How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?
Overall, Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.
The service has some policies in place to promote wellbeing, but it doesn’t do enough to make sure that staff can access them.
Service leaders could do more to guide the service’s culture and values. These are currently set by the council, and many FRS staff are not aware of them. The senior leadership group(SLG) is developing a ‘cultural principles statement’, but this is at an early stage.
Staff speak highly of the service’s open leadership style. They respect the chief fire officer and the deputy chief fire officer, and believe they are committed to delivering change and improvements but see middle managers as barriers to decision making.
Without an up-to-date IRMP to help determine future risks, the service cannot be sure that it is recruiting the right number of people with the right skills. It currently depends on overtime to make up for staff shortages. According to data provided by the service, the last firefighter induction course began with 21 candidates and finished with only 12. The service has not done enough to find out why, or to address the problem.
The service provides training in all risk-critical skills, but it cannot monitor staff competence effectively due to an inadequate ICT system.
There was inconsistent evidence that the service has responded to staff feedback. As a result, many staff lack confidence in feedback procedures.
As with many other services we inspect, Hertfordshire FRS’s workforce is not representative of its community. When looking at the whole workforce, as at 31 March 2018, only 2.8 percent were from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared with 12.4 percent in the service area’s residential population. Also, as at 31 March 2018 only 16.1 percent of the workforce were female. These proportions are lower when looking specifically at firefighters. The service does not have a clear policy for the recruitment of a more diverse mix of staff – although this is currently being reviewed. The chief fire officer is a champion for diversity, but not all staff understand the importance of a diverse workforce.
The service could do more to actively manage the career pathways of its employees. The performance review process needs improvement, and many staff felt that promotion processes are neither fair nor open.
How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?
Areas for improvement
- The service should assure itself that staff understand and have confidence in the purpose and integrity of health, safety and wellbeing policies.
- The service should ensure its staff understand its values and culture.
- The service should assure itself that all managers are clear about their roles and demonstrate commitment to service values through their behaviours.
The service has policies and support systems in place to promote employees’ wellbeing. However, some of these are not generally well understood, and staff are not confident in using them. Staff who have used wellbeing and occupational health support are positive about these services.
The service uses ‘Firefit’ fitness testing, which broadly reflects national guidance.
There is room for improvement in the way in which the service deals with sickness absence. Its management of sickness absence is limited by the fact that it has no records for on-call staff sickness, and no system to record this information. Neither does it conduct enough trends analysis to understand the more frequent causes of absence and identify workplace resolutions to resolve them.
Health and safety
The service has a comprehensive health and safety policy. We sampled staff records for health and safety and risk-critical skills training and found them to be up to date. The service has a station audit programme which includes health and safety.
The service has a policy for considering requests from employees who wish to work in a second employment that is outside the service. The policy makes it clear that each individual is responsible for ensuring that they comply with the law in regard to drivers’ hours. However, it makes no similar provision for the working time directive.
The service provides wellbeing support via e-learning, including the Mind mental health awareness training, and the employee wellbeing support package ‘care-well’. Operational debriefs consider fire-ground welfare. Post-incident employee wellbeing is offered through the trauma risk-management process.
Staff would benefit from training to help them recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill-health.
Culture and values
The fire and rescue service, as part of Hertfordshire County Council, is expected to follow the council’s values and behaviours, which are set out in its values statement. However, these values are not widely promoted by the service and as a consequence are not well known or understood by fire service staff. Staff we spoke to tend to see themselves as part of the fire and rescue service rather than county council employees. The SLG has recognised this is a gap and is currently developing a service cultural principles statement with staff, but this is still at an early stage.
The Protect magazine keeps staff up to date. Staff gave us positive feedback about the ‘ask Darryl’ section on the staff extranet, which is an opportunity for staff to email questions direct to the chief fire officer. They were also positive about ‘you said, we did’, which shows what the service has done to address main staff concerns. There is also some feedback from directors on the intranet. However, the majority of the workforce in the service cannot access the intranet as they do not have individual email accounts. The service designed the extranet to provide access to information and communication for all employees.
The chief officer team is well-regarded by staff and promotes their commitment to the values by being visible at a range of informal and formal visits to stations. However, staff don’t clearly understand the overall senior management structure and the way decisions are taken. They perceive that middle managers, from station commander to area commander, hinder effective communication and decision making. This has led to some unhelpful behaviours such as staff bypassing middle managers and going straight to senior managers to get an issue dealt with. This has meant that some managers don’t feel they are either skilled or empowered enough to make decisions.
