according to the service’s own definition). Of these, 115 were audited in the 12 months to 31 March 2018.

Fire and rescue services must be consulted for building regulations approval. Services must return building regulation consultations within 28 days. But the protection department has a three-month backlog of consultations. So, the service cannot effectively consult on these matters in line with its responsibility.

Crews can get advice from the protection team should they discover fire safety issues while at an incident or visiting commercial premises. Currently, operational crews have limited fire safety training and do not conduct fire safety audits. In future, operational crews will conduct low-level audits as part of the wider fire safety inspection programme.

The protection department has an effective quality assurance process to ensure protection officers’ audits are consistent. Each officer conducts an internal peer review as part of the assurance process. The protection manager then does a further quality assurance review, if needed, and gives feedback.

Enforcement

Avon FRS is experienced in taking enforcement action against those who fail to comply with the fire safety regulations. The service has had some successful prosecutions. The service works well with other organisations to share information on risk and take joint action when appropriate. They have done some joint training with approved inspectors to establish a greater understanding of each other’s role. This has led to better information sharing and effective working relationships.

The service has a good enforcement model. Before taking any action, it checks the potential case will pass the legal and public interest test. The service publishes outcomes from fire safety prosecutions on its website. 

Working with others

We found evidence of effective joint working with other organisations to understand risk and to share risk information. The service trains local authority approved inspectors on certain technical aspects of fire engineering. For example, the importance of travel distance and building engineering.

The service has an appetite to work with organisations and has some involvement with local organisations and agencies, for example, local housing associations. The service is involved in a primary authority scheme for a student letting agency. However, the protection team does not have enough staff or resources to collaborate effectively with such organisations, and the service does not fully benefit from such schemes.

The service has an unwanted fire signal policy which defines how it will reduce unwanted fire signals, but it doesn’t follow industry best practice. Avon FRS responds to a higher-than-average proportion of false alarms from unwanted fire signals. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, 47 percent of incidents attended by Avon FRS were false alarms compared with 40 percent across England as a whole. It does limited work with other organisations to reduce this burden. The service does have a plan to reduce the number of unwanted fire signals it attends, but it has yet to implement it. We would expect the service to work with building owners and managers to reduce this activity.

In assessing this question, we identified a cause of concern. We then asked the service to provide an action plan detailing its response to this concern. We revisited the service three months later to assess its progress.

Read the revisit findings letter

4

How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it understands what it needs to do to adopt national operational guidance, including joint and national learning. It should then put in place a plan to do so.
  • The service should ensure its staff can access risk information competently.
  • The service should ensure it has an effective system for staff to use learning and debriefs to improve operational response and incident command.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area. 

Managing assets and resources

The service has based its response standard on population densities. Bristol, Bath and Weston-super-Mare have a higher population and so have higher response standards. These are classified as category one areas. The rest of the service area is either category two or three.

The service has other response standards for when the incident is in a building where the initial call type is a fire. In a category one area, the first fire engine should arrive within eight minutes in 85 percent of incidents. The other categories and areas require a fire engine within ten minutes in 90 percent of incidents (category two) and 15 minutes in 95 percent of incidents (category three). For life-threatening special-service calls, for example road traffic collisions, the response standard is that a fire engine should get there in 15 minutes in 95 percent of incidents.

In the 12 months to 31 March 2018 all three performance targets were met:

  • category one incidents, the first fire engine arrived within eight minutes at 91 percent of incidents;
  • category two, within ten minutes at 98 percent of incidents; and
  • category three, within 15 minutes at 97 percent of incidents.

However, in April and May 2018 the service did not meet its performance standards in categories two and three.

A team in the service headquarters manages annual leave, training and short-term postings for operational staff. This ensures that wholetime fire engines are consistently crewed in accordance with the service’s crewing policy. Control room staff have the capability to resolve any short-term crewing deficiencies to ensure enough fire engines are always available.

All operational staff follow a maintenance of competence programme to ensure they maintain the skills needed to perform their role. The service centrally monitors competence levels and produces a monthly report. On-call and wholetime staff are positive about the training they receive. This includes the practical sessions at the Avonmouth training facility.

