Royal Berkshire 2018/19
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. Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness is good.
Royal Berkshire FRS has a good understanding of the risks to its local area and draws on a wide range of data. Its strategy for managing these risks is set out clearly in its corporate plan and integrated risk management plan (CPIRMP).
In terms of prevention, the service focuses on fires, road safety, water safety, and health and wellbeing. Its safe and well visits are targeted at the most vulnerable people. However, it doesn’t have a fully effective process for monitoring the standard of these visits. It should evaluate its prevention work and make sure the quality is consistent.
There is a good system of fire safety audits, which aims to enforce fire regulations. The service uses its enforcement powers proportionately and effectively, and shares information with other agencies. However, it needs to focus on reducing the number of false alarms.
The service responds well to fires and other emergencies. It has increased its wholetime fire engines from 13 to 14 and reduced its average total response times to primary fires. It has made its response more efficient, with crews of four firefighters instead of five, and a new crewing model for its specialist vehicles. It hosts a joint fire control room managing emergency calls for Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
There is room for improvement in the way the service updates its staff about lessons learnt from incidents.
Royal Berkshire FRS is well placed to respond to national incidents. It has mutual aid agreements in place with its six neighbouring FRSs and carries out cross-border exercises with them.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
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
Royal Berkshire FRS sets out its strategy for managing risk in its combined CPIRMP. Its 2015−2019 plan established four priority projects across prevention, protection and response. The service ran a public consultation on these projects during 2016/17, receiving more than 1,000 responses. This informed decision making – for example, the fire authority delayed the closure of Wargrave fire station in response to public opposition.
The service has a clear and accurate risk profile of its area, based on a wide range of data. This includes:
- six years of rolling incident data;
- census data from the indices of multiple deprivation;
- NHS age data;
- socio-economic data; and
- the Ordnance Survey property type database.
The service analyses this data using risk modelling software, building a picture of the areas and households most at risk. The model has been externally validated and can be used to assess both risk – the possibility of something happening – and demand, which is based on past incident data. This helps the service make decisions about the location of fire stations and fire engines. For example, it contributed to making a business case for the community fire station planned at Theale. It also helps it plan for the future.
The model is also used to identify vulnerable individuals and households for targeted prevention work. The service is working with Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs to refine its risk modelling techniques.
To improve how it engages with the local community and identifies risk, the service implemented a hub model in 2017. Each hub is made up of four to nine fire stations. Prevention and protection programmes are now managed by the hubs, rather than the service’s central headquarters. The aim is to provide a better-integrated service to the public in each area.
Staff told us they were starting to work more closely with local authorities, police, and health and probation services in community safety and safeguarding partnerships, to develop a common understanding of local risk and vulnerability.
Having an effective risk management plan
Royal Berkshire FRS’s current CPIRMP expires in April 2019. Following a public consultation, it has published a new plan for 2019–2023. This takes into account the service’s statutory obligations, and the fire and rescue service national framework. It sets out how the service will manage the risks included in the Thames Valley local resilience forum’s community risk register. The service also keeps a comprehensive record of its corporate risks, which the senior leadership team regularly considers and discusses.
The service draws up an annual plan based on its CPIRMP. This identifies its main strategic objectives for that year and sets out how it plans to measure its success. Each department has its own service plan, and now each of the three hubs also has its own plan, which will be updated every year. Programme and performance boards monitor whether the service is meeting the objectives in each plan, and their reports are publicly available on its website.
Maintaining risk information
The service makes regular visits to sites it has assessed as presenting a risk to the public or firefighters. The frequency of these visits depends on whether the site is categorised as very high, high, medium or low risk. During visits to higher-risk sites, a central operational policy and assurance team gathers information and prepares plans. Station staff gather information and prepare plans for medium and low risk sites, and also visit higher-risk sites, so they become familiar with them. The information and plans we saw were up to date, and firefighters can access them on the mobile data terminal installed in every fire engine.
The service has a robust process for identifying new risks and communicating them across the organisation. Its operational policy and assurance team works with partner organisations, including the police and local authority, to prepare tactical plans for temporary events. Over the last year, it has planned for two royal weddings and a presidential visit in its area.
We found that, although the service does have a system for handing over risk information at the start of shifts, it isn’t implemented consistently in all its stations. There are also inconsistencies in how risk information is shared through health and safety and operational bulletins. Some stations rely on paper records, others use electronic versions, and not all the records we saw were complete. This could mean some staff don’t get the necessary risk information.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at preventing fires and other risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
- The service should ensure it quality assures prevention work appropriately.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Royal Berkshire FRS has a prevention strategy that focuses on fires, road and water safety, and health and wellbeing. Prevention work that doesn’t complement its main functions, such as some of its programmes for young people, is carried out on a cost-recovery basis.