Staff raised a few concerns about the workplace culture. For example, they felt that the underlying causes of stress in the workplace – a reliance on overtime, and all the technological problems – are not managed effectively. However, they did also tell us that there has been a positive culture shift in the organisation. One said: “everyone seems like they are working together … there is less of a blame culture.”
Non-operational staff felt that respect for their roles has improved under the new leadership.
How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure its workforce plan takes full account of the necessary skills and capabilities to carry out the integrated risk management plan.
- The service needs to recruit to fill its establishment vacancies rather than the reliance on overtime to provide its core service. It should assure itself that it understands and can resolve these problems effectively.
- The service should ensure its electronic system for recording and monitoring operational staff competence is accurate and accessible.
We found a number of problems in workforce planning, relating to both performance management and recruitment. A recent report from the shared internal audit service recommended that performance management and monitoring systems in Hertfordshire FRS should be improved.
We found the same. For example, we found problems with the strategic operations and training board, which has responsibility for monitoring operational performance. The board has left many actions open for a long time or closed them without completion. As a result, the service has not introduced the necessary improvements.
The SLG has agreed to develop a performance management framework and implement appropriate monitoring and discussion of performance. It has also agreed to ‘tighten up’ action logs from performance monitoring meetings.
Recruitment practices also needs to be improved. The service currently does not have a people strategy. Work is in progress to develop one by July 2019, but again, this is held back by the out of date IRMP, which would provide a firm basis for decisions about recruitment. While the council’s recruitment policy is used for non-uniformed staff, there is no policy for the recruitment of uniformed staff. The service does have a policy for what the minimum staffing levels can be on a fire engine to safely respond to an emergency.
Data provided by the service show that the last firefighter induction course began with 21 candidates and finished with only 12. The service has not done enough to understand why, or to address the problem. What’s more, the service has not attracted enough suitable candidates to fill all firefighter and control room vacancies, leaving it dependent on overtime to access the required number of staff.
The service has not carried out a comprehensive skills audit of all its employees. There are recruitment plans based on forecasts of vacancies due to retirement, but there is no systematic way to identify the skills needed across the whole organisation. Currently, the service has no way of making sure that it has the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time.
The service provides staff training and focuses on risk-critical skills. It carries out theoretical testing and practical assessment and provides both initial and refresher courses (annually for wearing breathing apparatus and for commanding incidents) with clear assessment criteria linked to national frameworks. If risk-critical skills expire, staff are taken off operational response duties. Operational officers who also have specialist skills to maintain in addition to operational command expressed concern about being able to maintain both effectively.
There is clear planning, provision and assessment of operational core training. This is supported by a process for assuring and verifying competence, to give employees NVQs, modern apprenticeships and other nationally accredited courses. The service also carries out corporate and local operational testing and exercising, supported by themed training sessions. There is a four-year rolling programme of station audits to assess all watches, with credit given to high-performing stations.
The service develops its fire safety staff in line with the national business fire safety competency framework, which means they can only give a limited service while they are training. As it has four fire safety staff in development, it currently has a lack of capacity in the risk-based inspection programme. The service has three inspectors who provide out-of-hours cover, however it recognises this could be reviewed.
Learning and improvement
The service provides a good programme of training for operational staff in risk-critical areas. Its accredited training centre provides risk-critical skills training and assessments. It revises training packages to cover improvements within and outside the service – these are broadly in line with national operational guidance. For example, following a recall to a house fire, a training package was developed and shared.
We found that most staff have an appropriate level of understanding of risk-critical information and an ability to undertake safety checks of equipment. Firefighters benefit from realistic training and simulation, including doing breathing apparatus training in live fires at derelict properties across the county. Control room supervisors assess the quality of call handling.
There is also ongoing monitoring and development of staff skills. However, the software system used to record this does not connect with training centre software, and only watch managers can access it. Individual users can’t take responsibility for their own learning, which leads to recording delays, duplication of entries and a lack of timely accurate management information for district managers. Practical development sessions are supported by directed reading and e-learning, but we heard mixed views about the quality of some e-learning packages.
Operational improvements and developments are shared throughout the organisation. Officers use the operational debrief ‘OPERA’ process to monitor what the service has learned from particular incidents. However, the recording database they use is not fit for purpose.
Firefighters receive hazard bulletins which give risk-critical information, and a monthly newsletter goes into more detail about what the organisation has learned from incidents.
