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West Midlands 2018/19

Effectiveness

How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?

Last updated 19/06/2019
Good

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. West Midlands Fire Service’s overall effectiveness is good.

West Midlands Fire Service has a good understanding of local and community risk. Its approach is outlined in its three-year plan, which is available to the public via its website. The plan uses a range of data to inform its response, protection and prevention strategies.

The service’s prevention strategy covers four main areas. It carries out research to make sure prevention work focuses on people who are most at risk from fire. It prioritises requests and referrals for safe and well visits to those deemed most at risk. The service also carries out many campaigns to promote community safety.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the service made it a priority to assure the public about the safety of high-rise buildings. As a result, its statutory risk-based inspection programme fell behind schedule. To catch up, it is recruiting more specialist staff.

The service is supportive in its approach to enforcement to ensure compliance. Fire crews carry out routine visits to commercial premises to ensure fire safety compliance. It also works with other organisations to improve public safety.

The service is very effective in how it responds to emergencies. It has introduced smaller response vehicles and changed shift patterns so its resources are appropriately allocated to the highest risks. It uses a tool, 999eye, which allows control operators to see incidents. It uses GPS to make sure its response vehicles are well positioned throughout the region. And it uses various methods to monitor and evaluate its performance to make sure it keeps to its ambitious response standards.

The service can show it is ready to respond to both local and national events when needed. It regularly tests its procedures jointly with other organisations. But it could improve how often it trains with neighbouring services. It could also improve its crews’ access to cross-border risk information.

Questions for Effectiveness

1

How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?

Good

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

West Midlands Fire Service has a good understanding of local and community risk. It lets the public know about these risks, and how it will manage them, in its
three-year plan.

The service uses a wide range of information to build this plan. It bases its main priorities on evidence. It considers the requirements of the Fire and Rescue National Framework, and looks at factors such as age, income, health deprivation, and education and skills. The service uses data from various sources to build its response and prevention strategies. It also looks at target projections, such as future changes in population. For example, using local authority data, the service knows the local population is set to increase by 7.5 percent by 2025, and that 20 percent of that increase will be people over 65 years old.

The service has used academic research – a survivability study – to help decide the best response to community risks. As a result, it has introduced an average response time of five minutes to high risk incidents, to reduce the potential for loss of life.

West Midlands Fire Service uses its public website to communicate and consult with a wide range of communities in several different languages. It uses social media to post safety messages to increase public awareness about the risk of fire and other emergencies. It can translate its plan into about 100 different languages. It also has an active community membership scheme with 3,239 members. It uses this scheme to consult and give feedback on service related topics.

The service identifies and prioritises domestic and commercial properties that are most at risk from fire by using a system known as RIDGE (risk information data gathering engine). This system is still being developed, but it already contains a range of data from other organisations, such as Ofsted reports and Food Standards Agency ratings.

Having an effective risk management plan

West Midlands Fire Service’s plan is clearly linked to the work it carries out. This plan is a live, interactive online document that describes how the service will reduce risk through prevention, protection and response. The service uses a matrix called SAFER (satisfaction, aspiration, finance, environment and risk) to measure the plan’s efficiencies and make sure its work continues to improve public safety.

The service uses data from both internal and external sources. This includes operational incident data and site-specific risk information (SSRI) about commercial and domestic premises. It works closely with other organisations and national groups to keep informed about emerging and potential changes to local and national risks, such as hoarding and waste sites.

The service identifies high, medium and low-risk areas of the West Midlands by mapping risk and using predictive analysis. It uses this information to identify areas of highest risk so it can have suitable prevention, protection and response measures in place.

Its command management teams include members of its prevention and protection departments, who share information for risk planning. The developing RIDGE system enables both prevention and protection teams to upload risk information about individual properties. A serious incident review process enables cross-departmental risk sharing.

Maintaining risk information

West Midlands Fire Service has a good system in place to record all its visits to premises for the purpose of collecting and updating SSRI. Birmingham City Council gives the service information about high-rise buildings, and the two organisations are developing a data-sharing agreement. This will enable them to share information about tenants who are at greater risk from fire, allowing the service to develop a more appropriate response strategy.

