Skip to content

Cumbria 2018/19

People

How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?

Last updated 17/12/2019
Requires improvement

A fire and rescue service that looks after its people should be able to provide an effective service to its community. It should offer a range of services to make its communities safer. This will include developing and maintaining a workforce that is professional, resilient, skilled, flexible and diverse. The service’s leaders should be positive role models, and this should be reflected in the behaviour of the workforce. Overall, Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

The service takes the wellbeing needs of its workforce seriously. Staff know how to access wellbeing services, including mental health support. The service makes sure that its workplaces are as safe as possible in both routine and emergency conditions.

Despite a secondary employment policy aimed at making sure that staff are well rested, there is a lack of oversight of working hours, particularly for staff who have dual contracts. The service should take action to rectify this. It could also do more to communicate its values to its workforce, because many people do not know what the service’s values are or understand why they are important. There is a lack of trust between frontline staff and senior management, with many telling us that the management does not listen or respond adequately to their concerns.

Individual appraisals are not done regularly enough, despite the implementation of a new system. Some staff told us that they did not aspire to progress to management positions because the pathways to career progression were difficult to understand. The service needs to do more to identify, develop and support those with high potential to be senior leaders of the future.

The service is good at maintaining its workforce’s skills and capabilities. It provides regular training in core skills. It also has a strong track record of employing highly skilled external applicants and not always just promoting from within. However, it needs to improve its planning in order to avoid skills gaps in the future.

We found a lack of understanding about equality issues among staff, and the use of careless and discriminatory language that is not appropriate in an inclusive workplace. The service recognises at the most senior levels that it needs to do more in this area.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should have effective means to monitor the working hours of its staff.
  • The service should make sure its values and behaviours are understood and demonstrated by all staff.

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

Workforce wellbeing

The service takes the wellbeing needs of its workforce seriously and has a broad range of supporting measures in place. Staff know how to access wellbeing provisions through a web portal or the county council’s occupational health department. The service has trained mental health first-aiders to spot early signs and symptoms of stress and psychological harm. It supports staff to stay physically fit and provides voluntary health screening. Staff with physical injuries have access to medical support including physiotherapy, and the service provides a wellbeing debrief for staff following traumatic incidents.

Staff spoke positively about the wellbeing support, but also gave examples of the occupational health department being slow to respond to referrals.

As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of staff to get their views of their service (please see Annex A for more details). Of the 104 respondents to our staff survey, 45 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed and 35 percent feeling discriminated against at work in the past 12 months, and the majority did not report the incidents. Of those who did report the incidents, they tended to have done so informally. Respondents who did report indicated that they felt that action which will make a difference was not taken, or that it was too early to tell. However, staff did not raise bullying or harassment as a significant issue during the inspection.

Health and safety

The service has a positive health and safety culture and robust systems in place to make its workplaces safe in both routine and emergency conditions. 85.6 percent of respondents to our staff survey agreed that they were encouraged to report all accidents, near misses or dangerous occurrences. 75 percent were satisfied that their personal safety and welfare were treated seriously at work.

The service has a secondary employment policy aimed at making sure that staff are well rested and safe to work, but in practice there is a lack of oversight of staff working hours, particularly for staff who have dual contracts and work different duty systems within the service. The service should take action to rectify this.

Culture and values

Staff we spoke to had only a limited knowledge of the service’s values. They did not consider them central to how they conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis.

The service has recently refreshed its appraisal system to include a review of staff performance, values and behaviours. We found most staff had limited interest in appraisals that lack meaningful objectives. These issues have been addressed in the new system.

We were told by staff at various levels that there was no shared culture between frontline staff and middle managers or between middle managers and the senior leadership team. Staff also told us that communication with management was one-way, and that they did not feel listened to. They felt that information was communicated inconsistently, and that middle managers were reluctant to challenge the senior leadership team.

In total, 47.1 percent of respondents to our staff survey said they did not feel that there were opportunities to feed their views upwards in the service. 65.3 percent were not confident their ideas or suggestions would be listened to. Furthermore, 62.5 percent did not feel able to challenge ideas without suffering consequences.

We were encouraged to note that the chief officer had put in place a variety of measures to improve communications. He is working hard to promote a common ownership of his change agenda. Many of the concerns we were told about related to the ongoing industrial dispute over changes to shift patterns.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Good

Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service is good at getting the right people with the right skills. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should improve workforce planning to mitigate future skills gaps.
  • The service should address the high number of staff in temporary promotion positions.

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

Workforce planning

The service has a good understanding of its current workforce skills and capabilities. It has appropriately skilled staff working in the right roles. It is making effective use of electronic platforms to manage on-call availability, and retaining staff whose skills are in demand in other sectors. It also has a strong track record of employing highly skilled external applicants and not always just promoting from within.

However, it needs to improve its planning to mitigate future skills gaps. We identified several key roles in which the post-holder is due to retire soon, but no suitably skilled internal candidates have been trained to succeed them. The service also has a high number of staff in temporary posts because of ongoing restructuring. There are clear reasons for the temporary promotions, but the situation still causes uncertainty for individual members of staff. As at 31 December 2018, there were 15 members of staff on temporary promotion. This number increased to 38 staff members as at 31 March 2019.

