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. Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness is good.
The service has a good understanding of the level of risk it faces. It has an effective risk management plan and works with partner organisations to refresh its action plan every year. However, its records about the risks firefighters face in some buildings and sites are out of date.
The service has an ambitious programme of prevention work and fire safety checks. It works closely with vulnerable groups and provides good training on road safety.
The service has reviewed its fire safety audits. They now focus on the buildings that are most at risk from fire. It has reduced some low-level audits and increased the size of its fire safety team. It uses its enforcement powers effectively and where they are needed. It has tried to reduce the number of false fire alarms, but the number of false alarm incidents attended has notably increased since 2015/16.
Oxfordshire FRS has a good response time to emergency calls and for the year ending 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires was in line with other predominantly rural services. It manages emergency calls by working with the services in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. But more staff need to be confident about retrieving information from fire engines’ mobile data terminals.
Incident commanders were well trained and clear about when they could take action and when they needed to refer to senior managers. The service uses the council’s press office to give out public information and publicise larger emergency incidents. We found a mixed approach to reviewing incidents and sharing what is learnt.
The service has clear plans to prepare for a major incident, particularly at large and complex sites. It works closely with neighbouring fire services to allow for a joint operational response.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- 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
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has developed a wide-ranging local and community risk profile. The service prepared the risk profile to support its five-year community risk management plan (CRMP) 2017–2022. It publishes its refreshed action plan every year.
The service consults interested parties about its CRMP and annual action plans, and for its 2018–2019 consultation it received 66 responses.
The service collects a wide range of data to inform its risk profiling. This includes information about age, ethnicity and deprivation, health and welfare and forecasts of changes in population. It shares information with the council, the NHS and other Thames Valley partner organisations such as the police, other fire services and the local resilience forum (LRF). Oxfordshire FRS’s staff work closely with these other organisations at district level, to understand new and changing risk patterns in the local area.
The service is working closely with Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service to refine its risk modelling. This includes investing in geographical-modelling computer software. The service will use this work to feed into the next annual refresh of its FRS risk profile.
The service fully understands risks in the area it serves. In addition to supporting the CRMP, the service uses the risk profile to decide which areas and vulnerable groups of people should be the focus of its risk reduction work. Station plans link to district plans. Station managers gather local risk information by attending community safety partnership meetings and joint tasking and co-ordination meetings. This is added to centralised data on vulnerability to work out which people and places should be classed as vulnerable to fire.
Oxfordshire FRS used its risk profiling and modelling to provide evidence to support building a new fire station at Carterton. Its business case used forecasts of increased housing, growth in commercial activity in the town and a wider demographic to recruit from compared with neighbouring stations. The new station began operating in December 2018.
Having an effective risk management plan
Oxfordshire FRS’s CRMP 2017–2022 sets out clear, high-level plans to manage and reduce risk in the area it serves. The plan identifies current and forecast risk. It links this to its work in prevention, protection and emergency response.
The service uses a risk assessment methodology that is supported by a PESTELO assessment, which all heads of department carry out to identify risk. It also takes account of the Thames Valley LRF’s community risk register and assesses it against the service’s emerging risks. The Community Risk Management Action Plan gives details of specific projects for the current year. The service meets the requirements laid out in the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England by carrying out the updated management action plan. The action plan summarises the service’s principal risks. These include changes to the size and age profile of the population, growth in housing and employment, and increased transport.
The service is aiming to:
- reduce death and injury from fires and other emergencies;
- cut the number of fires and other emergencies;
- reduce business and commercial losses from fire; and
- protect the natural environment and heritage buildings in Oxfordshire.
The service is developing a wider prevention plan. It is also building closer working relationships with public health and linking into wider council corporate priorities, which are: thriving people, thriving communities and a thriving economy.
Maintaining risk information
Oxfordshire FRS uses the latest operational incident data for its annual CRMP update. During our inspection, we found different levels of understanding about how consistently the service uses the results of its debriefs and learns from operational incidents to validate and test its risk profile.
Firefighters collect information about certain buildings and permanent and temporary risks to operations. This helps pre-plan firefighting. The resulting site-specific risk information (SSRI) is held on mobile data terminals in fire engines. The service has decided to hold both electronic and paper records on fire engines and at stations. Throughout our inspection we found different versions and out-of-date records. The service has a management plan to address this problem, but it should tackle these inaccuracies as a matter of urgency.