There was even less evidence of learning and improvement in non-operations areas. For example, we couldn’t see how compliments, complaints, or outcomes from other human resources processes were monitored, to be used as a source of organisational learning.
How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?
Areas for improvement
- The service should assure itself that staff are confident using its feedback mechanisms, so these help the service gather valuable information.
- The service needs to improve the diversity of its workforce. It has been slow to set clear leadership and direction in promoting equality and diversity.
Seeking and acting on staff feedback
There is little evidence that the service has made significant changes in response to staff surveys. It carried out surveys in 2013, 2014 and 2016. There have been none since. Staff told us that they had not seen much change as a result of the surveys’ findings.
There is a procedure for staff to raise concerns, but many are unaware of what this is. There is a good section on the council intranet, but most staff cannot access it as they do not have individual email accounts. However, staff told us that they had increased confidence to ask questions and give feedback, following positive improvements in organisational culture.
The chief fire officer publishes a monthly message, and staff are encouraged to give feedback using the extranet, as discussed above. Staff told us that they value the annual visits to stations by SLG members. They told us that they feel everyone is pulling in the same direction and that they are seeing an increasing openness to change.
Staff are consulted on service changes and feel the current style is more open and genuine. There are several work groups with staff involvement – in areas such as equality and inclusion, introduction of new fleet, equipment and IT – along with local team, station and district meetings.
The service recognises and holds regular meetings with the Fire Brigades Union. There are some informal discussions with other representative bodies, but no formal structure is in place.
As with many other services, Hertfordshire FRS’s workforce is not representative of its community. In Hertfordshire the BAME population is 12.4 percent. This compares with 2.7 percent of firefighters as at 31 March 2018. Only 4.9 percent of firefighters were female as at 31 March 2018.
There is no clear direction or policy guiding the recruitment of a more diverse mix of staff. Recent recruitment has not been particularly well targeted at attracting underrepresented groups and little progress has been made to date. However, the service recognises it needs to improve in this area. It has made some recent changes within its planned 2019 firefighter recruitment campaign, to target recruitment to underrepresented groups, and improve candidates’ understanding of what to expect. The service is gathering data on equality, diversity and inclusion throughout the current recruitment process, with the aim of making further changes.
The service set up a new equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) board to set the strategic direction, promote and lead on this area in December 2017. This replaced previous arrangements. However, its work is at an early stage of development. Staff are not aware of the board and told us that they did not know who to raise concerns with about equality, diversity and inclusion.
Staff do EDI training, and this was up to date in the records we sampled. However, not all staff understand the senior leadership direction in relation to EDI, nor do they understand the benefits of having a diverse workforce. The staff surveys have not sought feedback on issues around equality and diversity.
The service also set up a new staff inclusion network group (SING) in November 2017. This was to give feedback and undertake some work, for example, positive action for recruitment, across all protected characteristics. However, it is early in its development. The service has access to an external advocacy group made up from members of the community, for consultation and communication purposes, but it does not make full use of this.
The service could improve its arrangements for taking calls from people who do not have English as their first language.
How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?
Areas for improvement
- The service should put in place a system to actively manage staff careers.
- The service should ensure its selection, development and promotion of staff is open, transparent and fair.
The service has an individual performance review process for all employees. All staff have an annual performance review with their line manager. Staff have mixed views on how meaningful these reviews are, with some telling us that they were a tick-box exercise. There is no process in place for the service to make sure the quality of these performance reviews is satisfactory.
Station management teams use the competence recording system to set individual and team development priorities for the station training plan. Competence records for operational employees are monitored by district commanders at the monthly response and resilience meeting – although this is impeded by the inaccuracy of information they are provided with, due to software issues.
Operational debriefs also cover the operational performance of staff.
The only route for non-uniformed staff to have a training needs assessment is through their performance review, which is kept on a paper file, stored locally by their manager. It also links to the award of incremental pay increases. It gives staff access to academic and other learning opportunities.
The performance review process does not have any capacity to identify high performers, to spot talent or to promote career progression.
We found that existing promotion arrangements for operational employees were often ineffective and inefficient. Not all employees see the process as open and fair. They told us about inconsistent feedback from promotion panel members, a lack of training provision to meet their development needs, and repeated requests for staff to act up and do the work of more senior roles, despite having recently failed an assessment.
Non-uniformed staff have limited chance of career progression in the service.
Hertfordshire FRS is reviewing its approach to career progression, talent and succession planning, through the development of a new people strategy.