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. Kent Fire & Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness is good.
Kent FRS has a good understanding of risks to the public. It monitors a wide range of data, and regularly reviews this to keep it up to date. It uses and contributes to the Kent growth and infrastructure framework, which helps it to understand current and future risks.
The service communicates well with the public, including hard-to-reach groups. It does good prevention work and tries to target the most vulnerable people. But it could do more to give stations detailed information about vulnerability.
Kent FRS’s average response time to primary fires is good and is in line with other significantly rural services. It also has a very low failure to mobilise rate. That said, the service should focus on ensuring that it is meeting its response standard of attending 80 percent of life-threatening incidents within 10 minutes. It is currently achieving this 73 percent of the time.
Work is underway to recruit more on-call staff. A recruitment drive has been launched and the service is looking at different ways to boost numbers, including giving an enhanced rate of pay for providing daytime cover. Kent FRS has trained some crews to enable them to attend incidents with just three staff if required.
By this summer the service should have replaced its current mobile data terminals (MDTs). Due to a lack of confidence in MDT reliability, some fire crews carry paper copies of risk information, not all of which is up to date.
The service is failing to meet its targets for protection work such as audits and building control consultations. It needs to increase the productivity of its protection team to improve this.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Kent Fire & Rescue Service is good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should review its risk profiles to identify the number of fire engines it requires to meet anticipated operational need.
- The service should ensure its firefighters have good access to 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
Kent FRS uses a wide range of data to help it understand risk. It has a safety and wellbeing plan, which is embedded into its corporate planning process. This meets the requirements set out in the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England, and is supported by thorough risk profiles for each fire station.
The communication team targets its messages using data from the business intelligence team. There is an engagement officer to improve the service’s relationship with people from under-represented groups, including Gypsy and Traveller, Nepalese, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Roma/Eastern European and LGBTQ communities. There are regular diversity events and meetings, and the service records and learns from feedback.
Kent County Council’s growth and infrastructure framework 2011–2031 helps the service to understand current, emerging or future changes in fire and other risks, including changes that may affect fire station locations. The service has generated a risk map and uses health data to identify older people in its population, who it considers to be higher risk. It uses MOSAIC consumer classification data, incident and census data to identify deprived and higher-risk areas. It regularly reviews this data to keep it up to date.
In 2012 and 2015, Kent FRS reviewed its provision based on activity (the number of incidents it attends), risk (including types of buildings, for example factories, power stations and ferry ports, flooding risk, road and other risks) and isolation (distance from fire stations). It has changed the location of some fire stations, such as in Ramsgate.
Partner agencies, such as the police and NHS, told us the service shares data effectively. However, the service told us that it has difficulty in getting data from them, and the NHS and police confirmed this, citing restrictions on sharing data. The service also works with councils, but could do more to use these joint initiatives to gather information to help reach the most vulnerable people.
Following dwelling fires, an officer visits the premises, reviews quality of service provided to the public and gathers incident learning, using this to create a risk profile for the household involved. The service uses parish volunteers to identify community risk and engage with groups, such as new migrants, who may not respond to traditional communication.
Having an effective risk management plan
Kent FRS’s customer and corporate plan 2018–2022 explains how it identifies fire and rescue risks, both by itself and in collaboration with other agencies. It also sets out how its prevention, protection and response activities are linked. The plan is in line with the requirements of the National Framework.
The Kent Resilience Forum has a register setting out significant risks to the area, including permanent threats such as fire and flooding, and shorter-term ones, such as a loss of infrastructure, public events in the area, and the impact of Brexit. This helps all the local agencies to prepare a co-ordinated response. As an active member of the Kent Resilience Forum, the service uses information from the risk register to inform its planning, and adds risks to the register to keep other agencies informed.
