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Merseyside 2018/19

People

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

Last updated 19/06/2019
Good

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, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is good at looking after its people.

The service is making excellent provision for the wellbeing of its staff. It has a positive health and safety culture supported by all staff. The service needs to make sure that the whole workforce fully understands and embraces its behavioural values.

The service has a good understanding of its workforce’s skills and abilities and an impressive training and recording programme in place for operational staff. It needs to make sure it has good systems in place to record the skills and training of its middle managers and control room staff. The service plans to assess its incident commanders every two years to make sure they are competent to command. It is not up to date with this programme. It has listened to the views of staff and reintroduced the crew manager role.

The service isn’t fully representative of the community it serves. Staff from under-represented groups, and those with protected characteristics, do not believe the service is an employer of choice for many people. The service needs to improve this situation. Grievance processes are fair and open. We saw good examples of the service listening to staff and members of the public and making changes.

There is no system in place to identify, develop and fast-track high-potential staff. The service needs to address this. It has a good culture of managing performance across the organisation. Staff don’t always view the promotion process as open and fair. However, we found no evidence to support this view.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Good

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is good at promoting the right values and culture. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure its values and behaviours are understood and demonstrated by all staff.

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

Workforce wellbeing

We found the service has made excellent provisions to ensure staff have access to a broad range of wellbeing provisions. Staff are aware of how to access these services, either directly through the service or confidentially through an independent employee assistance scheme.

For example, the service has trained its supervisory managers in mental health first aid. It has worked with a mental health charity to ensure staff can spot early signs of mental health problems displayed by their colleagues. It supports its staff in staying physically fit and provides voluntary health screening. It also ensures staff with physical injuries have swift access to medical support, and it debriefs staff following critical incidents. During our inspection, staff told us about their positive personal experiences of the range of wellbeing support that is available.

We found it encouraging that the service takes a flexible approach towards individuals who access wellbeing provisions. This may be contributing to the relatively low levels of sickness in the service.

Health and safety

We found that the service has robust health and safety arrangements in place. It has a culture of encouraging staff to report near miss events. It also works closely with representative bodies to address health and safety concerns. The service is using the health and safety data it collects to improve working practices, and has developed a useful range of performance indicators to allow for the early identification of negative trends. 

Culture and values

The service has in place a clear set of behavioural values, which are central to how it recruits, appraises and progresses staff. We found that the extent to which staff accept these values varied widely across the fire stations we visited. Most staff we spoke to, including newer staff recruited using the behavioural values, have fully engaged with them. However, a sizeable minority believe they are of little value.

We were surprised to find a significant number of staff who haven’t been able to move on from problems directly linked to former chief officers. We found that there are significant cultural divides among staff. These relate to a variety of issues linked to historical industrial relations and the service’s current change agenda. Despite this, we are satisfied that these internal issues are having no effect on the service provided to the public.

The fire and rescue authority appointed a new chief officer shortly before our inspection. We found that staff respect him. He is visible across the organisation and models the behaviours that the service expects. Since taking up the role, he has made changes to the way senior leaders communicate. Staff supported the changes and he is engaging them with his future vision for the service.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Good

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

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained for their role. It needs to ensure all staff keep their skills up to date and have a consistent method of recording when they have received training.

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

Workforce planning

The service has an excellent understanding of its current workforce skills and capabilities. It is proactively addressing future gaps. For example, the service has identified the high number of operational firefighters who may retire from the service over the coming five years. As a result, it is recruiting enough people to ensure the service doesn’t fall below a minimum level of competent firefighters. 

The service carries out a comprehensive training needs analysis. This asks various management groups to set future priorities and distribute resources. It identifies organisational gaps caused by legislative changes and IRMP commitments, such as the introduction of new duty systems. It identifies skills gaps arising in teams across its response, prevention and protection functions, which assists with succession planning. It also takes account of individual skills gaps raised through the appraisals system.

The service has listened to feedback from staff and recognised the unintended consequences of removing the crew manager supervisory role. This has led to fewer firefighters putting themselves forward for promotion into watch manager roles, as most find the skill gap between firefighter and watch manager too large. It has also meant that the service has been unable to release watch managers into protection vacancies.

We found that the service has good arrangements in place to fill short-term staffing gaps on fire engines. It also makes sure it is able to meet the demands of larger incidents through recall to duty agreements and secondary contracts. We saw evidence that the service has successfully tested these arrangements at recent large-scale incidents.

Learning and improvement

The service has developed a good culture of learning and improvement. Response staff follow a training programme that takes full advantage of information technology to keep training materials current. The service gives staff time to complete technical, practical and e-learning training. This ensures that they have the right mix of knowledge and practical skills to keep the public safe when responding to emergency incidents. Staff recognise and respect the investment the service has made in their training.

During our inspection, we sampled training records at the fire stations we visited and found them to be complete and up to date. The service has identified various skills as being essential for a firefighter to carry out their role: breathing apparatus; working at height; confined space; fire behaviour; water safety; and road traffic collisions. It provides this training at a central training centre and the records we reviewed were up to date.

The service assigns four fire engines to its training and development academy most days to support these essential skills. It was positive to note that the service moves staff between stations daily to minimise duplication of essential skills training and ensure firefighters maintain these competencies. However, we did note that the training systems in place for control staff and middle managers aren’t of the same high quality as the service provides for firefighters.

