How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
An effective fire and rescue service will identify and assess the full range of foreseeable fire and rescue risks its community faces. It will target its fire prevention and protection activities to those who are at greatest risk from fire. It will make sure businesses comply with fire safety legislation. When the public calls for help, the fire and rescue service should respond promptly with the right skills and equipment to deal with the incident effectively. Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.
The service has dealt with budget and workforce reductions over the past ten years. It continues to provide its main functions – namely prevention, protection and response – in increasingly tight financial constraints, striving to provide more with less. To its credit, it has reshaped its emergency response resources so they can meet current risk and demand. To do this it developed a unique risk and demand-led response model. The service has undertaken extensive research to understand where and when demand is greatest and has put in place a flexible workforce plan to achieve its priorities. Despite the service’s innovative approach, this model is ultimately unsustainable due to the financial constraints placed on the service.
The service understands the risk of fire and other emergencies and uses a wide range of data to inform this understanding. The service has an effective rolling five-year public safety plan. It collects and uses information effectively. But it could do more to assure itself that it completes all site inspections within the agreed timeframes.
The service requires improvement in the way it prevents fires and other risks. It shares data with other organisations to identify people particularly at risk. The service does attempt to visit those most at risk from fire. But its approach falls far short of the national average. The service does not evaluate its fire and wellness visits and can’t measure the impact of such work. It promotes community safety effectively and collaborates well with others such as Thames Valley Police and local authorities.
The service must improve the way it protects the public through fire regulation. Its audit and inspection rates are broadly in line with the average for England. But it is unclear whether the service completes pre-planned audit programme (PAP) inspections of identified high-risk properties within the stated timeframe. The service should ensure it effectively evaluates its current attendance policy on automatic fire alarms and consider, in particular, the impact on operational resourcing and the public. It does work with other organisations but its interaction with local businesses to educate them about complying with fire regulations is limited.
The service requires improvement to how it responds to fires and other emergencies. It has developed and implemented an innovative, flexible and scalable approach to operational resourcing based on an intelligence-led risk and demand model which embraces both immediate response and wider resilience requirements. However, it cannot consistently respond to risk with the resources appropriate to its public safety plan. Commanders have a good understanding of national guidance for decision making. The service holds debriefs and shares information to improve the way it works with staff.
The service is good at responding to national risks. It holds national assets for dealing with a variety of incidents. It works well with Thames Valley police and local authorities and has officers trained to support incidents that involve attacks by marauding armed terrorists.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
All fire and rescue services should identify and assess all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks. They should also prevent and mitigate these risks.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Understanding local and community risk
Buckinghamshire FRS has built a well-developed and wide-ranging local and community risk profile. It used this risk profile to develop its most recent integrated risk management plan (IRMP), known locally as the Public Safety Plan 2015–2020.
The service appointed an independent company to consult the public and interested parties when it last produced its IRMP. This generated 232 responses, including 50 people attending public focus groups across Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire. It used this feedback to shape proposals.
The service uses a wide range of data to inform its risk profiling. This includes information about age, ethnicity, deprivation, health and welfare. It also shares information with other Thames Valley partner organisations such as the police, other fire services and the local resilience forum (LRF). It works closely with others such as local housing associations, mental health teams and other blue light organisations to reduce the risk of fire and promote community safety.
The service uses geographical software to identify where those at greatest risk of fire are located. To do this it inputs a range of datasets, including historical incident, demographic and health and lifestyle data. The software enables the service to highlight the properties and individuals who are at the highest risk from fire. So, the service can target prevention and protection work where it is most needed.
The service has an ongoing process to understand future risk factors. These might include the built environment, infrastructure (for example HS2) and the county’s population and demographic changes.
Having an effective risk management plan
The service’s public safety plan effectively sets out how the service will manage and reduce risk in the county. The plan identifies current and future risk factors within the service area such as:
- the ageing population;
- the M40 corridor; and
- house fires caused by risk factors associated with deprivation.
The service has introduced a premises risk management system (PRMS). This gives operational firefighters access to information about prevention, protection and response to help them effectively respond to incidents. It also holds a comprehensive risk register that is linked to the regional risks held by the Thames Valley LRF, of which the service is a member.
The service’s Public Safety Plan is in line with the requirements of the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England. It reviews its risk information regularly to ensure it is current. It uses these reviews to update the safety plan in response to any changes to the nature and level of local risks.