We saw that Oxfordshire FRS has effective ways to update staff, particularly firefighters, with new and changed information about risk. It gives this information verbally during briefings at the change of shifts. Health and safety information is sent by email, with individual training records annotated to show whether the message has been read. The service has a senior manager who sits on the LRF community safety assessment group. This group meets twice a year to discuss and plan for managing national and local risks.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at preventing fires and other risks. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Oxfordshire FRS has set a particularly ambitious community safety (prevention) strategy, building on its 365 Alive programme. The service has run the programme since 2006. Its current strategy has the following objectives for 2016–2022:
- 6,000 more people alive due to our prevention, protection and emergency response activities;
- 85,000 children and young adults (including looked after children) to be better educated to lead safer and healthier lives; and
- 37,500 vulnerable children and adults helped to lead more secure and independent lives through safe and well visits.
Three initiatives focus on demographic groups that the service identifies as being at greater risk of harm from fire or other incidents. They are:
- an education programme helping children and young people live safer and healthier lives;
- safe and well visits to support the most vulnerable adults and children; and
- a more generalised programme of community safety interventions.
Local managers can manage risk in their area to support this strategy. As part of his role within Oxfordshire County Council, the chief fire officer is responsible for a range of services, which contribute to achieving the strategy and its targets. These include road safety, trading standards, emergency planning and Gypsy and Traveller services.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 3.3 home fire safety checks per 1,000 population. As at 31 March 2018, home fire safety checks in the service included identifying potential fire risks, acting to reduce fire risks, making sure working smoke alarms are fitted, advice on social welfare, health prevention, advice on slips, trips and falls, and advice on scams and doorstep crime. The service refers to home fire safety checks as safe and well visits. We were unable to consider the success of the safe and well activities as the service has not evaluated these since the national pilot evaluation. Oxfordshire FRS was part of this pilot scheme. The service is reviewing prevention work as part of the 2019–2020 CRMP action plan.
Promoting community safety
Oxfordshire FRS has several programmes to support its prevention strategy. Safe and well visits help vulnerable people at home. Firefighters and specialist staff visit people in their homes. As well as assessing risk from fire, staff also look for broader signs of risk and vulnerability, for example slips, trips and falls, and people with difficulties caring for themselves. They will tell partner organisations about people who need more help through making a safeguarding referral or referring on to more specialist support.
The service prevention team works with a wide range of partners including a multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), the social and health care team, mental health teams, a clinical commissioning group (CCG), Age UK and district nurses. We were shown recent examples of referrals that had achieved positive results.
The service provides Phoenix and fire cadet schemes to support children and young people as they grow up. The week-long Phoenix course aims to develop life skills in young people with troubled backgrounds. Fire cadets is a youth group run in fire stations for young people aged from 12 to 18.
The Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service safety centre is an interactive learning experience for children that takes place at Rewley Road fire station. It has several realistic safety scenarios such as bedrooms, a person on a railway line, and social media. The centre is a registered charity and works with school children, mainly in year 6. The service told us that 4,754 year 6 students from 165 state schools in the county attended its Junior Citizens sessions last year.
The service has trained staff in vulnerability and safeguarding work. We found staff across the service knew how to recognise these problems and refer people on to other agencies. The service also has access to Oxfordshire County Council’s adult and social care database. Its trained community safety staff will query the database prior to visits and update the system with the outcomes of visits. Staff will also create new records if the person has had no previous involvement with the service.
Oxfordshire FRS is responsible for providing road safety information and training on behalf of the county council. The service is prioritising four particularly vulnerable groups until 2022. These are:
- motorcyclists, particularly those aged 34–55;
- pedestrians; and
- young drivers aged 17–24.
The service works with partner organisations and with a range of audiences to implement its road safety programme. The cycling proficiency scheme develops road safety awareness and safe riding skills in younger cyclists. Biker Down is a national initiative run by bikers for bikers. It is aimed at riders but is also suitable for passengers. The workshop gives bikers the skills to keep themselves safe, give specific first aid and protect an injured motorcyclist at the scene of a crash.