Firefighters carry out visits to and exercises at various premises to make sure the risk information they hold is correct. SSRI is available to, and shared with, all staff. The service has used learning from operational events such as the Grenfell Tower fire to gather risk data.

We found that firefighters had a good understanding of local risks. They were also well informed about new and emerging risks. The service shares risk information via a platform on its intranet in the form of alerts, ops flashes (a means of sharing information that staff need to know about as soon as possible) and electronic debriefs. The control room also has a process in place to share urgent risk information across the service. And fire crews have access to risk information through the mobile data terminals (MDTs) in every fire engine.

We were pleased to see that the service has good systems in place to keep the public informed about local risks. The public can access the community safety strategy via its website. This is an online interactive tool, updated four times a year. It allows people to monitor risks in their area and see how the service is responding to them. The public and the service’s local managers can use the platform to access postcode-specific information about the operational, prevention and protection activity that has taken place in their area.

2

How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?

Good

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

Prevention strategy

West Midlands Fire Service has a strategy in place to make sure its prevention work complies with its statutory responsibility to protect the public from the risk of fire. This strategy covers four specific areas: accidental fires, road safety, arson, and health engagement.

The service has carried out considerable research to help it understand the primary risk factors within communities. This includes reviewing serious incidents where injuries or deaths have occurred and where smoking, mental health or alcohol was a contributory factor. It uses this information to make sure that its prevention work is concentrated on those people most at risk from fire in the community.

The service conducts safe and well visits, also known as home fire safety checks, for those residents most at risk from fire and other emergencies. Visits take place following referrals from a range of agencies, and firefighters generate them locally. As at 31 March 2018, home fire safety checks in the service include identifying potential fire risks; acting to reduce those risks; making sure working smoke alarms are fitted; advising on social welfare; ill-health prevention; advising on slips, trips and falls; and advising on other matters such as road safety. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 10.9 home fire safety checks per 1,000 population.

As well as referrals from other organisations, firefighters generate their own safe and well referrals through activities such as coffee mornings for elderly people, assisted living schemes, student activities, and visits to high-rise premises where it is known some residents may be more vulnerable to the risk of fire.

We established that 55 percent of current safe and well referrals come from partner agencies, such as the local authority safeguarding board. The service prioritises these referrals for visits, as they are considered to be higher risk than the visits that are self-generated by firefighters.

The service uses a points matrix to assess the level of risk for each referral. It sets targets for firefighters, to make sure safe and well visits focus on members of the public who are most at risk from fire and other emergencies. We found some evidence that staff felt under pressure to meet their targets. We took a dip sample of the recording system for safe and well visits. We were disappointed to find no action had been taken against a very small number of requests which had been in the system for some time.

It was good to see that the service has introduced several complex needs officers (CNOs). These CNOs are available at most stations and are specially trained to understand more complex vulnerabilities, such as dementia, drug and alcohol abuse, and modern-day slavery. They work to direct vulnerable people towards local support services and reduce their likelihood of needing interventions in the future.

Promoting community safety

West Midlands Fire Service and its partner organisations, such as Age UK, are involved in a wide range of meaningful and diverse projects to promote community safety. Local initiatives are evaluated, and rolled out to the whole service if successful.

The service has worked extensively with Birmingham City Council to reassure residents and improve building safety in high-rise flats. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, it took part in more than 30 joint advice and reassurance sessions for residents of 213 tower blocks between November 2017 and April 2018.

The service actively works with several organisations at a strategic level, such as safeguarding boards and local authorities, to look at safety in high-rise buildings.

A central team co-ordinates fire-setter intervention work. It uses a system called inPhase to track fire activity so it can target its interventions with young people more effectively.

The team visits children who have misused fire through curiosity, crime or gang related activity. Sessions are one-to-one and focus on how arson can affect the community. The team also explains the consequences of arson to children and their parents or carers. Referrals come from organisations such as schools and youth offending teams. Examples of work with partner agencies to reduce arson include a local prison initiative with HM Prison Service. This has resulted in a reduction from 57 incidents of arson in prisons in 2017/18 to only 2 in the first quarter of 2018.