Response

National operational guidance is a programme that intends to provide a standard set of operational guidance for FRSs across the UK. The service has introduced a process to manage the implementation of national operational guidance over the next two years. But it does not indicate in what order it will introduce this guidance. We saw limited evidence that the service had implemented any national operational guidance to date.

The incident command national operational guidance has some common phrases. The term ‘operational discretion’ may be used when managing incidents. The understanding of this term among incident commanders in Avon FRS is inconsistent. On occasions it was confused with the term ‘critical decision’, which is a specific phrase used within Avon. Staff gave conflicting examples of each and could not describe the differences between the two terms. This has the potential to cause confusion across the service and when operating with other fire and rescue services.

Control room staff have the appropriate training and skills to perform their role. They have ready access to guidance notes and aide-memoires on the mobilising system when handling emergency calls. During our visits, we saw staff handling calls and mobilising the appropriate resources efficiently and effectively. Control room staff add risk information into the mobilising system, for example, oxygen stored at domestic premises. Crews responding to incidents can access this information.

Operational crews can access risk information about premises from mobile data terminals in fire engines. During our inspection, staff were consistently unable to show us how to use the mobile data terminals effectively to retrieve premises risk information. This has the potential to have an adverse effect on public and firefighter safety.

Command

The service trains and assesses its commanders in line with nationally agreed standards. Incident commanders feel well trained and are assessed regularly using simulated incidents. At incidents, they use a range of support materials including check lists and aide-memoires. Commanders use risk cards that contain information about specific risks. This information is available on the mobile data terminals.

Keeping the public informed

The service has good processes in place to share information with the public and partner organisations using social media and the website. The service’s communications team gives more detailed incident information to the public, such as safety critical messages and road closures. Middle managers have also received in-house training so that they can update the media about incidents.

Control room staff are trained to advise members of the public who are involved in a house fire and cannot escape. They have access to guidance notes to ensure they give consistent information to the public.

Evaluating operational performance

We consistently found evidence that operational staff are not fully aware of the service’s operational debrief process. Local hot debriefs (namely debriefs shortly after the incident) occur routinely. But staff do not complete the relevant documentation. As a result, the service does not always share learning across the organisation.

Following a more complex incident, the service states that it undertakes a more structured debrief. Again, we found that staff are not clear as to when to conduct these.

The service has developed a new electronic system to record learning from incidents and is implementing it service wide. The new process will replace the current paper-based system. It should provide greater opportunity for shared learning and improvements across the service.

5

How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?

Good

All fire and rescue services must be able to respond effectively to multi-agency and cross-border incidents. This means working with other fire and rescue services (known as intraoperability) and emergency services (known as interoperability).

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Preparedness

The service hosts a wide range of national resilience assets. Each day the control room tells the national resilience fire control centre which of these is available.

The service has an effective training programme to ensure that its urban search and rescue team maintains its competence and capability.

Avon FRS has arrangements for a major failure of the control room. The service has a secondary control room available for immediate use if the main control room cannot be used.

The service has site-specific emergency plans for its highest-risk premises. They are all linked to a testing and exercising programme. The service conducts exercises in the Severn Tunnel every quarter. This makes sure all operational crews know the risks associated with this site.

Working with other services

The service has signed agreements with its neighbouring services for mutual assistance and mobilises resources when asked. Avon FRS hosts a wide range of national resilience assets. These include a high-volume pump, water rescue, marauding terrorist attack (MTA) capability and urban search and rescue. The service can deploy these nationally using a mixture of on-call and wholetime firefighters. The service has a range of specialist advisers who can support other services.

Working with other agencies

Avon FRS is an active participant in its local resilience forum. Other members hold it in high regard. The service helps plan events and participates in joint operations.

The service is well prepared to respond to an incident in the Severn Tunnel. The Severn Tunnel contingency planning group co-ordinates and plans site-specific exercises. The service maintains some specialist equipment specifically for use in the event of an emergency in the tunnel. 

The service is well prepared to respond to an MTA. Control room staff are aware of and understand their role in the event of an incident. The MTA team is well prepared to respond to an MTA both locally and nationally. We found evidence that Avon FRS has done joint training exercises with other agencies.