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. Essex County Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.
The service needs to better understand the risk of fire and other emergencies. Its integrated risk management plan (IRMP) sets out its priorities. But there is no effective mechanism to translate this into operational activity.
The service needs to improve the way it prevents fires and other risks. There were some good examples of prevention work, such as road safety and in schools. But the service isn’t doing enough home fire safety checks. Other organisations pass on referrals for some of these checks to the service.
The service needs to better protect the public through fire regulation. The service is aware that it hasn’t met the requirements of its risk-based inspection programme. It is failing to meet its targets for the number of audits it plans to carry out. And it isn’t effectively targeting high-risk premises.
We have concerns about the service using operational staff to carry out fire protection visits to high-risk premises. They don’t have enough training to make judgments about fire protection issues.
The service is good at responding to fires and other emergencies. Incident commanders have good access to risk information to help them manage incidents. But the service should make sure that it is meeting its response standards. It needs to learn more from operational incidents.
The service is good at responding to national risks. And it has provided staff and equipment to support services in other parts of the UK and abroad.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- The service should produce guidance that translates its risk management plan into operational activity.
- 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.
Understanding local and community risk
The service understands its local communities and identifies risks to them. When it developed its IRMP (2016–20), it analysed data, reviewed options and used a company to help it consult with the public.
Before the current IRMP, the service consulted on a range of fire cover options. These included changing how it crews some fire stations, from day-crewed to on-call staffing. The service uses a broad range of information to develop its strategic assessment of risk. This document is reviewed each year. It underpins the IRMP. The service could keep the public more informed on the plan’s progress. This should include updates about potential delays to station crewing changes. The changes were due to be complete by 2020. But this is now likely to be 2021.
The consultation was extensive and run by an independent organisation. It included exhibitions in libraries and shopping centres, as well as via local and social media. There were also forums for staff, the public and organisations the service works with. A total of 17,630 people responded. The fire authority chose the most popular option.
The service could use its data more to better understand risk – especially what it has learned from its prevention and protection work. To help the service better understand risk, community safety officers meet with members of the community and other organisations. These include hearing-impaired people and groups for people with dementia. But these discussions aren’t recorded, which limits the service’s understanding of wider community risk.
In 2017, the service asked a research company to review its stations. The review used incident and response data from a five-year period. This helped the service identify key stations where operational cover needed to be prioritised. The review also helped the service better plan for the future.
Having an effective risk management plan
While the strategic intentions of the service are clear, there is no plan to translate expectations of the IRMP into operational activity. A draft document, attempting to address this, is due to be published later in the year after our inspection. This will be used to bridge the gap until the new IRMP is finalised.
The current IRMP explains how the service identifies fire and rescue risks, both by itself and working with other organisations. It broadly sets out how its prevention, protection and response work meet its strategic aims. The plan is in line with the requirements of the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England.
As an active member of the Essex resilience forum (ERF), the service has a clear process to use information from the local resilience risk register to help it plan. It also adds risks to the service’s register to inform its strategy. Its work with the ERF helps keep other agencies informed.
The service uses its business intelligence reporting tool to learn from activities such as station audits and thematic reviews. These feed into the IRMP’s objectives.
Maintaining risk information
The service needs to improve how it gathers and holds risk information. Its strategy showing how it prioritises its visits to higher-risk sites isn’t clear. Firefighters visit these sites regularly to gather risk information and update plans. As at 31 December 2018, the service had 1,025 risk sites. When asked, it was unable to provide us the number of these sites which it had inspected, although it could when we subsequently asked in May. Some plans for these sites are out of date; 14 percent of plans for high-risk sites (called ‘level 3 plans’ locally) had passed their review date when we inspected.
The service presents its information in many ways. This makes it difficult for incident commanders to use it. Its approaches to quality assuring plans are inconsistent. While some managers have a good process to quality assure plans, many don’t. And information from prevention and protection work isn’t shared with the response team.
The service is good at gathering and communicating risk information for major music and sporting events. But, for smaller events, attendance at safety advisory groups to help make plans was inconsistent.