There is a mismatch between the number of routinely available fire engines and the number the service states it needs. It aims to have 50 available at all times but it reports having an average of 34 by day. The service is redeveloping its risk assessment process. It currently uses software to help it model and measure the impact of changes to its provision. For example, the software can show the potential impact of factors such as the location of fire stations, the speed of fire engines, a change in duty systems, or the closure of a motorway junction. The modelling is currently based on a static snapshot. But in future, the system will be based on constantly updated information, and will be able to consider seasonal changes to demand that might affect which stations are most in demand, such as increased traffic during school holidays.
Maintaining risk information
Firefighters make regular visits to gather risk information and keep plans up to date. This has been demonstrated by the number of 7(2)(d) visits the service completes. As at 31 December 2018, the service had 317 sites it determined needed a 7(2)(d) visit and between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018 it had visited over 40 percent of them. Its control room has a good system in place for updating information, including for temporary risks, such as buildings with defective sprinkler systems, and temporary events, like music concerts.
Firefighters access risk information using computers on fire engines called mobile data terminals (MDTs). Most staff can confidently access and use MDTs, but the technology is unreliable. Some fire crews carry paper copies of risk information, some of which we found to be out of date. The service recognises this issue and, to compensate, it has provided on-site risk information packs to all medium and higher-risk premises. The service plans to replace the MDTs by summer 2019.
The service communicates general risk information through bulletins, briefings and videoconferences. Information is passed on effectively during briefings at the start of shifts and through handover books at fire stations, which contain information including missing equipment and vulnerable person referrals.
Teams from prevention, protection and response meet every month to share risk information.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Kent FRS has a clear prevention strategy, which is linked to its customer and corporate plan. It prioritises the most vulnerable people, using referrals from other agencies, and visits are carried out by a specialist team. This team has additional training and equipment, and does specialist prevention work, such as installing equipment to prevent fires. Visits also include identifying and reducing fire risks, advice on social welfare and health, and advice on slips, trips and falls.
Station-based staff target over-70s, using Exeter data (according to the service’s data, Kent has 200,000 such households). However, the service does not give stations sufficient information to prioritise visits. It identifies streets for crews to visit, and when crews find people at greater risk of fire they can refer them to the home safety team. There is no follow-up if crews cannot access homes after three separate attempts; this may leave some high-risk people vulnerable to fire.
Firefighters also conduct ‘hot-strike’ visits following an accidental dwelling fire, visiting all nearby premises and providing fire safety advice.
The service evaluates its prevention activity well. It commissioned the Kent Public Health Observatory to evaluate the impact of its safe and well visits, based on data from the service and the NHS, and it is making improvements based on the findings. In 2016, the service commissioned the National Social Marketing Centre to evaluate its schools-education programme.
Promoting community safety
Kent FRS delivers wide-ranging community safety activities. A central team provides programmes focused on water safety, school visits, arson awareness and fire-setting. It co-ordinates its prevention activity with Kent Police, and stations receive toolkits supporting each campaign.
Some initiatives involve working with a large number of partner organisations. For example, two staff work in the Margate Task Force alongside over 30 agencies. This aims to tackle arson, theft, drug use, organised crime and human trafficking in the town.
There is a dedicated team of three running the fire-setter scheme. According to data provided by the service, this team engaged with 334 people during 2017/18. Schools, police, youth offending teams, parents and social services make referrals. The service follows up fire-setter intervention using letters and visits, but it acknowledges it is difficult to evaluate the scheme. It has not been running for long enough to see any reduction in arson incidents that could be directly attributed to its work. It can also be difficult to track the progress of individuals, as they move away or disengage.
There are some good local water safety initiatives, such as training community flood wardens, and we saw an innovative campaign, ‘Got ducked, fell in’. This placed rubber ducks and posters at river rescue hotspots, and beer mats in nearby pubs, to remind people to think before entering water after drinking or taking drugs. The service developed this with the RNLI. Staff understand how to identify and safeguard vulnerable people. We saw good evidence of this, including a case of cuckooing being identified during a routine visit. The service uses community volunteers to help communicate its safety messages to diverse communities.