The service targets its home fire safety checks at households and individuals at greater risk of being injured or dying in a fire. These are identified using a wide range of data. As at 31 March 2018, these checks include fitting working smoke alarms, identifying potential fire risks, acting to reduce fire risks, ill-health prevention, and giving advice on social welfare and how to avoid slips, trips and falls. Members of the public who are considered to be less at risk can access advice on the service’s website, which has content in more than 100 languages.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 10.2 home fire safety checks per 1,000 population. The focused targeting resulted in 71 percent of those checks being to the elderly (those aged 65 and over), compared with the England rate of 54 percent. The service refers to home fire safety checks as safe and well visits. The service monitors each wholetime station against a target of completing 56 visits per fire engine per month.
We found the service didn’t have a properly effective process for monitoring the standards of safe and well visits. Staff told us that, as a result, standards vary. Even though the target for the number of safe and well visits is relatively modest, staff also told us they found it restricted their ability to carry out other prevention work, such as on road and water safety, tailored to their local area.
Promoting community safety
Royal Berkshire FRS promotes prevention safety messages using a combination of traditional and social media. Its campaigns align with national ones by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and Fire Kills. Stations have their own Twitter accounts, but these aren’t used consistently enough to support the service’s planned approach.
The service’s vision for community engagement is to put “fire stations at the heart of communities”, so stations run activities such as open days, blood donor sessions, and coffee mornings to tackle loneliness. Four stations run the Young Firefighter scheme, an educational youth group for 12 to 16-year-olds.
The service offers all schools educational visits for Year 5 pupils on fire safety and for Year 7 pupils on road and water safety. However, according to data provided by the service, fewer than half of Berkshire schools take up this offer.
Staff are trained to recognise people who are vulnerable and to make referrals where necessary. The service has a target for all safeguarding referrals to be completed within 24 hours and we found staff are able to meet this.
Royal Berkshire FRS works closely with Thames Valley Police to investigate fires where arson is suspected. It told us that in the three years to December 2018, it has supported prosecutions leading to seven custodial sentences. It runs a programme targeted at children and young people who play with fire, and is piloting an adult fire-setter programme this year.
The service works with others to promote community safety. It has a volunteer programme and trains staff in the health and social care sectors to identify fire risk factors when they visit local people. They can refer those they consider to be at risk to the service, which will prioritise them for a safe and well visit. Referrals as a result of this programme are increasing.
The service doesn’t routinely evaluate the effect of its prevention work, so it doesn’t have a clear picture about how effective it is at reducing fires and other risks.
Royal Berkshire FRS is a member of the Thames Valley road safety forum, along with the police, local authorities and other fire and rescue services. Its forum partners told us they valued its contribution. The annual Safe Drive, Stay Alive event – a drama production exploring the circumstances and consequences of a road traffic collision – reaches around 6,000 young people in Berkshire each year.
The service works with Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire FRSs to offer Biker Down, a national motorbike safety programme. It aims to reduce road injuries and deaths by 20 percent over the next five years, but doesn’t properly monitor progress against this target.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Royal Berkshire 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 quality assures protection work appropriately.
- The service should ensure it addresses effectively the burden of false alarms (termed ‘unwanted fire 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.
Royal Berkshire FRS has an effective risk-based inspection programme and enforcement plan. The service adopted a new approach in May 2017, focusing on buildings assessed as presenting the greatest risk to life from fire. This includes houses in multiple occupation and premises where there is evidence of non-compliance with fire regulations. Specialist, qualified staff visit these premises to carry out fire safety audits.
The service also carries out reactive work. It replies to statutory consultations such as building regulations, audits businesses after a fire, and responds to fire safety complaints from other organisations and the public.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 943 fire safety audits. This year, its target is to complete 1,400 audits. At the time of inspection, the service was currently behind this target by six weeks but was confident of meeting it. It told us this lag was due to increased engagement activities following the Grenfell Tower fire.
Responding to increases in its workload over the last two years, the service has taken on more staff in its protection department. These new members of staff are currently completing fire safety qualifications, and once they are fully qualified the service will be able to do more audits.
We found some inconsistency in the way staff identify high-risk premises and record fire safety audits. There is limited quality assurance of the audits or audit records. Some other services increase their efficiency by training station staff so they can do protection work while they aren’t attending incidents. But Royal Berkshire FRS doesn’t do this.
The service takes a proportional approach to the enforcement of fire safety legislation. It has an enforcement policy based on the Better Business for All agenda and the Regulators’ Code, and always has qualified staff available. It also has a contract with a legal case management unit. When complex enforcement activity is necessary, it uses external fire safety specialists.
In the year to 31 March 2018, of the 943 audits carried out, the service issued 257 informal notifications, 23 enforcement notices, four alteration notices, two prohibition notices and two prosecutions. Notably, it successfully prosecuted a landlord who was fined £177,000 for their fire safety breaches.
