How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.
The service uses a wide range of data to plan. This includes partners’ data. It updates station plans every year. This helps it identify people who are most at risk. But it doesn’t collect enough risk information about buildings. Firefighters attending incidents aren’t routinely accessing risk information on mobile data terminals and they often rely on paper records.
The service uses analysis well to prioritise its prevention work. It plans to increase its home fire safety checks. It doesn’t do these consistently in more remote areas.
As part of Cornwall Council, the service has greater focus on community safety. It works well with partners (like the police). It uses campaigns to support the priorities. But we found limited evaluation of its prevention activities.
The service knows it needs to appoint and train more staff to do fire safety audits. It should supervise these audits better. It should also do them more consistently in remote areas. But it must be sure that staff use their powers when needed.
The service has set a challenging 100 percent target for a ten-minute response time for fire engines across Cornwall. Data provided by the service shows that it fails to meet this target on one in four occasions, particularly in rural areas. On-call fire engine availability averages 80–85 percent which means not all fire engines are available across Cornwall at any one time. The service should improve the information control room staff use to send fire engines to incidents. Also, not all staff know enough about safeguarding and how to refer vulnerable people for more support.
The service doesn’t yet follow some important national guidance on recording decisions at incidents. It needs to improve how it monitors incident commanders and gives them feedback. It doesn’t debrief often enough, and it has no effective process for sharing learning.
The service prepares well with partners for major incidents. Incidents like the flooding in Coverack show that the service can respond effectively. Staff know procedures well. But the service should co-ordinate better its testing and exercising at high-risk premises.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it gathers and records relevant and up-to-date risk information.
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
The service’s integrated risk management plan (IRMP) is part of a wider plan which covers the council’s strategic themes. For the purposes of this report we will refer to this as the IRMP.
The service consults the public and gives them and other interested parties enough time to consider the IRMP. The service received 602 responses to the IRMP for the period 2016–2019. The service consults diverse groups such as Disability Cornwall and we found evidence that the service has extended consultation periods to allow for feedback.
The service gathers a wide range of data – including data from partners, such as adult social care – and uses this data when it writes the IRMP and an annual risk-based evidence profile. It is trying to extend the range of data it uses, specifically with data from the health service, so that it can make the next IRMP more comprehensive.
As a member of the council’s corporate leadership team, the chief fire officer is the director of Resilient Cornwall. This makes Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service responsible for areas of risk outside its statutory duties. Its extra responsibilities include working to reduce crime and disorder, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and working to prevent modern slavery and extremist activity. Senior officers and council representatives believe that this wider remit enables Cornwall Council and the service to respond in a more integrated way to community safety problems. These include problems which affect fire safety, and the protection of vulnerable people.
Having an effective risk management plan
The IRMP includes objectives listed under the headings ‘prevent, protect, respond, innovate and perform’. The IRMP gives little detail about how the service will achieve or budget for each one.
The service conducts analysis to produce community profiles to identify the people who are most at risk, and to offer them advice about fire prevention. The service refreshes station risk profiles every year. We saw evidence of projects which communicate effectively with diverse communities. These included developing a radio show and a multi-agency project. Their aim is to break down barriers with disaffected young men who might be drawn to anti-social behaviour.
The service liaises with a range of relevant bodies, and this provides opportunities to exchange risk information. For example, Cornwall Housing shares risk information with the service about at-risk groups. Cornwall Housing identifies elderly and vulnerable people who are heavy smokers and refers them to the service. Staff from the service visit these people and, once the service has made an assessment, it can provide fire-proof blankets and other support to enable people to continue living independently in greater safely.
Cornwall is rural, and is only bordered by one other service. Locations which the service has assessed as lower risk are covered by staff who normally have other jobs and are available to respond on an on-call basis. Higher-risk locations have wholetime staff cover. The service told us that in areas which are covered by on-call staff, it has done additional prevention work to reduce risk and the longer response times. But we found inconsistent evidence of this happening across the service.
