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

The service takes staff wellbeing seriously and works hard to promote a positive culture. It also takes a positive approach to promoting equality and diversity. Its health provision is good, and the work of its trauma support team is highly regarded. Staff are trained in health and safety.

Most staff praise the service’s culture, leadership and values. Staff are also aware of the Leadership Bond, an initiative that defines the leadership’s nine core behaviours. Communications with senior officers are good.

We found that staff were able to move roles within the service. This broadens their career opportunities and diversifies the workforce.

We recognise the investment the service has made in its training provision. Most staff feel they have had the right training for their roles. The service responds to staff feedback. It also manages grievances well. The service is committed to increasing staff diversity and staff groups feel supported. That said, we found the service needs to address the following problems:

  • It needs to carry out positive action in a more effective way.
  • It has no system for identifying and supporting high-potential and aspiring leaders.
  • Its appraisal process is considered to be unsuitable.
  • Its promotion process needs to be clearer so that staff have confidence in it.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Good

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

Workforce wellbeing

The service values workforce wellbeing. It offers in-house occupational health provision, with dedicated staff including occupational health nurses. Operational staff have medical health checks every three years and staff we spoke to were complimentary about this provision.

The service has fitness facilities within its stations and is increasing the number of watch-based fitness instructors. Operational staff have six-monthly fitness assessments.

The service has an established trauma support team that also supports other fire services after large incidents if necessary. The team offers a range of support, including non-work-related problems which are having a negative effect on staff wellbeing. Staff we spoke to were very complimentary about this team’s support.

Health and safety

The work the service has done to improve health, safety and welfare has been externally recognised with awards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

The service works to a publicly available health and safety statement, which is supported by a range of policies that we reviewed during the course of our inspection.

The health and safety team audits all departments. It prioritises higher-risk departments, such as training and technical services.

The service investigates accidents and near misses, and shares findings and recommendations in its health and safety bulletins. It also records accidents and near misses in a database, and uses this system to track action plans that are drawn up after a health and safety event.

Health and safety performance data and statistics are monitored through the health, safety and welfare committee. 

Culture and values

During our inspection, staff expressed great passion for their role. They told us how proud they were to serve their communities, that the service had a positive culture, with a good leadership, and that it is a good place to work. However, of the 192 respondents to our staff survey, 17 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed in the past 12 months, while 18 percent reported feeling discriminated against at work. This is not consistent with our other fieldwork inspection findings. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.

The service has a set of stated values. These are included within the IRMP and published on the service’s intranet. We found staff at all levels know about these values. However, staff in central departments appear to have embraced them more fully than staff based at fire stations.

The service’s Leadership Bond was launched in 2018. It is intended to translate the service’s values into action. Devised after consultation with employees, the bond makes clear what values and behaviours the service expects for a positive culture to exist at work. Overall, we found staff awareness of the bond to be good.

Staff we spoke to felt the leadership team had become more visible, approachable and honest. They also felt the chief fire officer had led and encouraged this change.

Staff told us that senior officers communicate with them regularly – for example, through blogs and the chief fire officer’s bulletins. Senior officers visit stations and the chief fire officer has ‘rider days’ when he works with an operational crew for a full shift. Staff we spoke to during our inspection praised the service’s communications and contact. However, only 54 percent of the 192 respondents to our staff survey said they felt they could challenge ideas without feeling that it might affect how they were treated subsequently; and only 53 percent felt confident that their ideas or suggestions would be listened to.

Representative bodies we spoke to were positive about the service and felt they had had good relationships with both the service and its senior management.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure staff are appropriately trained in safety-critical skills.
  • The service should make sure it has a system to record and monitor operational staff competence which is accurate, and that staff and managers use its competence recording system effectively.

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 needs to do more to plan its workforce although it has significantly reduced the number of staff it employs to meet budget efficiencies. The service froze the recruitment of firefighters from 2010 to 2018.

As at 31 March 2018, there has been a 22 percent reduction in the workforce FTE, compared with the same time period five years ago.

In recent years, the service has had several operational vacancies. Managing operational staffing is a continual challenge for fire control staff who manage this centrally. It is their role to make sure each station has the correct skills available so it can respond appropriately to incidents.

