How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?
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, Kent Fire & Rescue Service is good at looking after its people.
The service offers excellent staff wellbeing support. Staff recognise that it is a priority, and know what is available to them. Those who need it receive welfare debriefs, which include continuing support. The service has a well-established approach to health and safety, including:
- out-of-hours support for work-related and personal issues; and
- regular training.
Leaders demonstrate and model the service’s expected behaviours. They encourage staff to get in touch with them directly. Staff across the service told us that there is a culture of trust and empowerment.
The service gives training, and makes sure its staff maintain and develop their skills. It monitors gaps in its capability in order to fill them as quickly as possible. It has a good system for recording training provided centrally, such as breathing apparatus and driving. However, there is an inconsistent approach to recording station-based training.
The service’s workforce doesn’t reflect wider society. Some 1.3 percent of its firefighters are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background, compared to 6.9 percent of Kent residents. Only 4.9 percent of its firefighters are female. However, data from the service shows 48 percent of its staff from group manager or equivalent upwards are female (including the chief executive).
The service has a new, paperless appraisal system, which consists of one-to-one meetings. This has many benefits, but some staff don’t yet fully understand it. The service needs to give more guidance in order to make sure it is run consistently.
How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?
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 good processes for responding to and monitoring staff wellbeing for personal and work issues. Staff understand the provision, and recognise that welfare is a service priority. There are regular wellbeing messages on the intranet, and the service has appointed 30 wellbeing champions, who have volunteered to have training in supporting colleagues. These champions are highly regarded by the workforce. There is also a support portal, which is an online system that all staff can access for advice and support. Leaders talk about these issues in videoconferences. Wellbeing is part of staff appraisals, and all staff carry wellbeing cards with details of 24/7 support.
Staff who have attended critical incidents receive a welfare debrief, called ‘defusing’, which includes follow-up contact and ongoing support. Other staff can request this, too, and those involved in emergency medical response receive additional support. The service told us that six staff currently have carers’ contracts to help them with carer responsibilities and improve work–life balance.
The service trains managers to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress. However, some managers told us that further training would be beneficial.
Health and safety
We found the service has an established health, safety and wellbeing culture. All staff have relevant training, including manual handling. The service is accredited by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), and IOSH qualifications are mandatory for some roles. Staff are encouraged to report health and safety issues. As part of our inspection we completed a staff survey to which 448 Kent FRS staff responded, which equates to 31 percent of the workforce (please see the About the Data page for more details). Of the 448 respondents, 98 percent agreed that they know how to report all accidents, near misses and dangerous occurrences and 94 percent agreed that they are encouraged to do so.
The service investigates, reports on and analyses all accidents and near-misses, in order to learn from any mistakes. There are six station managers who undertake these investigations. They are trained by the Health and Safety Executive and Kent Police, and they work on joint investigations with union representatives.
There is a dedicated health and safety team to support all off-site training risk assessments. Staff recognise the benefits of this. Members of the team are involved from the early stages of research and development of new equipment. They attend incidents and exercises and offer 24/7 advice.
Culture and values
We are aware Kent FRS has been through a period of significant cultural and organisational change. It has moved from being a traditional fire service and has evolved into a more public-facing service. Leaders model the service’s expected behaviours. Staff told us they were encouraged to have direct contact with senior leaders.
We found them business-like and supportive of staff. They have a strong emphasis on coaching as a management style and provide coaches to other agencies. We found the service does not have a statement of values, which it justified as staff told them they did not want this – they wanted lived positive behaviour. There is a published ‘Promise’ to each other which reinforces this.
Its behavioural framework, which is being adopted nationally, sets out expected behaviours at different levels across the service. We found these evidenced across the service. The service is willing to tackle tough issues, such as bullying, and promotes a zero-tolerance attitude. However, there is still some work needed to ensure this message is embedded. Of the 448 responses received from Kent FRS to our staff survey, 23 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed, and 15 percent reported feeling discriminated against at work in the previous 12 months. This is not consistent with our other fieldwork inspection findings. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.
Staff across the service described and demonstrated a culture of trust and empowerment. For example, appraisals are paperless, taking place as monthly one-to-one meetings. We saw a copy of a letter, sent by the Chief to all operational staff, assuring them of support for using operational discretion.
Kent FRS has implemented an ‘open chair’ at senior leadership meetings that staff at all levels are invited to attend and contribute to. A senior manager takes time before meetings to discuss and explain any agenda items that the ‘guest’ is unsure of.
How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has a system to record and monitor operational staff competence which is accurate and accessible.
Kent FRS provides enough courses to meet anticipated demand and sets out training requirements in a workforce plan. This means staff can maintain their core skills and progress, meeting the needs of the service.
An establishment group meets every two months to look at workforce gaps. These meetings inform recruitment campaigns and promotion processes, and staff eligible for promotion can be quickly moved into post.
We saw evidence of effective succession planning during our inspection. Two members of staff had submitted their notice of retirement, and their replacements were already in place for a handover period.
There are monthly performance management reports, which are accessible across the whole service. Using graphs for clarity, these provide information such as the number of safe and well visits and sickness absence, giving the figures for service, group and station level. They show how this year compares to previous years.
The service has difficulty in attracting non-uniformed staff into some of its senior roles, partly due to its proximity to London. It has introduced a pay premium to help it attract talented individuals, with some recent successes.
