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

The service puts the wellbeing of staff as a high priority. Leaders had put in a range of support services for staff, which were well received. Critical incident welfare arrangements were also in place. Staff asked for appointments out of hours to support those on call.

The service has a clear and up-to-date health and safety policy and all staff were trained in this. The service has low levels of sickness. Monitoring and management of absences is done well.

Staff felt proud to work for the service and the senior management team create a positive and inclusive culture across the organisation.

The service understands the make-up of its workforce. But it faces difficulties in recruiting and retaining on-call firefighters. It is doing more work to try and address this problem.

Staff valued the quality and range of training. The service regularly organises training exercises with neighbouring fire stations. It needs to improve the IT system to monitor the training needs of staff and make information easier to find and record. Staff felt they were encouraged to give feedback and managers responded well to their comments. The service should look for a better way to tailor messages for on-call staff.

The service is making efforts to become a more inclusive employer, although more could be done. Uniforms for female staff do not fit well. There is a problem with the suppliers that needs to be addressed as a priority.

A new appraisal system has been introduced but we found that operational staff had limited understanding of it. On-call firefighters found it difficult to use because they work part-time. Some staff considered it an unnecessary burden while others were supportive of it.

We were not able to consider how the service identifies high potential staff as there was no set process in place. However, staff felt that promotion opportunities across the service were fair and open.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Outstanding

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 that senior leaders understood the wellbeing needs of its workforce and had put in place a range of activities to support staff. We spoke to staff who were positive about the support services available. But they felt some services could be improved. Appointments could be offered out of normal working hours for on-call staff, so as not to interfere with their main jobs.

The service has had a positive focus on mental health. The chief fire officer is responsible for mental wellbeing across Oxfordshire County Council. The service has recently trained mental health first aiders and has implemented a reporting and monitoring process.

Critical incident welfare arrangements are also in place and well supported by staff across the service. The service automatically offers debriefs following a critical incident. Watch and crew managers felt equipped to recognise the signs of trauma in their staff. Prominent intranet pages point staff to further information and supply contact details to support staff and their families.

Health and safety

The service has a clear and up-to-date health and safety policy. Staff at all levels felt suitably trained in the policy. There are regular health and safety events which are tied to national campaigns. The service issues specific bulletins to inform the organisation about important health and safety messages.

Firefighters must take an annual fitness test. In the year to 31 March 2018, the first-time pass rate for station manager and below is 98.5 percent and 100 percent for group manager and above. Fitness equipment is available at stations for staff to use while on duty. Staff we spoke to felt that the service supported them in both maintaining their fitness and in passing the annual test. The service has low levels of sickness, and monitors and manages absences well.

The resource management team considers the wellbeing needs of staff when approving overtime, making sure that staff have had enough rest since their last shift.

Culture and values

Staff felt proud to work for the service. We found staff throughout the organisation were working to the same value – making the communities of Oxfordshire safer – and all staff we spoke to at all levels were committed to achieving this. The service’s prevention activity, called 365 Alive, is widely known and has strong brand recognition across the service.

The service has a relatively new senior management team. We found that they have created a positive and inclusive culture. The chief fire officer regularly emails all staff and produces periodic video blogs. The service has formed two groups – engagement and inclusion – to allow staff to raise ideas. In turn, managers can use these groups to test ideas and proposals. Staff felt these groups have further developed the service’s inclusive culture. An inclusion strategy is also being developed. Of the 126 respondents to our staff survey, 84 percent felt that there were opportunities to feed their ideas upwards in the service.

Staff find the service’s senior management team accessible and visible. They like the regular programme of station visits by senior managers. The service has combined its management meeting structures to include all middle managers as well as the senior management team. From the 126 responses to our staff survey, 10 staff reported feeling bullied or harassed and 10 reported feeling discriminated against at work in the last 12 months. This is a low figure compared with similar services. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.

Staff like the ‘open chair’ system, where any staff member can sit in on the senior management team meeting. We found that after feedback from staff, a senior management team member went through the agenda, so that the staff member could fully contribute to the meeting.

On-call firefighters felt that the service values them and they can take on overtime as part of a wholetime crew. This demonstrates the service’s integration of wholetime and on-call staff. On-call staff can see that the service listens and responds to their concerns.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Good

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 understands its workforce and the skills and staff replacements it needs to plan for. As at 31 March 2018, the service had 505 full-time equivalent (FTE) total staff members. This includes 230 FTE firefighters who are wholetime (53 percent of all firefighters). The service regularly monitors anticipated and unplanned departures to consider workforce gaps and succession plans. Resources used across prevention, protection and response areas of work appear broadly in line with the service’s integrated risk management plan (IRMP).

The service operates 24 mixed fire stations (with both wholetime and on-call firefighters). Problems with recruiting and retaining on-call firefighters are similar to those faced by other fire services. The service is working to attract more on-call firefighters and support them through the recruitment and training process.

The service has recently created a roving fire engine, which it moves around the county to cover gaps in operational cover. This innovative use of resource was staffed by posts taken from other wholetime stations.

We saw that the service has a workforce establishment model, which it reviews on a regular basis. We have not seen this in every service. The model shows all the posts in the service, which ones are permanent and where there are vacancies. The service holds regular meetings to review current and future pressures on all positions.

Learning and improvement

Staff spoke very highly about the quality and range of training they receive. This includes the practical and incident command virtual simulation training. Staff felt trained to do their job and well supported by the service. We observed staff using breathing apparatus confidently. Of the 126 respondents to our staff survey, 90 percent agreed that they had received sufficient training to enable them to do what is asked of them.