We are satisfied that the service provides specialist prevention staff with comprehensive initial training. It then gives them relevant continuous professional development input such as training on safeguarding vulnerable people. The service understands the need to provide entry into its protection function from all levels of the organisation. It provides staff with the relevant academic qualifications to enable them to do inspection roles. Managers have appropriate health and safety qualifications to match their role. The service also matches the funding for individual development when the additional skills identified through appraisals are relevant to a member of staff’s current or potential future role. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of staff to get their views of their service (please see the About the Data page for more details). Over 70 percent of the 92 respondents to our staff survey (equating to 8 percent of the service workforce) agreed that they have received sufficient training to enable them to do what is asked of them.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

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

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

Seeking and acting on staff feedback

We found staff had raised a broad range of concerns that had been responded to by the management team. For example, the service has changed the way it communicates with staff, altered the focus of operational audits, changed overtime payment to be in line with nationally agreed terms and conditions, changed management structures, simplified the appraisal system, introduced good-quality maternity wear and fire kit for female firefighters, and introduced a crew manager development role.

Staff have been informed of these changes in a range of ways, including principal officer talks, team briefings, regular and independent staff surveys, and a ‘suggestions, questions or problems’ portal on the service’s intranet.

The service has effective grievance procedures that enjoy the confidence of the staff and the trade unions. The service has good relationships with the trade unions and representative bodies, and robust systems for consultation and negotiation are in place.

In its IRMP, the service has publicly committed to improve equality and diversity issues. Consequently, the service has made progress in a number of areas, including engaging with under-represented groups in its communities and monitoring to ensure they aren’t disproportionately affected by fire. 

Diversity

The service doesn’t fully reflect the communities it serves. As at 31 March 2018, only 8.5 percent of its firefighters were female. Also, 4.9 percent of firefighters were from a BAME background, compared with a BAME residential population of 5.5 percent. The service is working hard to improve this as well as to increase the number of staff from under-represented groups. As at 31 March 2018, the service had 1,005 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members. This includes 631 FTE firefighters who are wholetime.

The service runs positive action campaigns to encourage applications from under-represented groups. These include ‘have a go days’ when potential applicants can familiarise themselves with the range of tests they will take as part of the recruitment process. We also found an area of good practice where the service provides mentoring and support to women who haven’t been successful in one recruitment drive, to encourage them to re-apply. These efforts are producing good results. In the most recent recruitment campaign, the service informed us that 26 percent of all successful applicants were female and 7 percent were from a BAME background.

While we did find examples of good practice, we were disappointed to find consistently negative feedback from staff from under-represented groups. They communicated a range of examples to us that illustrate that there is a culture in the service that is less welcoming of staff with certain protected characteristics.

Staff from all groups thought that middle and senior managers could make more effort to respond to their concerns and challenge inappropriate and exclusionary language.

This issue is somewhat supported by the staff survey we conducted, which was open to all the service’s workforce. Of the 92 respondents (equating to 8 percent of the workforce) 28 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed at work, and 28 percent reported feeling discriminated against at work, in the last 12 months. In both cases, respondents indicated this was most likely to be by someone more senior than themselves and industrial action was often cited as the reason behind the bullying/harassment. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.

4

How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Good

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is good at managing performance and developing leaders. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.

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

Managing performance

The service has a culture of performance management in place that staff accept and understand. Staff have been involved in setting targets for the areas they work in. Managers hold them to account both individually and collectively (as a team). We found that the service expects and supports managers to hold staff to account for their individual performance.

The service has a behavioural values appraisal system in place. These values have been in place since 2015 and the service uses them during initial recruitment and promotion. Staff told us that they recognise the benefit of having had the same set of values in place for some time, as previously these had changed on a regular basis. The appraisal system is clear and simple to follow. Managers give staff feedback and set clear goals for their performance in role, values, training and development.

This appears to be supported in the responses we received to our staff survey, in which 66 percent of 92 respondents agreed that they are satisfied with their current level of learning and development.

The service has simplified the appraisal system over recent years. An information technology platform supports it and allows the service to scrutinise compliance and share and track issues arising from appraisals across the organisation.

Developing leaders

The service doesn’t have a system in place to identify, develop and support high-potential staff. However, it does have strong systems in place to develop leaders both in operational and management roles.

The service develops leaders through the Chartered Management Institute at the service’s training and development academy. These programmes provide development for both supervisory and senior management roles. The service also provides matched funding for bespoke development when it is role specific. It works well with the Fire Brigades’ Union to help staff access the learning fund they have made available.

During our inspection, we reviewed the systems the service has in place to appoint leaders. We reviewed promotions that had taken place over the past 12 months at supervisory, middle and senior manager level. The systems the service has in place are fair and open and it has promoted on merit. It provides feedback and development to those who haven’t been successful, in conjunction with their line manager. However, we were disappointed that assessors haven’t undertaken unconscious bias training. The service recognises this gap and plans to introduce relevant training.

We found that not all staff believe the appointments and promotions system is fair. The view expressed by some staff was that success depended on not being a member of a particular trade union and whether they are prepared to sign a resilience contract. We found no evidence to support this perception, but the service still has work to do to allay these workforce concerns.

Finally, we noted that the service has introduced several apprenticeships and plans to expand its programme so that future firefighters will start their careers this way. We were made aware of staff who had first encountered the service through youth cadet schemes and are now firefighters and leaders at middle manager level.