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West Midlands 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, West Midlands Fire Service is good at looking after its people.

West Midlands Fire Service offers good wellbeing support for its staff, including after traumatic incidents. Health and safety is taken seriously, and staff are encouraged to report accidents and near misses so that learning and improvement can be shared.

The service has a comprehensive policy in place for managing sickness absence. It also has a clear set of behavioural values and a code of conduct. The service is going through a period of substantial change. It is challenging traditional ways of working, which some staff have found difficult to accept. It recognises this is causing discontentment among some staff. Staff told us that some managers are using a heavy-handed approach to push through changes.

Staff are well trained and the service has a clear approach to workforce planning to make sure there are enough staff to cover important roles. But we found this approach didn’t extend to management of temporary staff. The service has a high percentage of staff who have been in temporary roles for long periods of time.

West Midlands Fire Service has many ways to communicate with staff and seek their feedback. These include internal networks to support staff from under-represented groups. The service is keen to succeed as an inclusive employer and actively seeks to make its workforce more reflective of the diverse communities it serves. This has raised some challenges that it will need to manage carefully.

The service doesn’t have a process to identify and develop high-potential staff. But it does have a system to make sure promotion processes are consistent. However, some staff don’t think the promotion processes are fair.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure its values and behaviours are demonstrated at all levels of the organisation. It should also ensure that managers actively promote these standards to improve the perception among some staff of an overbearing management style.

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

Workforce wellbeing

West Midlands Fire Service has a comprehensive wellbeing strategy, which offers support to staff for a broad range of issues. It includes provisions for physical and mental health, stress and menopause. Staff have access to a 24-hour employee assistance programme covering a range of topics, including debt management. The service also offers physiotherapy and rehabilitative support to staff after an injury.

Staff understand the critical incident debrief process, which is offered after a difficult or traumatic incident. They can also contact the occupational health (OH) department and request one-to-one support if needed.

The service offers good OH provision. The OH team monitors sickness absence and trends, and has a good understanding of health and wellbeing across the service. We found that staff have a good understanding of how to contact OH, and the majority spoke positively about how their wellbeing needs are met.

The service has a comprehensive policy in place for managing sickness absence. It monitors its sickness and accident data against national OH data. It encourages quick return to work by providing personalised rehabilitation plans and modified duty patterns.

Health and safety

West Midlands Fire Service has robust health and safety arrangements in place, including a governance process for strategic oversight and management of all health and safety issues.

It has a centrally-based health and safety team. This team works proactively across the service, carrying out regular inspections and responding to emerging health and safety issues. Risk-critical health and safety messages are shared across the service via safety-critical notices.

Staff are encouraged to report near-miss events, and the health and safety team reports on incidents within 28 days. The team monitors trends and themes, and recommends interventions. Local managers investigate minor incidents. However, we noted that the central team have minimal oversight of these local investigations.

The service takes part in quarterly regional meetings with neighbouring FRSs. This makes sure it is well informed about wider health and safety issues, which can then be translated into learning across the organisation.

Culture and values

West Midlands Fire Service has a clear set of behavioural values and a code of conduct. These are published on its intranet, and are central to how it recruits, appraises and progresses staff.

Notably, the service is going through a period of substantial change. It is challenging traditional ways of working, which some staff have found difficult to accept. The 2018 trade dispute has also caused employee relations to suffer.

Using data, the service can show that less than 10 percent of firefighters’ time is spent responding to emergencies. As a result, it is making changes to make sure staff spend their time more productively. The senior team acknowledges this is causing discontentment among staff.

During our inspection, a lot of staff spoke of a working environment where they now feel valued, respected and empowered. We were given various examples that reflected the service’s open and inclusive leadership style. Overall, staff spoke positively about the current management and how the organisation is now more open to challenge. However, many firefighters spoke of “a performance management culture”, “heavy-handed and dictatorial management”, “fear of reprisals” and “a lack of trust in the grievance process”.

As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of their service. The staff survey showed that, of the 308 respondents, 52 percent stated they were treated with dignity and respect. But only 25 percent were confident their ideas or suggestions would be listened to. The survey also showed that 46 percent of respondents stated that they had experienced some form of bullying or harassment in the last 12 months. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.