The service’s aims are to:
- prevent incidents that cause harm;
- protect homes, public buildings and businesses from the effects of fire;
- provide a timely and proportionate response to incidents by allocating assets and resources in relation to risk and demand; and
- offer best value for money to Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes residents and ensure that the service is compliant with regulatory requirements.
Maintaining risk information
Buckinghamshire FRS uses its latest incident data and operational activity information effectively to ensure its firefighters understand risk within its area. Each fire station has a TV monitor which provides firefighters with live information on site-specific risk, operational incidents and incident response times.
Firefighters collect information about certain buildings as well as permanent and temporary risks to operational activity. This information is then used to plan firefighting activity. The resulting site-specific risk information (SSRI) is held on mobile data terminals (MDTs) on fire engines. The service has recently installed a new database which stores all risk information from prevention, protection and response activity. The new system allows staff to access, via an MDT, accurate risk information for all domestic and commercial premises. We found this ensures there is a common understanding of risk throughout the organisation and effective sharing of information between departments and functions. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of their service (please see Annex A for more details). Of 93 firefighters who completed the survey, 91 percent stated that they had a good understanding of the risks they were likely to face when attending operational incidents.
The service undertakes site visits each year. As at 31 March 2019, the service had 1,487 sites that required visiting. In the year ending 31 March 2019, the service had carried out 445 visits on these sites. The service stated that it inspects premises that it defines as “very high risk” annually. High-risk premises get a visit every three years. And the service will then visit medium and low-risk premises every five years. The service expects operational staff to complete site visits each month. But we found limited management of this activity. So, we couldn’t determine whether the service is on track to complete all its site visits within the agreed timeframes.
Operational crews receive a range of information about changing risk at the beginning of every shift. This includes weather conditions, road closures, health and safety information, and recent operational incident activity. The service prioritises health and safety, and staff receive regular update bulletins via email.
The service works well with its neighbouring fire and rescue services, Oxfordshire and Royal Berkshire, to achieve operational alignment. A senior manager attends regional meetings to discuss and plan for managing local, regional and national risks.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Areas for improvement
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
- The service should understand the reasons for its reducing number of prevention visits and consider how it can better target those who are most at risk to fire.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Buckinghamshire FRS’s approach to prevention requires improvement. The service has a clear vision, namely to ensure Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes are the safest places in England in which to live, work and travel. Furthermore, it aims to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of the community, by identifying those groups who are at greatest risk. And it aims to work effectively with health and housing partner organisations to help prevent fires and other incidents from occurring as well as safeguarding those who are most vulnerable.
The service’s prevention strategy focuses on four pillars:
- safer homes;
- road safety; and
- fire service as a health and wellbeing asset.
Its prevention framework details how the service will target those most at risk of fire.
It uses a risk scoring system to prioritise those at greatest risk. It effectively records this information on its premises risk management system.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 3,171 home fire safety checks, known locally as “fire and wellness visits”. This equates to 3.9 visits per 1,000 population which is below the national average of 10.4 visits per 1,000 population. They are available to people at greatest risk from fire or who are deemed more vulnerable from other societal or health and wellbeing risks. During these visits prevention-trained staff provide advice on fire safety and fitting fire alarms. They also give advice on social welfare, and preventing slips, trips and falls. The staff can make referrals to local partners if necessary.
The service is not effective at targeting people who are most at risk from fire. In the year ending 31 March 2018, the service targeted 34.8 percent of fire and wellness visits at households occupied by an elderly person and 12.6 percent to households occupied by a person declaring a disability. These are below the England rate although they have improved since 2016/17. This low percentage is surprising considering the service aims to target those most at risk of fire and use a range of data – including Exeter data – to understand their communities.
Fire and wellness appointments are booked by the service delivery administration team. Operational staff and community safety co-ordinators make the visits. We heard from staff making visits that co-ordination and management could be improved. This would maximise productivity and support better prioritisation.
The service has not evaluated this work, so it can’t determine how successful its prevention activity is.
Promoting community safety
Buckinghamshire FRS has several effective programmes supporting its prevention strategy.
The service backs national prevention campaigns run by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and the Home Office. These are locally managed, but we found little senior management oversight.
The service carries out targeted prevention work, too. For example, the service attended local schools in October 2018 during student safety week. It also worked
with local boating communities, providing safety advice and checking carbon monoxide alarms.
We found good engagement between the service and with the diverse communities across Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire. Operational staff told us how they had specifically educated local communities about home fire safety and the dangers of deliberate fire-setting. They used multi-lingual information tools to communicate their message effectively.