Learning and improvement
Kent FRS has an effective central recording system for training such as breathing apparatus and driving. This flags up when staff need to attend refresher courses. Such centrally-taught core skills are well maintained, tracked and supported by the training team. The service has a three-year training planner for staff, and wholetime crews have compulsory training days. Operational staff told us that centrally-delivered training was of a high standard. Of the 448 responses received from Kent FRS to our staff survey, 78 percent of respondents agreed that they had received sufficient training to enable them to do what is asked of them.
The service needs to do more, however, to make sure that the workforce has the right skills and capabilities. There is an inconsistent approach to recording station-based training. The previous system was abandoned, as it was cumbersome and inefficient, but since then most stations have developed their own methods for recording training. Some of these are adequate, but they are not consistent. The service acknowledges that it doesn’t monitor station-based training closely enough.
In each station there is now a station leader, which is a new role. The station leader oversees training in stations, releasing supervisory managers to take part in drills. When new station leaders are appointed, managers review their skills, to tailor their training for their new role. We saw good, comprehensive examples of this.
The service encourages staff to develop their skills. Staff are encouraged to develop personal development logs for any professional memberships/qualifications they have. It supports those who wish to pursue higher education and other qualifications with bursaries. The service has reported that between April 2018 and the time of inspection, 6 support staff and 11 operational staff have received these.
How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?
Seeking and acting on staff feedback
Kent FRS identifies and resolves workforce concerns. Firefighters gave us examples of the service identifying local concerns – allegations of bullying, for example – and dealing with them promptly.
We saw examples of new equipment and working practices that had been adopted following suggestions by staff. For example, firefighters now receive personal-issue water bottles, which they suggested following an increase in grass fires in summer 2017. The aim is to save money and protect the environment by reducing the use of bottled water.
The service does not conduct any service-wide staff survey, and we were told there was little response when they had tried to do so in the past. Instead, it uses small thematic surveys, sets up staff forums, holds regular videoconferences, sends interactive monthly updates from the chief, and has manager visits. Senior managers are always available for face-to-face discussions.
The communications department monitors internal communications to ensure staff have received risk-critical messages and updates. Staff can set up individual alerts to update them about activity in the online staff suggestion forum.
The service’s grievance procedure follows ACAS guidelines and has been in place for five years. It has realistic and achievable timescales. There is a very low level of formal grievances, all of which were dealt with appropriately. Managers are trained to deal with informal grievances and the service uses mediators to help deal with informal cases. However, the service has no oversight of informal grievances. It is therefore unable to ensure that informal outcomes are being applied fairly and consistently, and the organisation is unsighted on trends that may occur.
We found the service has good working relationships with unions, which has allowed it to deliver a programme of significant change without industrial action.
In terms of diversity, Kent FRS’s workforce does not reflect its wider society. As at 31 March 2018, 1.3 percent of its firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 6.9 percent.
The service is trying to increase the diversity of its wholetime firefighters, with some recent success in 2017. The service’s multicultural volunteers engage with diverse communities, for example through meetings with representatives from Gypsy and Traveller communities, and attendance at Pride events.
It has also made efforts to address gender imbalances. The service reports that, as at 31 March 2018, 4.9 percent of firefighters were female. But data from the services shows 48 percent of staff from group manager or equivalent upwards are female, and the chief is also a woman. The service runs positive action days and taster sessions aimed at women and people from BAME communities, and it is appointing an engagement officer to develop a recruitment strategy and engagement plan. The female staff we spoke to told us that the service supported them with appropriate uniforms, and dedicated changing and welfare facilities.
We saw improved dignity and welfare provisions on newer stations, for example, the replacement of open dormitories with separate bedrooms, and separate changing, toilet and shower facilities. We were shown a plan to improve all the service’s facilities over a two-year programme.
Equality, diversity and inclusion is well-embedded across the service’s policies and procedures, although clearly there is a long way to go until it has a more representative workforce. Every project proposal starts with a people impact assessment, which considers nine protected characteristics. All staff have training in equality and diversity and sign up to an equality, diversity and inclusion ‘promise’ on joining the service, which sets out how colleagues are expected to behave as employees of Kent FRS. The staff we spoke to were all on board with this.
How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?
Kent FRS’s new paperless appraisal process is based on trust and empowerment, and it has many benefits. However, some staff do not yet fully understand it, and we found that they were approaching it inconsistently. The service needs to ensure that all staff understand the new process; some staff told us that they would like more guidance on this.
Appraisals consist of a one-to-one meeting, which is followed up with a wellbeing action plan if necessary and a new process for identifying when people are ready for promotion, and talent-spotting future leaders. The service gives managers clear guidance on supporting talent, and they use a grid system to evaluate performance. This is a good process, not only for those seeking promotion, but for all working at Kent Fire & Rescue Service.
All staff sign up to the service’s expected behaviours. These reinforce personal responsibility for learning. Staff are expected to seek opportunities to grow and develop their skills. Of the 448 responses received from Kent FRS to our staff survey, 75 percent of respondents agreed that they were satisfied with their current level of learning and development.
The service has a framework for identifying, supporting and developing high-potential future leaders, but managers don’t always understand it. At the time of inspection, its talent process was implemented down to watch manager and not yet in place for support staff.
We found the promotion process fair and transparent. The application process has been shortened to an expression of interest, and interviews are based around the published expected behaviours. Staff who have been through the promotion process say they received honest feedback. Staff must complete a ‘licence to recruit’ if they are to sit on recruitment or promotion panels, which includes unconscious bias training delivered by external recruitment specialists.
We saw good examples of the service providing staff with temporary development opportunities following unsuccessful attempts at promotion. This helps candidates to gain experience.