The service has a robust performance management regime in place for each department. It is meeting most targets set through the IRMP for prevention, protection and response and, where this is not the case, the senior leadership team has improvement plans in place.

Learning and improvement

The service prioritises risk-critical training. At the stations we visited, risk-critical skills records were up to date. Local training plans cover general skills and take account of local risks. Staff maintain their core competencies such as in incident command and breathing apparatus through regular training. Additional skills, such as having all full-time firefighters trained to carry out rescues from water, align with IRMP priorities.

In the areas of prevention and protection, the service’s staff are equally well trained. Prevention and protection teams are well established, and their experience allows them to respond to complex public demands quickly.

The chief officer has put systems in place to ensure that all staff are contributing to organisational learning. He has also introduced a variety of new mechanisms to encourage staff feedback. Many members of staff told us that, while they welcomed these changes, the historical culture of telling but not listening remains.

The service did, however, provide evidence of occasions on which it had listened to feedback from staff and in response to incidents. For example, it has improved incident command training by investing in virtual reality software, taking it out to staff in remote locations and sending staff to other services that have enhanced facilities. It has listened to staff concerns around fitness testing and provided facilities to maintain or improve fitness alongside different ways of testing. It has invested in better flood and wildfire personal protective equipment, including individual issue dry suits if required.

Staff in specialist roles such as health and safety and fire protection have been supported to take appropriate advanced qualifications such as fire safety engineering degrees. Managers at a middle and senior level are given good access to higher education to support their continuing professional development and all senior leadership team members have attained or are working towards nationally recognised strategic command qualifications.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • To identify and tackle barriers to equality of opportunity, and make its workforce more representative, the service should ensure diversity and inclusion are well-understood and become important values of the service, led by chief officers.

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

Seeking and acting on staff feedback

Staff told us that senior leadership teams had historically not welcomed challenge or feedback from staff. In interviews during the inspection, staff told us that things were slowly beginning to improve. Senior leaders will have to continue to work hard to improve the trust staff have in them. They are aware of this and are introducing a range of measures, including reshaping the senior leadership team and making senior leaders more visible and accountable.

The chief officer has introduced staff surveys, informal meetings with staff, structured senior leadership team visits to all workplaces, and mechanisms for staff to make direct contact with the chief. Senior leadership team meetings are now more open, and improvements are communicated to staff using a variety of platforms. These changes are recent and not all staff have fully bought into them.

Staff told us that middle managers often put barriers in place that block or slow down the implementation of suggested improvements. Although senior leaders told us they want to push decision making further down the organisation, many staff feel that decisions that could be made at their level are deferred upwards to a small leadership group.

We carried out a desktop review of formal grievances that had been lodged by staff in the 12 months prior to our inspection. We found that they had been managed fairly and in line with the policy. The service has been willing to correct its mistakes and has communicated this openly to staff.

Diversity

The service’s workforce does not reflect the communities it serves. Although it compares well with the sector average, as at 31 March 2018, only 6.5 percent of firefighters were female, and only 0.7 percent were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. Some 1.5 percent of Cumbria’s population are reported to be from BAME backgrounds.

The service has set up an equality and diversity group, but this is not effectively gathering feedback from members of staff from under-represented groups, or acting on their concerns. During our visits to stations, we found lack of understanding about equality issues, and the use of careless and discriminatory language that is not appropriate in an inclusive workplace. The service recognises at the most senior levels that it needs to do more in this area.

We were encouraged to note that, according to service-provided data, the recruitment drive prior to our inspection led to 20 percent of the job offers being made to women.

4

How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should develop a system to identify and develop high potential members of staff.

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

Managing performance

The service has robust performance management systems in place to monitor how teams are working. However, this does not extend to individual members of staff. At the time of our inspection, the service was in the process of introducing a new appraisal system, but this wasn’t yet fully in place.

Most of the staff we spoke to had not had an appraisal for some time, and in some cases for many years. Staff who had taken part in appraisals did not find them useful and had not been set any meaningful performance objectives as a result. Line managers did not understand the importance of appraisals and treated them largely as tick box exercises.

Most of the on-call firefighters we spoke to told us that, if they had an appraisal, it was as part of a group. While they found this useful for resolving any tension in the team, it did not allow managers to discuss individual staff performance, welfare needs or career aspirations. On-call staff could have an individual appraisal but they had to request it themselves. Similarly, support staff told us that appraisals were considered optional and many staff had not had one for some time.

The service’s lack of attention to individual performance management is particularly disappointing when considered alongside the fact that many staff informed us that they did not aspire to progress to management positions because the pathways to career progression were difficult to understand.

Developing leaders

The service has made good progress in developing middle and senior managers, but it has not invested in leadership and management training for more junior or aspiring managers. It has recently introduced management training at this level through the county council, but it is too early for us to assess whether this is beneficial.

The service does not have a means by which to identify, develop and support staff with high potential to be senior leaders of the future.

We carried out a desktop review of recent promotions processes and found them to be transparent and fair. The service maintains good records to support and record its decision making. It is willing to appoint external candidates when they perform better than those who have applied internally. And, although on some occasions temporary vacancies are not given to the highest scoring candidate, we were satisfied that this was for legitimate business reasons such as geography or skills match.