We were impressed with the two Safeside education centres which the service has established with other organisations. These centres inform and educate about fire safety, fire-setting behaviour and arson, including the legal consequences of these acts for offenders.

The organisations we spoke to were extremely positive about their working relationships with West Midlands Fire Service. One organisation described their joint work as exceeding expectations. It explained that the service had created a training and awareness package for staff about modern slavery. This resulted in the service identifying victims of trafficking, who were then referred to the police.

Road safety

The service is actively involved in several local and national initiatives to promote road safety. It is the lead authority in the Birmingham Road Safety Partnership.

A central team co-ordinates all road safety work. The work includes initiatives with West Midlands Police, covering topics such as speed awareness, use of mobile phones and seat belts, anti-drink/drug-driving campaigns, and crash extraction demonstrations to the public.

The team also works with the combined authority to support the West Midlands Regional Road Safety Strategy. It takes part in joint campaigns such as Biker Down (motorcycles), Travel West Midlands (pedestrians) and Every Choice Counts (young drivers). Through working with other organisations, the service has identified that the risk age group has changed from 16–25 years to 16–35 years. This information helps the team target road safety activity at those most at risk.

3

How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at protecting the public through fire regulation. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it has sufficient resources to deliver its risk-based inspection programme.

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.

Risk-based approach

West Midlands Fire Service has a risk-based inspection programme. Audits focus on commercial premises with an associated risk, such as a sleeping area above a shop. The service is using and developing its RIDGE system, which enables it to prioritise audits to those of highest risk.

We found that fire safety staff were carrying out many audits that were reactive rather than proactively risk-based. The service decided to re-prioritise its risk-based inspection programme following the Grenfell Tower fire. This resulted in the risk-based inspection programme schedule falling behind, so the service is actively recruiting 11 qualified fire safety officers to address this. In the year to 31 December 2018, it audited 1,901 of the 11,712 high risk premises it had identified.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 2.4 fire safety audits per 100 known premises, which equates to 2,211 audits. This compares to the England rate of 3.0 over the same period. Of the 2,211 fire safety audits the service carried out in the year to 31 March 2018, 56 percent were satisfactory.

Operational crews carry out ‘safe and strong’ protection visits. These are routine visits to commercial premises. Staff complete a series of online learning packages to give them the necessary knowledge to conduct them. They prioritise their visits on the basis of themed risks, or because of fires at similar types of premises – for example, light industrial premises, shops or pubs. If staff identify significant or more complex risks, a referral means that a qualified fire safety officer will audit the premises.

Protection teams are aligned across command areas to ensure consistency of work patterns. Quality assurance has been limited, but there are plans to address this with the newly recruited fire safety officers.

We were disappointed to see that the service has been slow at responding to building regulation consultations during the last quarter of 2018. It received 478 consultations and only responded to 253 within the required timeframe.

Enforcement

West Midlands Fire Service is proactive in taking enforcement action for the non-compliance of fire safety regulations. In the four years ending 31 March 2018, it issued 98 enforcement notices, 106 prohibition orders, 16 alterations and brought 68 prosecutions. The service has a dedicated team comprising specialised fire safety officers that works to build such prosecution cases.

It was interesting to note that the service adopts a supportive approach to enforcement. Businesses are allowed a 42-day appeal period, rather than the statutory 21 days, to enable them to achieve compliance.

Firefighters and fire safety staff are appropriately trained to national standards to identify and respond to fire safety concerns when attending buildings for visits or incidents.

The service works with a range of organisations to share information on risk and take joint enforcement action. Examples include:

  • business support officers working with enforcement agencies to identify premises linked to terrorism and modern-day slavery;
  • working with housing providers to audit 551 high-rise buildings in the West Midlands to make sure flammable cladding was identified and removed when needed; and
  • in conjunction with police, the local authority and UK Visas and Immigration, identifying a residential property above a shop (an unprotected sleeping risk) which uncovered evidence of criminality. This resulted in a closure order on the premises.