The service fills gaps by having staff swap shifts and work overtime. Staff described this way of covering shortages as effective, but we note that it added to the workload of both watch supervisors and fire control.

A number of people hold positions of temporary promotion within the service. During our inspection, we noted that some supervisory managers have held temporary positions for several years and that the majority of its group managers are in temporary positions. The service also has 17 operational station managers staffing a rota that only has 10 places. This is not efficient or effective.

The service knows when staff are likely to retire and factors this into its workforce planning. The human resources and finance departments meet regularly to financially review workforce planning. The service monitors use of overtime to fill staffing gaps, which have reduced in recent years. This reduction is partly due to the introduction of the shift swapping mentioned previously.

For the first time in eight years, the service has recruited trainee firefighters. In 2018, it recruited 24 trainees and it plans to recruit more in 2019.

The service has a process in place for promoting staff from support roles to management roles. This is called ‘the green book to grey book’ process. In 2006, the service broadened its approach to promotion, so that support (or ‘green book’) staff could apply for some uniformed management roles if they had the right skills. Previously, those roles had been reserved for staff with a firefighting background (so-called ‘grey book’ staff).

All staff who apply for promotion in this way have the same assessment and

interview process. To date, the service has appointed 12 staff members to management roles. We see this as a good way of increasing opportunities for staff from non-operational backgrounds.

Learning and improvement

The service has invested considerably in operational training facilities. Training days are held at a well-equipped training centre. Staff spoke highly about the training facilities, as well as the training they had received. They told us they felt training now focuses more on support and development, and that the ‘fear factor’ – relating to the formal assessments and harsh feedback of previous years – has gone.

Of the 192 respondents to our staff survey, 81 percent agreed that they had received enough training to do what is asked of them; 71 percent of respondents were satisfied with their level of learning and development.

Clear links exist between central and local training. All stations receive a quarterly central training plan which details the training that must be completed during
that period. Beyond this, the watch supervisor can devise training to meet the needs of the team.

We found a well-planned and resourced exercise programme, designed to provide realistic operational scenario training. This involves around 25 exercises per year. Staff must participate in these exercises at least every six months.

Corporate staff felt they had good access to training. Staff in departments such as prevention and protection felt the training they were given was very good. Staff also complimented other forms of training they had received – for example, on management skills and health and safety.

Fire control staff showed they have completed vital training. However, since taking on a wider operational staffing role, their time available for training was more limited.

During our inspection, we looked at training records. We noted that the service couldn’t always confirm quickly and efficiently whether staff had had safety-critical training. We found that several records were missing, which the service said was due to a technical issue between two databases. This meant that the service couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of its main training recording system. This is something the service needs to resolve.

We found some staff who may lead an operational incident either hadn’t had initial training to do so or hadn’t completed revalidation assessments. There was also no stated need for them to maintain competence between assessments. Several emergency response drivers hadn’t had any such assessments. We dip sampled the keeping of competence records. Some were incomplete, short of detail and/or filled in inaccurately. We found that the quality assurance process for these records was ineffective.

There is a clear lack of performance management and oversight in this area. The service should make sure that all staff receive the appropriate training and are supported in their competence development. The service should also make sure its performance system monitors, and gives management information about, the completion of safety-critical training.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Good

Tyne and Wear 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

  • To make its workforce more representative, the service should ensure diversity, inclusion and positive action are well understood and embedded across the whole organisation.

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

The service uses a variety of ways to gain staff feedback, including an annual staff survey. Staff learn about the survey results through a ‘you said, we did’ process. The service has made changes as a result of this process. For example, it has revamped and relaunched its staff appraisal process, and senior leaders are becoming more visible and communicating better.

The service holds ‘listening events’ where senior leaders visit fire stations. While there was some scepticism about these events, staff viewed them positively overall.

The service manages its grievance process well. All managers are trained in the grievance process as part of their ‘lifecycle’ training. The service receives few formal grievances from staff. Managers tend to deal with problems, and the service tries to deal with problems locally where possible. Staff we spoke to had confidence in the grievance process. However, the service’s policy is that a senior manager is appointed to hear first-stage (the lowest level) grievances. The service should consider whether this is a good use of its resources or whether it could be delegated to a lower level.