Maintaining risk information
Staff should gather information about certain building risks to plan the response to an operational incident, such as a fire or other emergency. The service categorises the level of building risk. An assessment by staff informs a pre-determined operational response, for example the number of fire engines the service will send to a reported emergency at that address.
In Cornwall, these site-specific risk assessments are referred to as tactical information fire risk assessments (TIFRAs). Each station is expected to conduct a small number every month.
We found little evidence of a structured approach to gathering operational risk information. The numbers of staff who have been trained to conduct the assessments are limited, and there are specific gaps at the stations which are covered by on-call staff. We found inconsistency between stations about the selection of premises being assessed. A central team selects some, but in other areas staff select premises themselves, with no clear rationale for the difference. Liskeard fire station is a notable exception. It is running an 18-month trial to visit all higher-risk premises in the eastern part of Cornwall to carry out TIFRAs in the areas which are covered by on-call stations.
Risk information is available on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) which are installed on all fire engines. While they are driving to an incident, firefighters can find out about any risks associated with the buildings or location, and the plans to respond. We spoke to operational staff who described delays in updating the terminals with risk information gathered from TIFRAs. Staff also lack confidence in the reliability of the system. Many stations rely on paper records, rather than the information on MDTs. There are inherent risks in this approach. The paper records need to be kept up to date, and if firefighters are mobilised from other stations they will not be able to consult the paper records. The service is presently in the process of buying new MDTs.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service is good at preventing fires and other risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it targets its prevention work at people most at risk, including localities covered by on-call crewing.
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
The service produces an annual risk-based evidence profile, which prioritises people who are at the highest risk. This year’s plan has identified injuries and deaths from road traffic collisions and accidental house fires as the priorities.
The service produces an annual prevention campaign plan. This aligns the campaigns and projects that the service carries out with those being conducted nationally and regionally.
Wholetime operational staff based at stations carry out home fire safety checks. Once the service has made an assessment, firefighters give the householder advice on how to prevent fires. The service can install smoke detectors. The service uses a range of sources of socio-demographic data to identify houses to visit and offer this assessment. Each wholetime watch is allocated 12 checks to conduct per month (a watch is the name for a team attached to a station).
The service has been given external funding to train health and social care professionals to identify fire risk factors when they visit local people. If health or social care workers have identified people as vulnerable or at higher risk, they can refer them to the fire and rescue service, which prioritises them for a home fire safety check. Staff from the central prevention team visit vulnerable people. They also help to prioritise and assign visits to stations.
We found that the preventative activity which the service provides in areas covered by wholetime stations differs from the activity in on-call areas. It makes far fewer home fire safety checks in on-call areas. The service is trying to improve this by using the ‘adopt a village’ project. The pilot at Liskeard fire station is showing a higher number of home fire safety checks between May and July 2018, averaging 66 checks per month with staff working only part of the week.
The service says that it intends to increase the number of home fire safety checks which wholetime staff make. The service needs to review how it can improve the provision of home fire safety checks in on-call areas.
Promoting community safety
The service works well with partner organisations to reduce risk. The extended community safety remit within Cornwall Council allows more co-ordinated working with other local authority services to tackle problems such as anti-social behaviour, and the risks associated with the consumption of drugs and alcohol. The service has worked with partner organisations to develop a multi-agency hoarding protocol to address the increased risk posed by people who fill their homes with a lot of possessions. We heard of examples of this being used effectively. The service has actively promoted the fitting of sprinklers as a means of protecting buildings. Cornwall Council has taken note of the service’s recommendations about sprinklers. It plans to install sprinklers in all new houses and flats which it builds or commissions under its housing development programme.
Although the service aligns its campaigns to national and regional campaigns, it is also able to respond to specific local risks. For example, the service promoted the ‘Coast Safe’ campaign following a number of deaths from drowning. It has run a campaign to raise awareness of the risk of fire from barbeques in tents.
The service is developing work with the police arson prevention team to improve data sharing and the targeting of support to tackle fire-setting behaviour. The service has a team of service volunteers to help tackle fire-setting behaviour.
We found limited evaluation to assess the effect of prevention campaigns and work such as home fire safety checks. Although the service uses ‘before’ and ‘after’ questionnaires to assess some projects, using more robust evaluation processes for the larger preventative campaigns may be beneficial.