The service’s prevention team works with a wide range of partners including district and county councils. It will refer households who identify themselves at risk from fire to the appropriate organisation. The service identifies the risk to people using oxygen cylinders in the home. It works with a local provider to identify the premises concerned and gives bespoke safety advice to those individuals.
The service receives referrals from others such as the local police force, ambulance service and housing associations. It effectively provides safety advice to those who are at greatest risk from fire. The prevention team told us how they have trained PCSOs and local housing officers in home fire safety. They have also made joint safety visits targeting those most at risk from fire.
The service hosts blood donation sessions at Aylesbury fire station, working closely with NHS Blood and Transplant. People attending as donors received fire safety advice from the service.
The service effectively engages with other partner organisations to promote the Community Card initiative. This is a multi-agency event at local schools to raise awareness of the role of public sector organisations and promote safer communities across Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire.
The service trains staff effectively to recognise vulnerable children and adults and to make safeguarding referrals where necessary. It does this through online e-learning packages and face-to-face workshops. We found the service had a good system and staff were confident in identifying safeguarding issues to other agencies. The service managers attend safeguarding board meetings, risk assessment multi-agency panels and multi-agency risk assessment conferences.
Buckinghamshire FRS is part of the Thames Valley Road Safety Forum. It works closely with other forum members including Thames Valley Police, Buckinghamshire County Council and Milton Keynes Council.
The service’s road safety initiatives are targeted and aligned to NFCC themes and with Thames Valley Police data. For example, staff visit local schools to educate young people in road safety. Operational staff took part in the BRAKE road safety week, the NFCC road safety week and walk to school week. Road safety officers also offer the “Safe Drive, Stay Alive” programme for schools with children in years 12 and 13.
Fire stations host road safety initiatives such as checking tyre safety, child car seat fitting and Biker Down, which provides first aid and safety advice to motorcyclists during the NFCC road safety week.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it allocates enough resources to a prioritised and risk-based inspection programme.
- The service should review its response to false alarms to ensure operational resources are used effectively (termed ‘unwanted fire signals’).
- The service should ensure it works with local businesses and large organisations to share information and expectations on compliance with fire safety regulations.
All fire and rescue services should assess fire risks in buildings and, when 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.
The service has identified three factors in its IRMP and protection strategy that determine the risk focus of the service’s proactive audit work. These factors are:
- life risk;
- history of poor compliance; and
- whether the premises are of economic, social or historic impact.
The number of fire safety protection audits completed by the service in the year to 31 March 2018 is the lowest since 2010/11: 364 compared to a peak of 1,433 in the year ending 31 March 2013. However, this equates to 2.9 audits per 100 known premises which is broadly in line with the England rate of 3.
The service has a complex definition of ‘high risk’. Premises are scored based on elements such as age of the building, means of escape, occupancy, management of building, active fire prevention systems etc. Should the score be high enough, the premises are added to the service’s pre-determined audit programme (PAP). However, there is no provision within this process to identify new or converted buildings or those which have not already been audited.
The service has no target for the number of high-risk premises it has to audit each year. As at 31 March 2019, the service had 952 known high-risk premises and, in the year ending 31 March 2019, had conducted 203 audits (21.3 percent). Protection activities are largely reactive, and the service undertakes limited proactive inspections from their pre-determined audit programme. Audits are mostly completed because of fire safety complaints and following fires in certain buildings. The service engages in a Thames Valley collaborative arrangement with other Thames Valley FRS to provide out-of-hours specialist fire safety advice and take urgent enforcement actions to protect people who are at risk.
The service now has fewer qualified fire regulation inspectors. Numbers fell from
16 as at 31 March 2013 to 10 as at 31 March 2019. Managing this workload with a limited number of qualified inspection officers seriously reduces the service’s ability to do proactive work at the highest risk buildings and to fulfil its pre-determined audit programme.
The protection strategy aims to comply with the NFCC competency framework for business fire safety advisers. This is a good model to ensure staff are suitably trained and have the practical experience needed to undertake systematic, consistent and robust fire safety audits.
The service received 1,802 building regulation consultations in the year to 31 March 2019. Of these, 81.7 percent were completed within the required timeframe. This level has remained broadly stable over the last two years.
The service’s use of enforcement powers to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations is limited. The number of enforcement notices is low, given the number of audits resulting in an unsatisfactory outcome. Of the 364 audits carried out in the year to 31 March 2018, 66 percent were unsatisfactory. This is high compared to the England average, which is 32 percent. It demonstrates the service is targeting its activities in the right area. But the service should do more to address the overall volume of audits and inspection, which remains low.