The service shares prevention information with partners via secure email.
Kent FRS takes a leading role in trying to reduce deaths and injuries on the road in Kent. It chairs the Kent & Medway Road Safety Casualty Reduction Partnership, which involves councils, Highways England and the police. A senior Kent FRS manager leads on road safety nationally. The service also chairs the Road Safety Delivery Group, which includes fire, police and Kent & Medway councils.
Since April 2016, the service has run an innovative road safety experience. This is a centre where service staff, along with police and ambulance staff, run supervised interactive sessions for 14 to 25-year-olds. Between the project’s launch and February 2019, the service has reported that it has had 10,500 visitors. The service delivers ‘Licence to Kill’, aimed at young drivers and passengers, and has expanded to educate adult drivers from external organisations, such as taxi firms. The service has employed an external company to review the centre’s effectiveness.
The service developed a motorcycle safety programme, Biker Down, ten years ago and this has now been rolled out nationally. It has subsequently developed other biker safety programmes with IAM Roadsmart and the management of Brands Hatch race circuit.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Areas for improvement
- The service should assure itself that its enforcement plan prioritises the highest risks and includes proportionate activity to reduce risk.
- The service should assure itself that it allocates enough resources to meet its own targets for responding to building control consultations.
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.
Kent FRS has a risk-based inspection programme, which aims to audit all high-risk business premises over a seven-year period. It uses Fire Service Emergency Cover modelling software, Experian data and historic audit data to highlight high-risk premises, aligned to National Fire Chiefs Council categories. It prioritises houses in multiple occupancy and sheltered housing, as it considers them particularly high risk.
However, the service is failing to meet its high-risk audit targets. In the year to 31 December 2018, the service audited 8.5 percent (885 audits) of its high-risk premises. This equates to just over half of the service’s target to audit 1,600 high-risk premises per year. This puts the public at risk of using premises that don’t meet fire regulations, and means that operational staff do not have access to the risk information that should be gathered during routine inspections.
Neither is the service meeting its targets for responding to building control consultations. It aims to respond to 98 percent in 21 days, but it achieved only 89 percent between April 2018 and December 2018. The service’s management explains this is a resourcing issue that has recently been addressed, and predicts it will be on-target by April 2019.
There is a 24/7 rota of trained staff to respond to dangerous conditions and issue prohibition notices. The service aims to respond to fire safety complaints and concerns within 24 hours; it currently does so on 98 percent of occasions. However, where there is a risk to life it mobilises an officer and alerts the duty fire safety manager immediately.
The service has a systematic and robust fire safety audit process. Inspectors peer-review each other’s audits, and fire safety managers quality-assure all inspectors. All protection staff are trained to level four fire safety diploma. Station-based staff do not conduct fire protection audits, but they could nevertheless describe how to identify and address fire safety issues.
Overall, the service has a well-structured team in place to conduct its risk-based inspection programme, but it needs to increase productivity to meet its targets.
Kent FRS achieves a good balance between working with businesses to promote compliance and taking enforcement action. The protection files we reviewed were logical and systematic.
In the year ending 31 March 2018, the service issued 232 informal notifications, 77 enforcement notices and 12 prohibitions notices. There were no alteration notices or prosecutions. However, we saw examples of successful prosecution cases in previous years. Currently, one prosecution is underway, with another two likely to follow. We saw the service’s enforcement tracker, which lists premises inspected with details of any follow-up activity, and found the service has access to appropriate legal advice.
Working with others
Kent FRS works effectively with partner agencies to protect the community. It takes joint action over houses of multiple occupation with the police, local authority and immigration services, shares data with housing officers and the Care Quality Commission, and has joint visit agreements. The service shares premises with Border Force and carries out joint visits with them.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Kent Fire & Rescue Service is good at responding to fires and other emergencies. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure staff know how to command fire service assets assertively, effectively and safely at incidents.