As a member of the Thames Valley Road Safety Forum, the service helps promote and improve road safety. Recent campaigns included cycling safety, drink and drugs awareness and use of seatbelts. In partnership with the other emergency services across Thames Valley, the service will run the annual Safe Drive Stay Alive initiative in Oxfordshire with over 5,000 young drivers. The forum, along with the service, evaluates initiatives and uses marketing analysis to target specific audiences.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at ¬protecting the public through fire regulation. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it allocates enough resources to a prioritised and risk-based inspection programme.
- The service should ensure it addresses effectively the burden of false alarms (termed ‘unwanted signals’).
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.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
We found that the service has recently revised its risk-based audit programme to focus on the buildings that are assessed as posing the greatest risk to life from fire. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 1.8 fire safety audits per 100 known premises (which equates to 349 audits). This compares to the England rate of 3.0 over the same period. Of the 349 fire safety audits the service carried out in the year to 31 March 2018, 67 percent were satisfactory.
The service has increased resources in its fire safety (protection) team after recognising that it was not able to manage its current workload. As at 31 December 2018, the service was training an additional four staff members dedicated to protection activity. Operational firefighters do not carry out protection audits.
The service has recently reviewed its risk-based inspection programme. It used several methods to identify and prioritise risk. This included using an approach developed by another fire and rescue service to prioritise every business within Oxfordshire. This system gave a risk rating for each of the premises, based on the likelihood of fire. The service has defined its high risks. They are sleeping accommodation, vulnerability (elderly, young, bedridden people), fire engineered buildings, named premises (such as heritage buildings), buildings with tactical fire plans and premises that are beyond the service’s 14-minute attendance times. The service has laid out its new targets for risk-based inspections. It will currently meet the targets set against its three-year cycle. In the year to 31 December 2018, the service audited 125 of the 327 high risk premises it had identified. The service meets all its building control applications within the statutory consultation period.
The service also carries out audits reactively. These follow fire safety complaints, fires in regulated buildings and reports of unwanted fire alarms. Historically, carrying out these visits seriously reduced the service’s ability to undertake proactive work in the highest risk buildings. The service has recognised this problem. It has taken steps to reduce some low-level audits, increase the size of the fire safety team and re-balance the team’s workload. We found evidence to show this is bringing about improvements. There are plans for new staff to join the team and the number of proactive audits is increasing. We look forward to seeing the new structure fully implemented.
Oxfordshire FRS’s enforcement policy is based on nationally-agreed principles of better regulation. Wherever possible, the service works to support businesses to resolve fire safety concerns.
The service works closely with a business to agree an action plan where significant fire safety problems are identified. This benefits the business and the service, offering a cost-effective way forward without formal enforcement action. Where a business does not engage, the service will take enforcement action to make sure the building is safe.
The service has co-located one of its protection teams with the building control team in Cherwell District Council as a trial to bring about closer working relationships between the two services. The service takes a proportional approach to enforcement. It has secured 10 successful prosecutions, issued 30 enforcement notices and 22 prohibition notices in the period from 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2018. Overall, we found Oxfordshire FRS uses its enforcement powers proportionately and effectively.
Working with others
Oxfordshire FRS’s approach to reducing the number of unwanted automatic fire alarm systems is well established. The service audits buildings that have repeated false fire alarms. Fire safety inspectors work closely with the building manager, supporting them to identify the cause of the false alarms so they take steps to prevent repeated alarms. They will also encourage the manager to improve the fire alarm system management and introduce a filtering procedure to check the cause of an alarm before making an emergency call to the fire service. However, the rate of false alarm incidents attended per 1,000 population has increased in Oxfordshire from 3.7 in the 12 months to 31 March 2016 to 4.3 over the same period in 2018. The service should investigate this rise against its current work.
We found limited evidence that the service works with businesses, with examples being care home managers and safety management staff at Oxford University colleges. However, we found that work to support business was too often reactive. The service recognises that this is an area that requires further work. We look forward to seeing what improvements it achieves in future inspections.
The service has worked with Oxford City Council to fit all its high-rise residential blocks with sprinklers, redesigning the original proposal which did not include this.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Oxfordshire 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 learning and debriefs to improve operational response and incident command.
Managing assets and resources
The service has set a response standard for emergency calls. It aims to arrive at 80 percent of emergencies within 11 minutes and 95 percent of emergencies within 14 minutes. The service reported that between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018 it had met its targets with:
- 90 percent of all emergency incidents responded to within 11 minutes; and
- 96 percent of all emergency incidents responded to within 14 minutes.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires was 10 minutes and 38 seconds. This is in line with the average response time for other predominantly rural services.