Firefighters access risk information using computers on fire engines called mobile data terminals (MDTs). Staff are confident in using these. New handheld tablet computers have good vehicle crash data and can be taken to incidents to help keep firefighters safe. Officers carry tablet computers containing risk information and operational procedures. These are kept up to date and can help decision making.
The service communicates general risk information well through alerts and email ‘flashes’. These appear in individual training records and are tracked. Information is passed on effectively during briefings at the start of shifts at fire stations. The service produces a weekly briefing note called ‘60 seconds’. These are read out at on-call drill nights. They brief staff with limited time on critical issues. Most on-call stations use these. However, many leave staff to read the notes themselves because they often relate to longer documents.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Areas for improvement
- The service should develop a clear prevention strategy to guide its work and ensure it makes best use of resources to achieve its targets.
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
The service doesn’t have a clear prevention strategy to guide its work. And it doesn’t fulfil the prevention activity promised in its IRMP. Wholetime firefighters don’t carry out home safety visits other than in one area where these are being trialled.
The service uses data to assess community risk. And it uses volunteers and specialist officers to carry out visits. These visits include identifying potential fire risks; taking action to reduce fire risks; ensuring working smoke alarms are fitted; advice on social welfare; advice on slips, trips and falls; health prevention and c rime prevention. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service did 8,513 home fire safety checks. But the service is doing less than half the national average of checks per 1,000 population (4.7 compared with 10.4). The service completed 58.8 percent of these checks at homes of older people and 28.6 percent to homes of people who had a disability. These are similar to the England rates. The service recently decentralised management of its prevention activity. This should improve its work within communities.
During our inspection, there were good examples of referrals from other organisations (for example, from care workers) for safe and well checks for people at more risk of fire. But ‘after-incident response’ visits are inconsistent. These are when crews visit nearby premises to give fire safety advice after fires in residential properties.
The service recently worked with Essex University to review accidental residential fires to understand where risk was high and how best to target those at most risk. But it hasn’t yet used this information to target its work.
It is evaluating its ‘Surround a Town’ events. These involve a multi-agency approach to prevention and community engagement in Essex. The service doesn’t assess its wider prevention work.
We reviewed many prevention case files during our inspection. Some files had data missing. And the electronic system managing this information was slow and difficult to use. The service is aware of this and has plans to address it.
Promoting community safety
Essex County FRS carries out wide-ranging prevention work. Central teams offer school education, arson awareness and programmes to deter fire-setting. It aims to provide prevention packages to all schoolchildren in Essex. Its work in schools involves the police and includes messages from both services.
The service’s community safety officers carry out ‘crucial crew’ events. These focus on talking to schoolchildren about subjects such as firework safety and knife crime.
The service also runs a community inclusion programme called ‘Firebreak’. This helps build skills and confidence in referred students who come from schools, prisons and other organisations. This is getting good results, with noticeable changes in behaviour in many who take part. The service runs a programme for juvenile fire setters as part of its work with Essex Police to reduce arson. The service works with the police to support prosecutions.
Staff understand how to identify vulnerable people. They are confident in making safeguarding referrals, despite some having no recent training. The service’s fire safety officers then work with other organisations to deal with these.
The service has taken positive steps to reduce the risk of fire for those at most risk. For example, its ‘Think sprinkler’ initiative offers to fund up to 50 percent of domestic installation costs. It will do this with the support of partners such as councils and charities. It has pledged £250,000 to support this campaign.
The service’s volunteers also help with clearing hoarding. And the service works with the local authority handyperson scheme to help make people safer by fitting equipment to help prevent fire in vulnerable people’s homes.
The service’s prevention and communication teams could work better together. And the service relies too heavily on digital media to communicate with vulnerable people because many of them can’t access information in this way.
Although the service follows national campaigns, we found station plans were generic. This means that activity doesn’t necessarily best address local risk. But there were some good examples of local initiatives. These include multi-agency approaches to tackling community safety issues, such as the risk of fire in high-rise buildings.