Working with others

West Midlands Fire Service works effectively with a broad range of partner agencies and businesses. It is working hard to reduce the negative effect of attending false alarms (unwanted fire signals). It has introduced business support vehicles, crewed by business support officers. These officers work with premises where alarms frequently activate. Since 2011, calls to unwanted fire signals have dropped from 27 percent to 19 percent of total calls.

The service identified that, in one area, 40 percent of its unwanted fire signals originated from singularly owned properties. As a result, it established a project involving fire safety officers and local station crews working with residents to understand why alarms were sounding. This project is ongoing and due for evaluation shortly.

In response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the service has carried out joint exercises in high-rise buildings with organisations such as local council housing departments. The next exercise will test how effectively the service can evacuate more than 100 residents in the event of a fire in a high-rise building.

The introduction of safe and strong visits to businesses is an innovative initiative. These are similar to safe and well visits, but more focused towards sharing information after incidents in commercial properties. However, we found that not all firefighters fully understood the purpose of these visits.

4

How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?

Outstanding

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

Managing assets and resources

We found strong evidence that West Midlands Fire Service is highly effective in how it responds to fires and other emergencies.

The service has set itself an ambitious standard of responding to high-risk incidents in a median average time of five minutes from the time a fire engine starts travelling to the incident. This standard was adopted after extensive research into survivability rates and how to reduce loss of life. In the period between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service’s median average response travel time for high risk calls was 4 minutes 43 seconds, excluding call handling times. In the year to 31 March 2018, its average response time to all primary fires, regardless of the risk and including call handling time, was 6 minutes 41 seconds.

To achieve this standard, the service has made several significant improvements over the past few years, such as introducing:

  • 19 brigade response vehicles, crewed by fewer firefighters than a traditional fire engine, to attend lower-risk incidents. These vehicles can still carry out rescues,
    if needed;
  • three business support vehicles, crewed by a single member of staff. These vehicles respond to unwanted fire signals, enabling the larger vehicles to stay available for more risk-critical work; and
  • a revised 12-hour shift for staff, covering the period from 10am to 10pm daily. This makes sure the service can give the public a more effective and timely response during periods of highest demand.

Response

The improvements detailed above have contributed to the service’s ambitious response standard. It has worked hard to understand and assess where its risks are, so it can organise its resources more effectively. It has the added benefit that all its operational firefighters are wholetime staff. This means it can respond to calls immediately, 24 hours a day.

In the year to 30 September 2018, the service attended 9.8 incidents per 1,000 population. This compares to the England rate of 10.5 over the same period.

In 2017, the service introduced a tool called 999eye, which enables control room operators to see an image of an incident. The caller receives a hyperlink with which they can send a photo or video directly to the control room. Control room staff can then assess the scale and severity of the incident, and so make sure the service responds with the most appropriate resources. We found evidence of this tool being used effectively during our inspection, at the scene of a fatal fire in a neighbouring service.

The service uses a dynamic cover tool and GPS to give real-time updates of how and where response vehicles are located at any given time across the region. The software calculates the best way for the service to achieve its response time by moving resources around the county. Control room staff use this information to make sure the service maintains its stated average response time of five minutes to high-risk incidents.

Control room staff have access to a wide range of information to make sure they send the most appropriate resources to an incident (for example, fire survival guidance and major hazards). They are also notified of any temporary or urgent updates to risk information so they can add markers to addresses.

The service is making good progress in adopting national operational guidance (NOG) both locally and regionally. It already has a gap analysis, action plan and implementation framework in place.

Command

Commanders across West Midlands Fire Service showed good levels of knowledge and understanding of how to command operational incidents. Staff could describe the actions they would take if they had to step outside of normal operational procedures. Commanders are regularly assessed to show that they are competent.

Incident commanders have a variety of aids to give them information about incident risk. When vehicles are sent to an incident, their crews receive certain details in the form of a turnout sheet. This sheet contains information about the type of incident they are attending and any associated risk information – for example, if the service is aware that oxygen is in use at the property or the occupier is a known hoarder.

Keeping the public informed

The service has introduced two systems in its control room to enable its operators to communicate more effectively with the public, some of whom don’t speak English.