The service regularly carries out different-sized training exercises, including with multi-agency cross-border partners. These include Royal Berkshire FRS for marauding terrorist attacks (MTAs), as the two services form a joint team. Stations organise training exercises against their known local risk and involve neighbouring stations who would provide the operational response for an incident. 

The service monitors the current competence level and training needs of staff using a computer-based system. We found that all training records were up to date. While staff thought the system was generally good, they felt that the structure could be improved to make information easier to find. The system did not have some firefighter core competencies – for example working with ladders – as standard. These are recorded as ad hoc training.

Support staff can undertake training using the council’s e-learning portal. They received support for additional training via their appraisal process. This is all recorded on either the council IT system or the service competency recording system, depending on the training carried out.

On-call staff undertake one training night per week. But we heard some staff needed to do further training during the week to become competent and maintain their skills. Staff wasted time trying to find training materials and maintain competencies on the recording system. The service recognises it needs to review the training requirements and provision for on-call staff. This is part of the work of the service’s programme board.

As highlighted in the response section, the service should consider including mobile data terminal training as part of the competency training schedule to make sure staff can confidently retrieve operational information.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Good

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure all staff are provided with appropriate uniform.

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

Oxfordshire FRS gives feedback to staff through station visits, service-wide consultations, online forums and staff networks. Staff throughout the service told us they felt encouraged to give feedback. They felt that the senior management team listened and responded to comments. For example, the service recently introduced a tethered wade following feedback from previous water rescues. It has asked its inclusion and engagement groups to work on specific projects with representatives from both groups drawn from across the service.

Following staff feedback, the service has tried hard to improve communications to its staff. It has a well-used intranet site that includes news and information. It also sends frequent emails to staff. The service has also provided technology and software to allow staff to access communications remotely. Conversely, on-call firefighters feel they now receive too much information and are unable to read all of it in a short space of time. The service should consider tailoring messages specifically for on-call staff.

The service engages well with its representative bodies and holds quarterly meetings. Staff representatives are consulted over policy changes.

The service has a comprehensive grievance policy. The service has trained mediators available at both the informal and formal grievance stages. Wellbeing support and accessibility systems are available to employees throughout the process. The service has used Oxfordshire County Council’s managers to carry out independent reviews in some cases. The grievance policy also links to the service’s dignity at work, whistleblowing and disciplinary procedures. In 2017/18, the service received very few grievances. Of those we reviewed, we found that the service had followed its policy appropriately and met timescales.

Diversity

Oxfordshire FRS’s workforce does not reflect the community it serves. The top of the organisation has limited diversity. As at 31 March 2018, 0.9 percent of firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 9.1 percent. As at 31 March 2018, 5.5 percent of firefighters were female.

The service is making positive efforts to become a more inclusive employer. The service runs engagement and ‘have a go’ days aimed at women and is active at careers fairs. The service also works to help improve the fitness of those who have failed selection exercises.

A group has recently been set up to produce an inclusion strategy. This group is reviewing the targeted work and looking at other fire and rescue services to develop new ways of recruiting a more diverse workforce.

The service is subject to Oxfordshire County Council’s equality policy and strategy, introduced in 2018. The strategy aims to bring about equality, diversity, fairness and inclusion within both the council’s workforce and local communities. Staff we spoke to knew of the policy and had undertaken training. We heard a regular comment that said the service had improved its knowledge and understanding over the last two years but that it “is still on a journey” to achieve its desired standard.

The service is not providing its female staff with uniforms that fit correctly. This is because of a problem with its contracted uniform supplier. The service is reimbursing staff who need to buy their uniform elsewhere. We understand that the service is working closely with its supplier to resolve this problem. It should address this problem as a priority to preserve the dignity of affected staff. Correctly fitting uniforms for female staff should be part of the user specifications for any future clothing contract. The service provides its female firefighters with personal protective equipment that fits correctly.

4

How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

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 uses Oxfordshire County Council’s performance appraisal system and has recently implemented this process. We found operational staff had a limited understanding of it across the service. The system is based on monthly performance and quarterly development conversations between job holder and manager. Attitudes towards the new system varied. Some staff considered it an unnecessary burden while others supported the need for structured conversations.

We could not determine how objectives were being set and how they are being used to plan for development. Monthly conversations should use a standard agenda, although how this was agenda was used varied widely. However, according to our staff survey, 89 percent of the 126 respondents were satisfied with their current level of learning and development.

The unique nature of the on-call firefighter role among council employees is not reflected in the new appraisal system. Due to the nature of the role, an on-call firefighter may see their manager on an individual basis very rarely. As a result, we saw on-call station staff applying the process inconsistently, with some trying to implement the new system and others setting group objectives for the watch. The service needs to have a consistent, workable performance management process across the whole service, in particular a system that considers the circumstances of on-call firefighters.

Developing leaders

We were not able to consider how the service identifies and develops high-potential members of staff as there was no established process. Managers can identify high potential, but we found that it was mostly job holders who put themselves forward for training and development opportunities.

The service does have a range of development opportunities for new and established managers. This includes joint leadership training with a neighbouring fire and rescue service and senior management training with Oxfordshire County Council. Middle managers are also supported to apply for and undertake the executive leadership programme.

Most staff we spoke to said that promotion opportunities across the service were fair and open. Staff either knew the process or knew where they could get information. The service has used staff from outside Oxfordshire FRS on promotion panels to improve the transparency of the selection process.