Oxfordshire FRS’s resource management team pre-plans operational cover against any known gaps in providing services. The service also operates a fully-staffed roving pump that it can deploy across the county to fill any gaps during daytime hours. The service manages its daily operational fire cover proactively and has a minimum requirement of four firefighters on each fire engine. It has carried out planning assumptions based on a simultaneous deployment of six and eight fire engines at two separate incidents.
The service aims to have 100 percent availability of all pumping appliances. However, between April 2018 and December 2018, the overall average pump availability ranged from 66 percent to 73 percent. This was mainly due to lack of availability of on-call pumps.
Thames Valley Fire Control Service is a partnership for managing emergency calls across Royal Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The three services will respond across borders, irrespective of where the incident occurs. The control service is based at Royal Berkshire’s headquarters and staff are employees of Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The three services have agreed on standard pre-determined attendances (PDAs) for most incidents, including high-rise, confirmed and thatched-roof fires. Control staff have discretion to vary the PDAs based on information given by the caller.
We found that the breathing apparatus skill for firefighters on the fire control system does not update from its staff availability system. This is unlike the officer-in-charge and the driver skill. This means that when an on-call fire engine is mobilised to a building fire, control does not know whether there are sufficient breathing apparatus-qualified staff on board. While Oxfordshire FRS has procedures in place for the officer-in-charge of the fire engine to inform control if the incident needs another engine, inspectors were concerned that there could be a delay if several engines did not have staff qualified to wear breathing apparatus. The service should review this issue.
We spoke to operational staff who were confident in the use of breathing apparatus testing. In addition, we saw that training competencies of control room staff were managed to ensure they maintained their skills.
The wider Thames Valley partnership group is reviewing and aligning operational policy across the three services. It will assess and address gaps between local policy and national operational guidance (NOG).
The initial priority for the partnership has been to review arrangements for fires and firefighting. It has produced a draft policy that is out for consultation and discussion between the services, and for the services to determine any additional staff training requirements before the policy is introduced. It has programmed analysis of the gap between remaining NOG products and current policy in early 2019. The partnership plans to revise the remaining operational policies on a prioritised basis.
The service has a process for collecting information about buildings and sites that pose a potential increased risk to firefighters. Firefighters use this information at emergency incidents. We saw examples of information included on turnout instructions, SSRI and tactical fire plans (TFPs). SSRI and TFP information is available through mobile data terminals in fire engines. The service is maintaining its programme of risk site visits and has carried out the following number of risk sites visits:
- 150 in the 12 months to 31 March 2017;
- 189 in the 12 months to 31 March 2018; and
- 167 between 1 April and 31 December 2018.
Some operational staff we observed were more confident than others in retrieving information from the mobile data terminals. Staff told us that they are not trained to use the terminals.
Firefighters who take on an incident command role have clear training and assessment requirements. These are supported by exercises and simulations where they practice command skills. All incident commanders are assessed every two years, unless they have an identified development need, in which case they will be assessed annually. Support officers attend emergency incidents to mentor new commanders, giving feedback and advice as they develop and consolidate their incident management skills.
The service’s plans for handling incident command reflect NOG and best practice. Incident commanders are clear about the circumstances when operational discretion can be applied. We heard recent examples of when it had been used, including rescuing an unconscious casualty from water. Staff were generally confident the service would support them when using operational discretion. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of their service (please see About the Data page for more details). Of the 65 firefighters who were crew manager or above, 85 percent felt that they would be supported if they used unauthorised tactics or used tactics in a novel way if an incident required it.
Keeping the public informed
Oxfordshire FRS uses the county council’s press office to provide public information and publicise larger emergency incidents. It works closely with Thames Valley Police to provide information and give public warning messages about multi-agency incidents. Local managers keep local elected members informed of incidents as they occur. The service does not inform the public of incidents on a day-to-day basis via its website or on social media.
The service’s social media account is mostly used to promote campaigns. Some fire stations have social media accounts which they use to promote the work of the service, promote on-call recruitment and engage with their local communities.
The service has well-established arrangements for identifying and safeguarding vulnerable people at incidents. Thames Valley fire control are trained in giving guidance over the telephone to those trapped in a fire. The service’s safeguarding team provides training to staff, offers advice and refers concerns to the appropriate partner agency. All operational staff we spoke to were confident they could recognise the signs of vulnerability, request advice and make a safeguarding referral. The service provided data that showed a steady increase in safeguarding referrals, reaching 239 in 2017.