Managing assets and resources
As at 31 March 2018, the service had 14 wholetime fire stations, 34 on-call fire stations and 9 mixed fire stations, and 75 fire engines. It had specialist vehicles and equipment to deal with a broad range of incident types. Wholetime and on-call staff are trained to the same level at a central training centre.
However, it is failing to achieve its targets for the number of available fire engines. Between April 2018 and December 2018, the overall average monthly pump availability ranged from 41 percent to 47 percent. According to its fire cover review, it needs 50 engines by day and night, but between April 2018 and the end of February 2019 it averaged 34 by day and 51 at night. That said, the service states this is sufficient to enable it to meet its planning assumptions of dealing with two simultaneous incidents, each with up to ten fire engines.
Of note is that the service manages the availability of fire engines dynamically and uses wholetime and day-duty staff to provide cover. It operates an operational resilience team of 15 firefighters, who are posted around the service to keep key wholetime and on-call fire engines available. The service failed to mobilise a response on only two occasions between April to December 2018; this is comparable to most other services.
Work is underway to improve numbers of on-call staff and the service has recently launched a recruitment campaign. New things are being tried to improve staff numbers, including paying an enhanced rate to on-call staff for providing daytime cover. Numbers are low due to recent changes to conditions of service for these staff. For example, the service introduced part-time workers’ rights to improve conditions of service for on-call staff. An unintended consequence of this was the reduction in number of hours individuals could cover, which adversely affected overall availability of stations.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires was 9 minutes 36 seconds. This is one of the quickest of all other significantly rural services. The service has a response standard target to reach all life-threatening calls in 10 minutes on 80 percent of occasions. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service achieved this in 73 percent of cases. These response standards do not include call-handling time; in the year ending 31 March 2018, the average call-handling time was 1 minute 24 seconds.
To overcome availability gaps, incident commanders have received specialist training in attending with a crew of three, where they would normally have four.
The service has an effective plan for reviewing its policies against national operational guidance. There are good systems in place to mobilise predetermined attendances to incidents, based on national incident types. It collaborates with other services, for example, providing medical response to urgent calls received by the ambulance service where Kent FRS has the nearest available resource with the required skills.
The service is attending more medical calls on behalf of the ambulance service, increasing from 2,653 in the year to 30 September 2017 to 6,499 over the same time period in 2018. Staff are trained to be able to deal with serious conditions such as heart attacks. The service helps the police or ambulance service to gain entry to properties where there are concerns over the welfare of occupants. And it helps search for missing people, providing personnel on the ground and drones in the air, and using its thermal imaging equipment. None of this additional work has prevented the service attending its core business of fire and rescue incidents.
There is a range of systems for recording incident information and reporting it back, including standard messages, incident risk assessments and decision logs. Fire control staff add incident information to turnout slips and MDTs, including temporary faults with sprinkler systems and road closures. As mentioned above, however, the MDTs have limited functionality but they are being replaced during 2019. They show hydrant locations and site risk information, and can plot smoke/hazard plumes onto maps, but they have no vehicle crash data, and some of the mapping data they do have is out of date.
The service works with other agencies to improve its response. Fire control staff now work in the police control room, which allows them access to some systems, for example county-wide CCTV.
During our inspection, we found that fire control staff were trained and encouraged to alter the number of fire engines sent to incidents depending on information gathered from callers. Most staff felt the service would support them if they used operational discretion at an incident rather than simply following standard procedures. A number of incident commanders understood this important principle, but we found some did not.
Responses to high-rise incidents were reviewed after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The service carried out exercises to test high-rise procedures and fire control’s ability to give advice to many different callers from the same building. Most wholetime and on-call staff are confident in using breathing apparatus, and understand operational risk. We saw evidence of comprehensive training for all levels of incident commanders. However, some commanders did not have a good enough understanding of tactical modes, which are part of national guidance about which approach to take in tackling an incident – for example, entering a burning building, or fighting the fire from outside.