The service has targets for compliant versus non-compliant audits. Non-compliant audits are subject to informal and formal actions. Of the 943 fire safety audits the service carried out in the year to 31 March 2018, 40 percent of audits were found to be non-compliant compared with the England rate of 32 percent.
The service shares information with other agencies such as Border Force and the local authority. It has a memorandum of understanding with the six unitary authorities within Berkshire. This sets out how they will work collaboratively to carry out their legal duties under the Housing Act 2004 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to ensure fire safety.
Working with others
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, Royal Berkshire FRS worked closely with the local authority to prioritise auditing and inspecting high-rise premises. In the two months following the fire, it reported completing 157 inspections of high-rise premises and provided advice and support to residents in more than 4,700 flats. The service and the local authority also worked together to improve their joint enforcement protocol, which sets out how organisations will work together to enforce regulations, including those for high-rise premises.
The service operates three primary authority schemes, which provide national companies with a single point of contact for fire safety. The hubs deal with local businesses and have organised events such as a drop-in at a local shopping centre. However, the service doesn’t have a consistent approach to this engagement.
We saw some good examples of collaborative working. For example, the service worked with Wokingham council, which passed a motion to install sprinklers in newly built schools. In Reading, work is underway to fit domestic sprinklers in high-rise premises.
However, the service doesn’t have a co-ordinated approach to working with local businesses to reduce the burden of unwanted fire signals. The number of false alarms it attends year on year has been consistently increasing since the year to 30 September 2014, when the service attended 2,720. In the year to 30 September 2018, it attended 3,625 false alarms – a 33.3 percent increase compared to the same timeframe in 2014. We would expect the service to work with building owners and managers to reduce this activity.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Royal Berkshire 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 gives relevant information to the public about ongoing incidents to help keep the public safe during and after 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
In the year to 30 September 2018, Royal Berkshire FRS attended 8.9 incidents per 1,000 population. This compares to the England rate of 10.5 over the same period. The service’s response model is based on three operational planning scenarios:
- one incident that requires ten fire engines for over 48 hours;
- two incidents that need six fire engines to be involved simultaneously or within 48 hours of each other; and
- one or more incidents with more than four fire engines deployed continuously for up to 96 hours.
As at 31 March 2018, Royal Berkshire FRS has 21 operational fire engines. Data provided by the service shows that since 2011, it has increased its wholetime fire engines from 13 to 14, and that fire engines now have crews of four firefighters instead of five. It has also implemented a new crewing model for its specialist vehicles, which involves firefighters switching vehicles.
The service plans to use its on-call stations to improve its response standard and provide support in its risk-based planning scenarios. The aim is to have 60 percent availability for all stations. But for the six months to 30 September 2018, it reported availability as low as 30 percent. The service hopes that some recent recruitment will improve its on-call availability. It should consider if it is maximising the effectiveness of its on-call stations.
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 the information given by the caller.
Operational staff we spoke to had a good understanding of how to use breathing apparatus, and we saw that the training of control room staff is well managed.
The service aims to respond to emergency incidents in ten minutes on 75 percent of occasions. This standard was introduced in April 2017. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service attended 72 percent of emergency incidents within ten minutes, but this should improve when the new Theale fire station opens.
To improve response times, the service monitors its call handling time, crew turnout time and the drive time to the incident. It has reduced its average total response times to primary fires from ten minutes in the year ending 31 March 2016 to 8 minutes 52 seconds in the year to 31 March 2018. The reduction of the total average response time to primary fires was due to reductions in the call handling and crew turnout times.
With Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs, the service is part of a regional group that oversees the implementation of national operational guidance. This involves analysing the gaps in each service, adopting the guidance and providing suitable staff training. At the time of our inspection, the group was reviewing arrangements for breathing apparatus and had produced a draft policy, which was subject to consultation and discussion between the services. The group will do further gap analysis of the remaining guidance in 2019.
Staff know how to use the mobile data terminals in fire engines to access information when they are responding to an incident. There are also mobile phones in every fire engine that provide information about vehicles for crews to access when attending road traffic collisions.
The service provides medical co-responding from three on-call fire stations, reimbursed by the ambulance service. Individual firefighters respond in an ambulance service car. This response is only available if it doesn’t affect the availability of the on-call station’s fire engine.
Incident commanders undergo regular training. They are assessed for command competence every two years and cannot command emergency incidents if they don’t meet the minimum standard. Senior officers attend emergency incidents to mentor new commanders and help them develop.
When visiting fire stations, we found that level one incident commanders – who are generally fire officers in charge of a fire engine – didn’t all have the level of understanding we would expect. Some didn’t understand elements of command, such as the decision control process and operational discretion. But staff were aware of the incident command pack held on fire engines and understood how it should be used.