Evaluating operational performance
We found a mixed approach to reviewing incidents, evaluating performance and sharing what it has learned within the service and with partner agencies and services.
Most operational staff told us about an immediate (hot debrief) review of incidents. This takes place at the scene of the incident or immediately upon return to the fire station. The review is in the form of a discussion, usually led by the incident or fire engine commander. All staff are encouraged to contribute and give their account of the incident.
Sometimes, the central team receives recommendations for improvement, requests for additional equipment or suggestions for a change in procedure via a standard form. There is no consistent trigger for this feedback and not all staff are aware that this is at the discretion of the person in charge of the incident. Similarly, not all incidents are reviewed in this way. We found examples of suggestions made by firefighters following an incident that resulted in improvements. These include providing a different type of rescue saw blade for cutting wood and additional gloves that are more practical at road traffic collisions. Of the 105 firefighters or specialist staff who responded to our staff survey, 88 percent were confident that the service acts because of learning from operational incidents.
Staff had a general understanding that the service and/or multi-agency partners would organise a structured review (debrief). They gave examples of reviews following the Didcot power station collapse and the fire in South Oxfordshire District Council’s offices. The service has a policy for debriefs that states a structured debrief should be held for incidents attended by five fire engines or more. However, station-based staff we spoke to were not clear about when these reviews should be triggered and what the process is.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Oxfordshire Fire and 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 consistent knowledge and application of incident command across the service.
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).
Oxfordshire FRS has assessed its needs and developed clear plans to supplement resources if there is a major or long-lasting incident.
Control room staff, who work for the Thames Valley partnership, have an overview of the fire engines that are available to them and will send the quickest appropriate engine, irrespective of where it is based. Similar arrangements are in place for joint working with Oxfordshire FRS’s other fire service partners, although these are not as well integrated. The service hosts several national resilience assets, including a high volume pump.
The service has a thorough approach to planning for incidents at large and complex sites. We saw examples of SSRI, which is collected for medium-risk sites, stored on mobile data terminals and in hard copy folders on fire engines. For higher-risk sites, the service produces a TFP, which is also available on the mobile data terminals. It uses scenario exercises, based on TFPs, during fire incident command training. This brings an element of reality to the training and consolidates the risk and firefighting information in TFPs.
Working with other services
Oxfordshire FRS works closely with its neighbouring fire services via the Thames Valley Fire Control Service. In addition to the borderless mobilising arrangements, the services have procured a single specification fire engine that should improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services when working together. Each engine will have identical equipment so that firefighters from different services can comfortably access and use the equipment on board. These new engines are being located initially at stations along the county border to improve integration. Oxfordshire FRS is leading the partnership, embedding NOG into the three services. This will lead to further streamlining of operational working in the partnership. The service shares and collects risk data from neighbouring services via Resilience Direct. However, most operational station-based staff we spoke to were not aware that these plans were available on their mobile data terminals.
Working with other agencies
We found clear evidence that Oxfordshire FRS works closely with other agencies. It is a trusted partner in the Thames Valley LRF, leading on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) and hazardous materials threats.
The service is well prepared to form part of a multi-agency response to a major incident and has arrangements for responding to terrorist threats. We heard examples of the service forming part of a multi-agency response in Oxfordshire and over the border, into surrounding service areas. We found examples of the service taking part in joint exercises with multi-agency partners and neighbouring fire and rescue services. Between 1 April and 31 December 2018, the service completed three joint exercises with other fire and rescues services and nine joint exercises with multi-agency partners. We saw examples of Oxfordshire FRS’s senior incident commanders taking part in exercises simulating incidents at high-risk sites or involving terrorist attacks.
The service has arrangements in place to provide specialist response to incidents involving an actual or suspected terrorist threat. The service has a detection, identification and monitoring team to assist in identifying hazardous substances. Some of its staff are trained to form a response team for incidents involving a terrorist attack. While this team is based in Royal Berkshire, staff from Oxfordshire provide support to it.
Some level 1 commanders didn’t properly understand the joint decision model, which is part of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) and aids operational decision-making by giving a structured rationale and approach. However, we found that knowledge and competence at levels 2, 3 and 4 was part of day-to-day practice.