The service uses departmental debriefs to gain feedback on certain work, including projects. The operational assurance team identifies what has worked well and what needs to be improved. The service uses this process to review a range of projects, including the implementation of new data protection practices and a prevention campaign.

We spoke to several trade unions during the inspection who described their good working relationship with the service. They felt they are kept informed whenever the service is proposing any changes or considering new practices, and that they have always had the chance to respond.

Diversity

The service’s organisational development strategy outlines its commitment to diversity. Its work has been externally recognised. It is rated as a Stonewall Top 100 Employer, and achieved fourth place at the Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers Awards. In 2013 and 2016, it achieved the highest rating of ‘Excellence’ in the fire service equality framework audit. However, like most fire services, the service has some way to go to increase the diversity of its workforce.

As at 31 March 2018, 7.6 percent of firefighters were female, and 1.8 percent of firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 6.5 percent.

The service has four staff network groups: BME, LGBT+, Gender and Disability. Staff feel that the senior leadership supports these groups, which actively help to promote equality and diversity throughout the service. Group members felt consulted on important issues and empowered to raise problems if necessary.

We are confident that the service understands the diversity of its communities and the value of a diverse workforce. However, recently, the service has recruited wholetime firefighters for the first time in eight years. The service acknowledges that its positive action activity, for this recruitment, was rushed and limited. This was a missed opportunity to attract diverse candidates to join the service. It could do more in terms of positive action around its recruitment processes. In doing so, the service must ensure it tackles any perception that certain groups have an unfair advantage.

The ‘green book to grey book’ process has opened up opportunities for corporate staff. Such an approach is unusual across fire and rescue services, but it has increased diversity among supervisors and middle management.

BAME staff we interviewed spoke positively about the service’s progress in embracing equality and diversity. They felt the service has improved in recent years and that they are treated fairly and equally.

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.
  • The service should improve transparency in its promotion process to promote trust and confidence.

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 an annual staff appraisal process. Staff we spoke to expressed mixed views about its value. Most staff we spoke to felt it was just a ‘tick box’ exercise, with a focus on course requests. We found the process doesn’t offer meaningful feedback or performance recognition.

The service has improved its appraisal process, which relates to the Leadership Bond and aligns personal objectives with corporate priorities. But the service doesn’t expect to introduce this process to the whole workforce until at least April 2020.

In the meantime, the service can’t be confident that it is managing its staff as effectively and productively as possible. While it puts the new process into practice, the service should make sure it has effective ways to provide formal recognition and feedback on staff performance.

At department level, we found some examples of the service offering performance and feedback for role-specific skills. Fire control offers feedback in vital work areas, such as call handling. Protection staff also have their work reviewed, receiving feedback regularly throughout the year.

Leaders aren’t overseeing operational staff training records effectively enough, at either a corporate and local level. This is an important way of giving staff regular feedback and development support, so the service should improve its monitoring of performance in this area. 

Developing leaders

The service has no system in place to identify, develop and support high-potential staff, so they can become senior leaders in the future. It may want to consider one.

Recently, the service launched its Leadership Bond. This emphasises the importance of effective leadership in meeting service objectives and enabling the service to be as good as it wants to be. We look forward to seeing how the bond helps develop organisational leadership.

The service has a development programme – called ‘Engage’ – for all levels of management. Developed in-house, the six-day programme involves learning and assignments about leadership and management. Staff gave us mixed feedback about this training. While corporate staff were complimentary, operational staff told us they felt they had done similar training before.

Some staff we interviewed didn’t have confidence in the operational promotion process. The main reasons for this was the way roles were allocated after the process, and a perceived lack of feedback.

There was also a view that staff deemed ineligible for permanent promotion would then be used in a temporary role, sometimes for years. We spoke to staff in temporary positions who said they didn’t always feel supported. Some felt vulnerable due to the uncertainty of their temporary positions. The service knows about some of these concerns and has produced a guidance document which clarifies how the promotion process works and how the service will give feedback in future.