Road traffic collisions are presently the highest risk within the service’s risk-based evidence profile. The service’s analysis shows that 72 percent of deaths and injuries from road traffic collisions are from groups identified as vulnerable. This includes motorcyclists, older drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and young drivers. The service is currently leading a review of Cornwall’s road casualty reduction strategy.
The service has developed several projects to promote road safety. For example, ‘Where You Look Is Where You Go’ is a campaign aimed at reducing motorcycle injuries that result from excessive speed on bends. ‘Distraction’ workshops are aimed at year-seven students about pedestrian and cycle safety. The service runs many of the projects with the support of partner organisations.
Where analysis indicates high incidence and risk, local stations are expected to conduct targeted activities with local communities. We found evidence that local stations were doing this work.
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 well-managed, prioritised and risk-based inspection programme. It should also ensure it allocates and quality-assures these inspections appropriately.
- The service should assure itself that its enforcement plan prioritises the highest risks and includes proportionate activity to reduce risk.
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.
The service identifies buildings which it needs to inspect on its risk-based inspection programme. This defines the level of risk, and shows how often the service should inspect a building. The service has analysed risks, and has identified its current priority as hotels and other businesses which have sleeping accommodation. The service prioritises inspections of these premises.
Accredited fire safety officers inspect high-risk buildings. Wholetime operational staff who have completed the fire safety foundation training visit lower-risk buildings. The service is training all new recruits to foundation level, which is a positive move. However, we found that at some stations there was a lack of trained staff who could make inspections.
In the 12 months to 31 March 2018 the number of inspections of high-risk buildings fell when compared with the same period in 2017. This was because of staff vacancies in the central protection team. The service has undertaken to increase the numbers of fire safety officers to meet the identified risk-based need.
At present, there are inconsistent approaches to the identification of the high-risk premises which the service inspects, and also the frequency of these inspections. There is also limited quality-assurance of the inspections which the service has made.
The service needs to improve its fire safety inspection programme by ensuring that there are enough trained staff, and robust management processes to allocate and quality-assure inspections.
We found that the fire safety provision which the service arranges in areas covered by wholetime stations differs from the provision in on-call areas. On-call staff do not carry out fire safety inspections. The problems we identified relating to risk-assessment visits and home fire safety checks also apply to fire safety work.
The service needs to improve its provision of fire safety inspections especially in areas which are covered by on-call firefighters.
The service says that in cases of significant non-compliance it will consider prosecution. In cases where evidential and public interest tests have been met, the service prosecutes. Over the last two years to 31 March 2018, there have been consistently low numbers of enforcement and prohibition notices served against building owners who do not comply with fire safety legislation. The last prosecution carried out by the service was in the 12 months to 31 March 2012.
Fire safety officers use Cornwall Council’s legal team to provide advice and guidance on enforcement action. The amount of time and preparation needed to build a case for a prosecution and the lack of resources were cited as barriers to taking such action. The service therefore works in partnership and uses other enforcement powers.
It is not clear how the service determines whether the balance of enforcement work is appropriate. The service should assure itself that it is making effective use of enforcement powers.
Working with others
We found that the service is working effectively with the owners of premises to reduce the burden of false fire alarms which automatic alarm systems send out. Staff in the critical control centre question callers about automatic alarm calls so that they do not send fire engines to a building when this is not necessary. When firefighters attend a false alarm call, they advise the owners of the premises how the callout could have been avoided. If there are repeated false alarms, the service will carry out a fire safety inspection.
The service works with partner organisations, most recently through the Migrant Workers Action Group, to conduct joint visits. It responds in a timely manner to statutory building consultations.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Cause of concern
We have serious concerns about Cornwall FRS’s response to incidents. The service consistently doesn’t meet target response times for fires, especially in remote areas served by on-call stations.
It is sometimes slow to update mobile data terminals with risk information. Staff often rely on paper records. Staff in the critical control centre aren’t confident in the ICT systems which show availability of staff and fire engines. This leads to increased resources being mobilised or delays in attending incidents.