A factor behind the service’s low levels of enforcement activity is the limited resource available for investigation and prosecution. While we recognise these resourcing concerns, this should not be a reason to avoid acting if necessary, to ensure compliance with fire safety legislation.
In line with the Regulators’ Code, the service’s main approach is to work with businesses to support compliance rather than using its powers to prosecute. While we recognise this approach, we would still expect services to use their enforcement powers if building owners don’t make enough progress.
Working with others
The service has arrangements in place to share information and intelligence with relevant local partner organisations such as the police force and housing providers.
The only local businesses it engages with about fire safety regulations are those involved with primary authority schemes.
The service attends all automatic fire alarm (AFA) activations. This is unusual. Most services now challenge AFA calls to ascertain whether there is an actual fire before mobilising resource. It has appointed an officer to work with responsible persons in commercial premises to reduce the likelihood of further occurrences. In the year to 31 March 2019, the service received 2,264 requests for assistance to AFAs. Of these, they attended all but three of them. The service’s work to reduce these alarms is having some success with repeat offending premises. But overall, we didn’t see evidence of sustained improvement. So, the service should consider what more can be done to reduce the pressure of AFA activations on emergency resources.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has a sustainable system to provide its operational response model.
- The service should improve the availability of its on-call fire engines to respond to incidents.
Managing assets and resources
In the year to 31 December 2018, the service responded to 8,192 incidents. This equates to 10.2 incidents per 1,000 population which is comparable to the England rate of 10.4 over the same period. As at 31 March 2018, the service has 20 fire stations and 30 fire engines. Data provided by the service shows it has two swift water rescue boat teams and four urban search and rescue vehicles.
Since 2010, the service has seen a reduction in revenue and its workforce and has introduced an innovative risk and demand-led model which resources against low level daily demand and infrequent high risk. The service has undertaken analysis of its incident data and knows that it will need:
- up to 12 wholetime fire engines deployed to operational incidents simultaneously in the same hour on 99 percent of occasions; and
- 13 or more fire engines deployed to operational incidents simultaneously in the same hour on only 1 percent of occasions.
This resourcing model is designed to provide enough fire engines to cover all incidents from predicted low-level daily demand. It also lets fire control increase resources as required to meet infrequent high risk.
The chief fire officer, strategic management board and representative bodies are fully aware of the financial challenges the service faces in managing its resources and have worked constructively to implement the risk and demand-led model. But despite its willingness to do more with less and its potential to be an effective resourcing model, it does not consistently have enough firefighters to crew the minimum number of fire engines to meet this model.
In the year to 31 March 2019, its overall fire engine availability was 47.8 percent which is very low compared to other services. While its 12 wholetime crewed fire engines were almost always available during this same period, the service relies on wholetime, flexible duty and on-call staff to work overtime shifts to keep these fire engines available. As a result, its 18 on-call fire engines were only available 13.6 percent of the time. This reflects the difficulty the service has in recruiting on-call firefighters. This is experienced nationally. The service has introduced a formalised bank shift system to maintain appliance availability, however it cannot afford within its current budget the number of firefighters it needs to resource its risk-based demand-led crewing model.
The Thames Valley Fire Control Service manages emergency calls across Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Royal Berkshire. The three fire services respond to calls across borders, to ensure the quickest fire engine is always sent, no matter where the incident occurs. The three services have agreed standard pre-determined attendances for most incidents. The training for control room staff is well managed and mobilisation generally good.
Buckinghamshire FRS is not meeting the response standards it has set itself. The service told us this is because in trying to align reduced resources to areas of greatest demand it does not always reach the outlying areas of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes within the agreed standard. The agreed service standard states that the first operational resource for all emergency incidents would arrive on scene at all incidents within 10 minutes of being mobilised on 80 percent of occasions and 99 percent within 20 minutes. In the year ending 31 March 2019, the first operational resource arrived at the scene of an incident within 10 minutes 73.1 percent of the time and arrived within 20 minutes 97.7 percent of the time.
In July 2018, the service agreed with its fire and rescue authority a different approach to reporting attendance times. This approach better suited the capacity of the risk-based demand-led model to work to an average attendance time no worse than ten seconds more than the average of the previous five-year period. In the year ending 31 March 2019, the service was meeting this new measurement. But this agreement means the response could potentially get worse and the service will still meet its response standards.
The Home Office collects and publishes data on response times by measuring the time between the call being made and the first fire engine arriving at the scene.