Essex County FRS leads on improving safety on the county’s roads. It is part of the Safer Essex Road Partnership, which involves councils, Highways England, the police and the ambulance service. The service is considered to be an active and valued member.
Essex County FRS has a full-time road safety team. This carries out a range of initiatives, including free better biking courses and advanced skills courses. It also works with high-risk groups, such as modified car enthusiasts. The service uses loaned high-performance vehicles to encourage interaction and education through safety messages. It also offers road safety courses to schools and military, commercial, older and newly qualified drivers.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it works with local businesses and large organisations to share information and expectations on compliance with fire safety regulations.
- The service should ensure it has effective arrangements for providing specialist protection advice out of hours.
Cause of concern
The service has insufficient resources to meet its risk-based inspection programme. It is currently not meeting its targets. As a result, partially skilled operational staff are carrying out high-risk visits, although the service acknowledges that these are not audits. There is an absence of quality assurance of audits and visits. There is a low amount of enforcement activity. There is limited proactive engagement with businesses to promote fire safety.
- By 31 March 2020, the service should develop and implement a clear strategy for how it will effectively meet its obligations in relation to ensuring compliance with fire safety. This should include ensuring it has appropriately trained resources, a consistent use of enforcement powers and a mechanism to assure itself on the quality of its inspections.
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.
The service isn’t meeting the requirements of its risk-based inspection programme. Fire safety managers weren’t clear about the service’s definition of high-risk premises. And the service can’t show that these premises get priority.
As at 31 December 2018, the service had identified 4,691 high-risk premises. It aims to inspect these every year. But in the year to 31 December 2018, it had only done 686 inspections.
The service’s information technology (IT) systems don’t support effective working. For example, inspections stopped for several weeks in 2018. This was because the management system wasn’t working. It is slow and has caused a backlog of paperwork that needs processing.
The service uses a range of data to calculate risk. This includes:
- FSEC codes;
- historic incident data;
- enforcement activity history; and
- Home Office data.
The service isn’t meeting its targets for responding to building regulation consultations. It aims to respond to all of them within 15 working days. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service received 601 building regulation consultations. Of these, 87.2 percent were completed within the required time frame.
Essex County FRS’s inspectors are trained to the national standard (Level 4 Fire Safety). But during our inspection, the team had nine vacancies within its 34-strong team.
Wholetime firefighters need to make judgments about issues during fire protection visits. But they don’t have enough inspection training to do this. And their work isn’t quality assured unless they raise an issue with the inspection team. Firefighters have been visiting high-risk premises. This is because there aren’t enough inspectors.
The service can’t make sure inspectors are available outside working hours. During these times, it isn’t always able to respond to fire protection concerns, complaints or dangerous conditions, where it may be necessary to issue prohibition notices.
The service is working with other FRSs to review its inspection programme.
The service works with businesses to promote compliance rather than taking enforcement action. While we recognise the desire to support compliance, there are times when prosecution is needed. We were disappointed to find a reluctance to act when premises repeatedly breach fire safety.
Protection files we reviewed were missing detail. And some were overdue for inspections. Some fire safety inspectors couldn’t explain how actions to address issues from inspections are followed up.
The number of audits carried out has fallen from 3,634 in the year to March 2014 to 1,290 in the year to March 2018. Despite this, it equates to 3.1 audits per 100 known premises. This is similar to the England rate (3.0).
Some 97 percent of premises inspected by the service in the year to 31 March 2018 were satisfactory. This is much higher than the England rate of 68 percent. It indicates that the service isn’t inspecting the highest-risk premises. During that same period, it issued 112 formal notifications, three alteration notices, five enforcement notices and no prohibitions. It has recently carried out a prosecution and has access to legal advice.
Working with others
Due to the lack of capacity, the service doesn’t currently work proactively with businesses to promote legislative compliance. It relies solely on its website’s business safety section, which signposts people to national advice and guidance.
Some inspection staff work with organisations to share information and carry out joint visits. During our inspection, there were examples of joint visits. These included with the local authority to a mobile home park. But this isn’t consistent across the service. Staff told us that capacity constraint was the main reason.