Operational crews don’t regularly record information because they aren’t all completing risk assessments or decision logs, in line with national guidance. Frontline staff don’t all understand how to identify vulnerable people or how to use the referral process for vulnerable people and safeguarding. The service doesn’t consistently gather essential learning from operational incidents, or pass this on to all staff.
- The service should regularly update risk information on mobile data terminals so that firefighters responding to incidents can see the most up-to-date information.
- The service should improve the information available to staff in the critical control centre, so that they can make effective decisions about the mobilisation of fire engines.
- The service should implement national operational guidance, specifically in relation to the completion of analytical risk assessments and decision logs.
- The service should train staff better in how to identify vulnerable people and use safeguarding referral procedures, and should ensure staff use these consistently.
- The service should improve how it monitors operational incident command and feedback processes.
- The service should improve its operational assurance by debriefing firefighters effectively and passing on any learning to all staff.
Managing assets and resources
The way that the service responds in different parts of Cornwall varies. This is primarily based on whether the area is covered by a wholetime or an on-call station.
In some areas we found that the service is aligning resources well to meet community risk. For example, in the Newquay crewing model, the service increases the resources which are available during the summer to meet the increased risk associated with more visitors. The service is also piloting a daytime crewing model at Liskeard for part of the week. However, the inconsistencies in the gathering of risk information, and the prevention and fire safety work we wrote about earlier in the report also apply to response.
The recruitment of on-call firefighters is a continuing problem. There are vacancies at many of the stations and we found limited co-ordination and management of the contracts of on-call members of staff. This affects availability and, therefore, operational response.
The service is consistently failing to meet target response times for fires, especially in more remote areas covered by on-call stations. Data supplied by the service shows it is achieving 74 percent attendance against a ten-minute target which it has undertaken to meet on all occasions. Response times have been increasing. In the 12 months to 31 March 2017, the average response time to primary fires in Cornwall was 12 minutes 28 seconds, which was an increase from the same period in 2016. This is the highest response time of all services in England.
The service recognises that it needs to improve response performance and is trying to improve its understanding of the data and mapping performance.
Staff should gather information about certain building risks to plan the response to an operational incident, such as a fire or other emergency. In Cornwall, these site-specific risk assessments are referred to as TIFRAs. Each station is expected to conduct a small number every month. We found little evidence of a structured approach to gathering operational risk information. There are gaps at stations covered by on-call staff.
Risk information is available on the MDTs which are installed on all fire engines. While they are driving to an incident, firefighters can find out about any risks associated with the buildings or location, and the plans to respond.
There are delays in updating the MDTs with risk information gathered from TIFRAs. Staff also lack confidence in the reliability of the system. Many stations rely on paper records, rather than the information on MDTs. There are inherent risks in this approach. The paper records need to be kept up to date, and if firefighters are mobilised from other stations, they will not be able to consult the paper records. The service is in the process of buying new MDTs.
The service’s critical control centre is responsible for receiving calls and mobilising fire engines. Staff lack confidence in the ICT systems which they use, and which show availability of staff and fire engines. Sometimes this leads to the control centre sending extra fire engines to an incident to compensate for the poor information on the systems. When additional fire engines are needed, and it transpires that a fire engine is unable to leave the fire station because not enough on-call firefighters have arrived, valuable time is being lost while further resources are mobilised.
We found that the service is not implementing national operational guidance fully. Implementation is being slowed because the service gives a higher priority to other work. For example, operational crews are not regularly recording operational information because they are not completing the analytical risk assessments or decision logs, as set out in the guidance. Some staff are still using outdated ways to record information.
All operational commanders undertake an initial training course and then have ongoing training and assessments to check their competence. We found that the training and assessments were up to date.
Operational managers have a comprehensive knowledge of incident command procedures. They are helped by a range of information including apps on mobile phones, crib cards which give guidance, as well as information such as Chemdata for chemical hazard advice.
Staff understand operational discretion. This means that firefighters can override normal procedures under certain circumstances. It was unclear how the service monitors the use of operational discretion to ensure that it can learn from the use of this procedure.