This provides consistent data across all 45 services. But services measure their own response times in different ways and Buckinghamshire FRS excludes call handling times as part of their response standards.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires including call handling was 10 minutes and 13 seconds. This is an increase of 12 seconds from the previous year. The service’s average response time to primary fires is broadly similar to the average for other significantly rural services.
The service’s incident commanders can command assets effectively. Incident commanders receive regular training on thematic-based scenarios such as building fires, road traffic collisions and hazardous materials. The service’s training team assesses them. After the assessments, incident commanders receive a score and a development plan. The service assesses commanders for command competence every two years. It provides regular training to all operational personnel for managing incidents and scenario-based training.
Senior officers attend regular training days to review operational incidents, share learning and report findings to operational staff.
The service’s policy for incident command reflects national operational guidance.
We found commanders at all levels had a good understanding of command including the decision-control process and how to apply operational discretion. Operational staff showed how the incident command pack documents on fire engines assist with and inform decision making during operational incidents.
Keeping the public informed
The service is good at telling the community about incidents. Its communications team can provide information about incidents using the service’s social media platforms and local media outlets. The service encourages stations to have their own social media accounts, although we found the use of this varied across stations.
The service has recently run a social media campaign with other Thames Valley LRF partners to advise on preparing for an emergency. In total, according to data provided by the service, the campaign provided 30 pieces of information and guidance.
We found operational staff to be confident in identifying vulnerable people and in recording and reporting safeguarding concerns where necessary. Operational staff could give examples of feedback that came back about referrals.
Evaluating operational performance
The service has a good approach to reviewing incidents, evaluating performance and sharing what it has learned with staff and partner agencies.
Operational staff stated that there are hot debriefs for most incidents. These include other blue light responders where appropriate. For larger incidents, the service holds bigger debriefs. This includes both command debriefs, and multi-agency debriefs for larger and protracted incidents. The service demonstrates good practice when collecting operational information. Its operational assurance team identifies areas for improvement.
We saw examples where important learning points were shared with staff through a variety of means including:
- operational bulletins and newsletters;
- quizzes to test knowledge and understanding of recognised themes;
- an operational assurance newsletter providing monthly information on the previous month’s incident activity, referencing relevant policy and procedures along with operational recommendations linked to national operational guidance; and
- an online learning site – the Hub of Education and Training (HEAT) – that includes case studies on national operational learning from incidents across
The service expects operational staff to record all learning to confirm knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. The service also shares learning nationally. For example, it recently shared information about how it managed a service-wide issue with moisture in breathing apparatus cylinders. This issue could have had a significant impact on the health and safety of operational staff.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
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).
Buckinghamshire FRS has assessed its needs and developed clear plans to supplement resources during a major or long-lasting incident. The Thames Valley
Fire Control Service has an overview of the available fire engines. We saw how it can mobilise the quickest fire engine using its mobilisation system. Staff told us that the service provides comprehensive incident command training with incident management skills.
The service has urban search and rescue capability and swift water rescue capability at two different sites. It can deploy these nationally as required.
We found that operational staff can access key risk information on sites across the service area.
Working with other services
The service’s intraoperability with Oxfordshire and Royal Berkshire FRSs is good. The services have started to procure the same fire engines. This will improve how each service operates at cross-border incidents because staff will be familiar with the equipment on each engine.
We also saw close working with its other neighbouring services. For example, with Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service at Silverstone Circuit, a motor racing track which the service considers a cross-border risk. The service has carried out live and table-top exercises in the last 12 months to ensure both services understand the risk. The service has recently carried out training on Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles. It ran workshops for staff with Royal Berkshire FRS about how blue light services can work together in a more effective and efficient manner.
Working with other agencies
Buckinghamshire FRS works closely with other agencies. It is an active member of the Thames Valley LRF. The LRF meets each month to build and test plans against risk within the region. It recently ran an exercise about a terrorist threat within the county. The service is well prepared to respond to a multi-agency incident and has arrangements to respond to a terrorist threat. The service has specially trained personnel who will respond and support a strategic co-ordinating group helping other agencies to deal with large-scale incidents.
In October 2018, the service hosted a national chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence exercise. It and other agencies tested local resilience, strategic incident command and cross-border arrangements. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, the service completed two exercises with other fire services, six joint exercises with multi-agency partners and 17 national resilience training events.
The service has effective arrangements to respond to a community risk identifiedby the LRF including a marauding terrorist attack. It has national inter-agency liaison officers to support incident commanders and the response provided by specialist teams.