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 fires and other emergencies?
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service is good at responding to fires and other emergencies. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has effective systems in place to reliably understand the operational capabilities of resources available to respond to incidents.
- The service should ensure it has an effective system for staff to use debriefs and improve operational learning.
Managing assets and resources
As at 1 April 2019, the service had:
- 12 wholetime fire stations, two of which had an on-call fire engine;
- 4 day-crewed fire stations; and
- 34 on-call fire stations.
It had specialist vehicles and equipment to deal with a range of incidents. These included heavy rescue vehicles so it could respond to road traffic collisions.
The service uses three staffing models. These are:
- wholetime shift – these stations are staffed 24/7;
- day-crewed – full-time staff during working hours;
- on-call – staff who respond to incidents.
The service is changing its four day-crewed stations to on-call. This should be complete by 2021.
The service is failing to meet its targets for the number of available fire engines. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the monthly availability ranged from 80.7 percent to 87.1 percent. The service’s plan is for this figure to be 90 percent. It prioritises key stations when possible. Its optimum number of pumps is 66 but, on a monthly average between 5.00pm and 8.00pm, it didn’t achieve this between April 2018 and December 2018.
Wholetime fire engine availability is managed centrally. But the service can’t guarantee cover because staff are able to book annual leave at short notice. The service pays off-duty staff to cover when there are shortages.
The service doesn’t have effective systems to manage on-call availability. It uses an electronic rota book. How this is used varies across stations. There were examples of people using it to book time off when there weren’t enough firefighters available. This meant their fire engine couldn’t be used. The system doesn’t link with fire control’s mobilising system, so it relies on operator input for updates when there are changes. This delay risks trying to mobilise crews that aren’t available.
The number and availability of on-call staff is both a service and a national problem. The service doesn’t have enough on-call staff in some stations. And these are regularly unavailable to respond. The service is aware of this problem. It is promoting the role and recruiting in the area.
The service is working with neighbouring fire services to put national operational guidance in place. This is expected to be done by 2020. There are good systems in place to be able to respond to incidents. These is based on national information about types of incident.
In the year to 31 December 2018, the service went to 8.7 incidents per 1,000 population. This compares with the England rate of 10.4 over the same period.
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 gives consistent data across all 45 services. But services measure their own response times in different ways.
The service’s response standard is to respond to potentially life-threatening incidents within an average of 10 minutes, calculated from time of call to the arrival of the first pump. The service’s response standard is also to arrive at 90 percent of emergency incidents within 15 minutes from the time the call was first received. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service did not meet these standards. The average time from call to the first pump attending was 10 minutes 48 seconds for life-threatening incidents, and for all emergency incidents within 15 minutes on 86 percent of occasions.
According to Home Office data collected from all services, in the year to 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires was 10 minutes and 5 seconds. This is from the time of call to the first vehicle arriving at the incident. This was an increase from 9 minutes 12 seconds in the year ending 31 March 2011. The service’s average response time is similar to the average for other significantly rural services of 10 minutes 6 seconds.
The service has a good range of systems for recording and reporting incident information. These include standard messaging, incident risk assessments and decision logs. Fire control staff can add limited incident information to turnout instructions and MDTs.
During our inspection, fire control staff were confident to change the number of fire engines sent to incidents depending on information from callers. They also move fire engines to cover gaps in station availability.
Incident command courses are taught centrally, and training records showed that staff were up to date with these. Generally, commanders had good knowledge of incident command and were confident in applying it at incidents. They were well trained and up to date for annual assessment. But we found a small number weren’t sure of how to apply new command processes – for example, applying operational discretion.
We asked staff what they thought of the service (please see Annex A for more details). Of the 64 crew managers or above who responded to our survey, 42.2 percent agreed the service would support them if they used operational discretion at an incident rather than simply following standard procedures.
Keeping the public informed
The service has a communications team. This offers 24/7 support and talks to the media on behalf of staff. Its website gives updates about incidents. Some of these include fire safety messages. And there are good examples of the service using reports from larger incidents to recruit on-call firefighters.