There is limited assurance about the performance of operational commanders at incidents. This is found mainly in larger and more protracted incidents. Operational commanders said that the service gives them minimal feedback about the way that they have commanded incidents.
Keeping the public informed
The service is proactive in its use of social media to inform the public about incidents and fire safety projects. Each station has its own Facebook page. This is monitored by a central communication team which also uses analytical tools to evaluate its use.
The service also uses a Twitter feed. Although this is primarily aimed at the public, we found that partner organisations also find it useful. For example, the Environment Agency uses it to track particular incidents when notified.
An established process is in place to make safeguarding referrals to other organisations and we saw some good examples of this. The service has appointed safeguarding advocates. They receive additional training and can give advice and access other services if required. However, we found inconsistency in frontline staff’s understanding of how to identify vulnerable people and, in some cases, how to use the referral process. We found gaps in the knowledge which on-call staff have.
The service should ensure that staff have the skills they need to identify vulnerable people and safeguarding problems, and to make appropriate referrals.
Evaluating operational performance
The service does not have a consistent and clearly understood operational assurance process. This means that the service is not gathering essential learning from operational incidents so that it can share this with all staff.
We found that the practice of holding hot debriefs immediately after incidents is widespread. All commanders are aware of the process. There is no structure in place for how commanders undertake these debriefs, however, and practices vary across the service.
The service’s policy is to conduct a more formal debrief following larger or protracted incidents. Staff said that formal debriefs do not always happen. Also, training and communications staff are not routinely part of any debriefing process.
We were unable to find evidence of consistent learning from any operational debriefing process being shared across the service. The service should ensure that it has a robust process to identify organisational learning from incidents and also that it has the means to share this with staff.
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.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service is good at responding to national risks. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should assure itself that it has clear procedures (based on risk assessments) to develop site-specific plans and is well prepared to respond to high-risk premises and national incidents. It should ensure it tests and exercises at high-risk premises, with good management oversight and exchange of learning.
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).
The service has had to respond to several major incidents in the recent past when its preparedness has been put into effect. Most recently the Coverack flood required a multi-agency response over an extended period. The response was effectively co-ordinated.
We found that the service used national procedures for supplementing resources effectively during this incident. Staff showed an understanding of how to access this help when it was needed.
The service has created site-specific response plans for some high-risk premises. However, some staff expressed concern that they do not receive adequate training for creating such plans.
Within the last 12 months the service has conducted exercises in order to test its response to possible emergencies at some high-risk sites in Cornwall, including Newquay airport and HMS Raleigh. These exercises involved other emergency services. We found inconsistency in the frequency with which the service conducts exercises to test its plans at other high-risk premises. There is no central process to ensure that these tests and exercises are taking place.
The service needs to assure itself that there is a process in place to ensure that it tests high-risk premises and conducts exercises and does this in a timely manner.
Working with other services
The service only borders one other fire and rescue service – Devon and Somerset. It has taken part in several cross-border exercises in the past 12 months. These include an exercise at Devonport dockyard. In addition, there has been an exercise in North East Cornwall in which fire engines from Devon were mobilised.
As with high-risk locations within Cornwall, there is no organisational oversight or assurance of what tests and exercises are taking place in Cornwall with Devon and Somerset because some exercises are organised locally. It is not clear how learning is shared.
Working with other agencies
The service is an active member of the local resilience forum. In conjunction with Cornwall Council and other emergency services, the service is expected to plan its response to major incidents such as widespread flooding or a major transport incident. It should test these plans and carry out exercises. We found evidence of this taking place.
The service has very close working relations with other parts of Cornwall Council. In addition, we saw that the relationship with Devon and Cornwall Police is strong, with examples of joint working at an operational and strategic level.
The service is in the process of arranging further learning and development about its planned response to a marauding terrorist attack.
Knowledge of JESIP (Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles) is inconsistent across the service. The service could do more to train and conduct exercises on these procedures. We found that it is providing limited training for some equipment which is used as a national asset, for example the major decontamination unit.