Keeping the public informed
A communications officer is on duty 24/7, using a range of channels, including social media and the service’s website, to keep the public informed. Fire control staff alert the duty press officer when incidents take place. The public can subscribe to email updates for longer-running incidents. After a fire in Margate in September 2018, volunteers dropped supporting leaflets in affected areas and the service released YouTube videos. The service also has public-facing news release archives, which contain all releases since 2014.
Fire control staff are confident in offering fire survival guidance to the public. The control room also keeps all callers on the line for as long as possible after mobilising, to gather information and offer advice and support.
Evaluating operational performance
Kent FRS introduced a new strategy for evaluating its operations in January 2018. This explains how good practice, areas for improvement and operational learning should be disseminated. This includes debriefs and incident monitoring; all incidents have small debriefs, usually before leaving the incident location, and information is uploaded onto the operational assurance site.
There is a formal debrief process for more significant incidents, and for those in which operational discretion has been used. The service recently improved this procedure by broadening the scope of incidents that have formal debriefs. All staff can see significant debriefs, using a database that tracks any recent changes, for example to procedures or equipment. Officers attend incidents to monitor and evaluate performance.
The service publishes debrief reports and, where appropriate, produces case studies. It requires stations to acknowledge receipt of any safety-critical information from debriefs. It also responds to staff feedback; we saw examples from operational assurance in which staff suggestions had led the service to purchase equipment or change its policies.
Where appropriate, the service shares its development plans via national operational learning. We saw an example from a multi-agency incident in which the service shared lessons it learned from a communication problem. We also saw how the service learned from national incidents; for example, following a firefighter fatality in another service, Kent FRS evaluated how it would have dealt with that incident scenario.
The operational assurance team keeps an eye out for coroner’s and other reports relating to firefighter fatalities or investigations into the handling of incidents by other fire services. The team uses the lessons learned to advise on improvements across the service.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Kent Fire & 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 ensure operational staff have good access to cross-border risk information.
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).
Kent FRS can support national incidents and gave us examples of having done so, for example during widespread grass fires in summer 2018. The service’s local arrangements meet requirements within the national co-ordination and advisory framework. The service’s partners reported that it is a proactive and valued member of the Kent Resilience Forum.
We saw clear arrangements for responding to incidents in the Channel Tunnel. The service regularly exercises with French, Belgian and Dutch emergency services to prepare its response for incidents in the English Channel. The service has comprehensive plans for high-risk sites. It shares these plans with local resilience forum partners and via Resilience Direct, a national platform used by emergency responders for sharing information.
We found incident command assessments use realistic scenarios based on high-risk local sites, such as Bluewater shopping centre.
Working with other services
We saw evidence of Kent working with other fire services through its involvement with the East Coast Flooding Group, which exercises across the east coast of England. The service’s three-yearly training and exercise planner includes exercises with neighbouring services. We found examples of stations training with neighbouring services in the Dartford Crossing and Channel Tunnel.
However, the service has no cross-border risk information available to crews via MDTs; this is passed verbally from fire control. This presents a risk; we found it common for services’ mapping and risk information on MDTs to extend 10 km beyond service borders, so crews can plan en route to risk sites over the border. Neighbouring site risks are available via the Resilience Direct site, which only managers can access.
Working with other agencies
The Kent Resilience Forum annual planner sets out multi-agency training, exercises, debriefs and seminars, including exercises at a nuclear power station, airport and Dartford Crossing, as well as planning for the impact of Brexit. The service takes part in all those exercises. It has also developed an exercise planner for events up to 2022. Fire control is involved in exercises and is invited to subsequent debriefs. Officers have an exercise rota to ensure they each attend a range of incident types and locations.
Incident commanders demonstrated knowledge and understanding of how to deal with a multi-agency response, and the service has appropriate specialist equipment to respond to large-scale national incidents. Commanders felt confident in managing a range of incident types, including terrorist incidents.