Keeping the public informed
Royal Berkshire FRS works with the local resilience forum (LRF), which includes representatives from other emergency services, to keep the public informed about major incidents. During officer hours, there is a dedicated communications team, and trained duty officers provide out-of-hours cover for media and press enquiries.
The service policy is for other incidents to be communicated to the public by station staff, who have access to a station social media account. However, many stations don’t use their account, and even when they do, their communication will be delayed until they return to the fire station. Many other services expect their control room, where staff are available all day, to provide this function. Royal Berkshire FRS should consider if its provision for keeping the public informed of incidents is sufficient.
We saw good examples of response staff making safeguarding referrals to protect vulnerable people at incidents. Control staff are trained in giving guidance over the telephone to those trapped in a fire.
Evaluating operational performance
Royal Berkshire FRS updated its system for assessing its operational response in June 2018. The usual practice is to hold a hot debrief immediately after an incident. Staff can share what they learnt from incidents using an electronic debrief form. All commanders we spoke to told us they knew how to use this.
The service’s policy is to conduct a more formal debrief following incidents that warrant a more detailed and reflective review. It is usually the incident commander who decides whether a formal debrief is required. We found these formal debriefs are sometimes delayed.
We were impressed to find that, to prevent any conflicts of interest, formal debriefs are always led by a fire officer who wasn’t involved in the incident. The service has issued guidance on how to structure these debriefs, but staff told us they weren’t aware of it, and practice varies as a result. The service knows that control staff aren’t routinely part of any debriefing process and has committed to change this in future.
We found that the operational debriefing process is inconsistent. We were shown bulletins that had been issued following incidents, but the service didn’t know how many staff were reading them. Not all stations seemed to share information from debriefs with staff. Many staff told us the current method of presenting operational assurance information on the intranet is ineffective. It is all recorded on a huge spreadsheet that is difficult to view.
According to service policy, all exercises and all incidents that have involved operational discretion should be assured, but this hasn’t happened. The service has put measures in place to correct this, and senior leaders told us they were in the process of reviewing the current procedure. They intend to introduce a revised procedure in early 2019.
The service has a procedure for dealing with public feedback, and any complaints are investigated, but there is little central oversight of this. It reports the number of cases to the fire authority, but doesn’t monitor for trends. The service should make sure it has an effective feedback procedure.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
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).
Royal Berkshire FRS has plans in place for major events that will involve collaborating with other fire and rescue services. We found staff are aware of these arrangements and know how to implement them. The service hosts national resilience assets including a high-volume pump and mass decontamination unit. It has plans in place to allow these to be mobilised to other areas.
The service has a central operational policy and assurance team that gathers information and prepares tactical plans for high-risk sites. This includes eight sites designated by the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015. This information is available on the mobile data terminals in fire engines.
Working with other services
The service has mutual aid agreements with its six neighbouring fire and rescue services. Through the Thames Valley Fire Control Service, which brings together Royal Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs, the closest Thames Valley fire engine and officer will be sent to an incident, regardless of which of the service area the incident is in. There are similar arrangements with other neighbouring fire and rescue services, although they are less integrated.
The service carries out cross-border exercises with all its neighbouring fire and rescue services. These arrangements are most effective within the Thames Valley area, with Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire FRSs. The three services have also jointly procured fire engines and equipment inventory, and sharing the same equipment makes for better cross-border working in Thames Valley. The services are basing the new fire engines at stations near the county borders.
The three services are aware that their breathing apparatus isn’t compatible and have addressed this with a short-term fix. They are producing a joint specification and aim to purchase the same apparatus in 2020.
The service shares risk information with neighbouring services through a secure extranet called Resilience Direct, and uploads this onto mobile data terminals.
Working with other agencies
Royal Berkshire FRS takes part in – and contributes financially to – the Thames Valley LRF, through which local agencies come together to plan for emergencies. The manager of the forum told us the service is an engaged and supportive member. The deputy chief fire officer is the vice-chair and the service oversees information-sharing on behalf of the forum. The service is responsible for 12 of the forum’s high-risk plans, including adverse weather.
During our inspection, severe snow was forecast. We observed the service taking an active role in the LRF’s preparation. The service put into action its internal major incident procedures for escalating weather conditions.
The service participates in multi-agency exercises with other partners in the forum. These include live exercises and office-based planning sessions simulating incidents at high-risk sites. It works closely with partners such as the police and health services during major events. Recently, it worked with a range of local and national organisations to plan for the royal weddings and the presidential visit.
Staff within the service are well prepared to form part of a multi-agency response to a terrorist attack. The service jointly provides a response team with Oxfordshire FRS to deal with the threat of such attacks.