There is a clear social media policy, which staff understand. The service also uses YouTube although, over the past year, this has been limited to recruitment.
Crews can identify vulnerable people and make safeguarding referrals when needed. Fire control staff are confident in advising the public about fire survival. This is despite a lack of refresher training.
Evaluating operational performance
The service needs to improve how it evaluates operational performance. It has a range of documents as part of a command and control system. These include risk assessments, and message and decision logs completed at incidents. But the service is poor at managing this information after an incident. Documents weren’t always returned. And few reviews had been done that might help improve performance and staff competence.
Crews told us they routinely have hot debriefs at incidents. This is where learning is shared before leaving the scene. For larger incidents, all commanders must complete a debrief form. This will include any learning or feedback they want to share.
There were examples of improvements to procedures following incidents – for example, a change to radio procedures. Significant incidents trigger a structured debrief. Important information learned is recorded on individual training records (known as the ‘TASK’ system).
But some commanders aren’t aware of how to raise issues about operational learning. Staff told us they would like to have a central location to review and learn from debriefs for incidents they hadn’t been to. Thirty-seven percent of the 135 firefighters and specialist support staff who responded to our survey weren’t confident the service takes action as a result of learning from operational incidents. A further 10.4 percent did not know.
Commanders are monitored by a more senior officer at incidents. Station managers are routinely assessed. But crew and watch managers are only monitored for a limited number of incident types. This is even when the manager is new in post or temporarily promoted.
When appropriate, the service shares its development plans via national operational learning. It described to us three occasions when it had done so. One was an incident where firefighters were injured when using a ladder. The service also monitors external learning and shares this with the ERF.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service is good at responding to national risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure that its procedures for responding to terrorist-related incidents are understood by all staff and are well tested.
- The service should make sure it participates in a programme of cross-border exercises, sharing the learning from these exercises.
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 gave examples of when it had supported national incidents. These include helping other services during wildfires in 2017. Senior commanders and control operators confidently described the arrangements to request and manage national assets. These included high-volume pumps and urban search and rescue units.
The service works closely with the ERF to make sure that Essex is prepared for major incidents. ERF members consider the service to be a proactive and valued part of the forum.
The service has good plans for high-risk sites. It shares these with ERF partners and via Resilience Direct, a national information-sharing platform used by emergency responders. High-risk sites include oil refineries. The service carries out exercises at high-risk sites regularly to prepare its response to incidents. These often involve other emergency services.
Working with other services
The service is among the FRSs working with the East Coast Flood Group, which covers the east coast of England. There were examples of high-level planning and exercises for large sites, such as the Lakeside Shopping Centre and airports. But there were few examples of stations training with neighbouring services. Operational staff told us they would like to train more with their neighbours, especially using equipment such as breathing apparatus. Of the 135 firefighters and specialist support staff who responded to our survey, only 20.7 percent said the service trains regularly with other FRSs, but 30.4 percent did not know.
Crews can access risk information from some neighbouring FRSs – but not all – on their MDTs. Risk information for other FRSs is only available on Resilience Direct. This is something the service should address because it is important that crews have this information when responding to incidents.
Operational commanders showed a mixed level of understanding of national models such as the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles and the incident command decision control process.
Working with other agencies
The ERF arranges multi-agency training, exercises, debriefs and seminars. These include exercises at airports and the Dartford Crossing, as well as Brexit planning. The service takes part in all these. It works with others at sites under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999. These include local site management, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency. This is to make sure that plans are in place and tested.
Senior incident commanders understood how to take part in a multi-agency response. The service has funding to provide specialist teams to respond to terrorist incidents. It has well-trained specialist teams and equipment to respond to large-scale national incidents. But we found most operational crews are less confident. They would benefit from training in dealing with terrorist attacks.
Fire control aren’t involved in training with other services although inter-agency liaison officers are involved in monthly tests that make sure they can talk to other emergency services using their radios.