One system, known as LanguageLine, enables ready access to an interpreter, who can relay information between the caller and the control operator. A second system, known as EISEC, gives geographic information about a caller’s location via an online map.

The service has a corporate social media account, which it uses to share safety and incident information with the public. It also uses social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. We saw examples of local stations using social media to engage with local communities.

We found evidence that staff, without exception, can identify vulnerability and safeguard vulnerable people at incidents.

Evaluating operational performance

West Midlands Fire Service has a good process in place to evaluate and assess operational performance.

We found that hot debriefs (held shortly after the incident) are routinely carried out by fire crews. These debriefs are designed to identify good practice and learning. The service also has a more formal process where commanders and crews complete a debrief form. This is used after large-scale incidents or exercises.

A central team collates information from debriefs, summarises the results and shares the learning across the service in a bulletin. If an issue is risk-critical, an immediate routine notice is issued. We saw examples of these notices.

It is service policy that when five or more fire engines are sent to an incident, a performance review command (PRC) officer must attend. A PRC officer is a trained command assessor who can assess the effectiveness of commanders at incidents. According to service policy, commanders must have a PRC assessment every 12 months. We carried out a review of PRC evaluations and found the information recorded was constructive, with areas of strengths and development identified. Commanders receive feedback and, if necessary, a development plan.

We were impressed with the service’s station peer assessment (SPA) team. This team is responsible for evaluating the performance of station-based teams. The SPA team also gives quality assurance to check that systems and practices are consistent across the service. Themes include the recording and monitoring of staff competency, prevention activities and SSRI. After each assessment, a report is prepared, and learning is shared with both the station teams and the central intelligence team.

The service is involved in regional thematic peer reviews. Regional services take turns to review response protocols for different types of incident, such as working at height and near water, to share learning and draw up action plans, if needed.

The service actively monitors the performance of all call handlers within the control room. This is to make sure they meet monthly call handling time targets.

5

How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at responding to national risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure operational staff have good access to cross-border risk information.
  • The service should arrange a programme of over-the-border exercises, sharing the learning from these exercises.

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).

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

Preparedness

West Midlands Fire Service has several national resilience assets that can be called on in the event of a national incident. Control room staff have a clear understanding of the process they should follow if these assets are needed, supported by an aide memoire. When assets are deployed, there are plans in place to move fire engines and personnel to maintain normal operational cover.

In the event of a large-scale incident (involving 15 or more fire engines), a strategic level commander is needed. This commander decides if additional resources or interventions, such as fire control support, incident room managers or inter-agency liaison officers, are needed.

Exercise plans incorporate the higher-risk premises within station areas so realistic training can be carried out. This makes sure that site-specific response plans can be tested.

Working with other services

The service is proud of the control room function it shares with Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). This has resulted in the two services being able to share risk-critical information and resources more effectively. As previously mentioned, the service supports a regional action plan for implementing NOG. It works regionally to test resource plans and nationally to share learning – such as work following the Grenfell Tower and waste site fires.

Crews from West Midlands Fire Service regularly give operational support to Staffordshire and Warwickshire FRSs, and there is some joint training across those borders. However, we found that the West Midlands crews’ access to cross-border risk information was limited. Also, there is no centrally co-ordinated schedule in place for regular training and exercising with neighbouring services.

We also found evidence of several occasions where the service had supported other FRSs further afield at major and complex incidents. One such example is the 2018 Winter Hill wildfires in Lancashire.

Working with other agencies

A senior representative from West Midlands Fire Service chairs the local resilience forum (LRF) and the service is an active member. Joint training and exercising takes place with local organisations through the LRF. Partner organisations record lessons learnt and share information on planning and response through joint organisational learning. This knowledge is shared via the online portal Resilience Direct. We found there is limited opportunity for multi-agency training and exercising at tactical (initial response) level, however.

The service is well trained and prepared to respond to a variety of incidents as part of a multi-agency response, including a terrorist attack. Specially trained staff have been involved in large-scale multi-agency exercises to test response plans. Control room staff show a good understanding of procedures in the event of a marauding terrorist attack. Commanders at all levels show a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities in the event of a major incident.