We are satisfied that these internal issues aren’t affecting the service given to the public. And we accept that introducing significant changes to long-standing working practices can present problems both to the workforce and the leadership. However, the service needs to do more to gain the support of its staff and improve working relationships at all levels across the organisation. It is good to see that it is commissioning a cultural survey. This should enable it to focus on those areas where staff have the greatest concerns.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at getting the right people with the right skills. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to ensure records for risk critical competencies, such as breathing apparatus, emergency fire appliance driving, and incident command are accurate and up to date.
  • The service should ensure its workforce plan includes how it intends to reduce the number of operational staff on temporary promotion.

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

Workforce planning

West Midlands Fire Service has a clear strategic approach to workforce planning. Its strategy identifies four main areas:

  • workforce analysis;
  • capacity and horizon scanning;
  • talent management; and
  • diversity and succession planning.

It uses workforce analysis to predict skill requirements against the three-year plan, with information supplied through a human resources management system. For example, it is planning to increase its use of apprenticeships in support functions.

The service has a good understanding of its current workforce’s skills and capabilities. It collects a range of data to make sure it doesn’t fall below the minimum number of staff needed in specific roles. It also uses this data to identify gaps likely to occur in the future, so it can identify and plan when recruitment may be needed.

As at 31 March 2018, the service had 1,814 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff and 99.6 percent of its 1,408 FTE firefighters were wholetime.

The service wants to create a more flexible and productive workforce. It is choosing to move away from having dedicated specialist staff and teams, and is broadening the skills of existing staff instead. For example, it is training operational crews to give basic fire safety advice to businesses.

Despite the good work described above, we were concerned to find that data provided by the service during our inspection showed 23 percent of operational staff are in temporary managerial level roles. Temporary positions are in place pending a review of the management structure. But we found some staff had been in these temporary positions for several years. The senior team fully acknowledges that this is a problem and is seeking ways to address it. We found that staff felt unable to challenge this situation for fear of jeopardising the possibility of gaining a permanent position.

Learning and improvement

The service has developed a good culture of learning and improvement. Some staff spoke positively about the level of training they receive, although others felt they don’t receive enough training.

Commanders at all levels across the service are well trained and suitably skilled to perform their role. Commanders (levels 1 to 4) are assessed through scenario-based training and e-learning. Strategic commanders (levels 3 and 4) receive additional training such as MAGIC (multi-agency gold incident command), emergency planning, and cyber security-related training.

The service gives additional training to support those in specialist roles. For example, CNOs receive enhanced training in mental health, dementia and special needs.

The service uses the learning from operational and training debriefs. The SPA team gives quality assurance across all operational teams. Feedback from staff is that this process has led to tangible improvements, and they consider it both constructive and positive.

We were disappointed to find inconsistencies in the way records are kept on the service’s computer system that records staff competency. For example, we found gaps in the recording and assurance of training records for operational staff in areas such as breathing apparatus, emergency fire engine driving and incident command. We found similar inconsistencies in relation to control room staff, who are assessed for call handling. However, it was pleasing to see that these staff have their competency measured against a framework aligned to NOG for fire control.

The service has an ambitious testing and exercising schedule in place. This consists of 104 training exercises each year, each involving several fire engines.

The service takes advantage of a range of opportunities to train fire crews in realistic situations. For example, a partnership with Birmingham City Council enables fire crews to use blocks of flats scheduled for demolition to practise rescue procedures. This includes the use of cosmetic smoke to create a realistic search and rescue scenario. The service tells tenants in other high rise flats about these activities, to reassure them following the Grenfell Tower fire.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should improve the way it communicates with its staff, specifically those in operational roles.
  • The service needs to understand and address the impact positive action is having on staff, including those with protected characteristics.

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

West Midlands Fire Service communicates with staff and seeks their feedback in various ways. Managers use a video link to communicate important messages across the service. The senior team conducts visits to every department and fire station as part of a pre planned schedule. The service holds management briefings, when needed, to update staff about organisational change.

Despite this, it is clear it needs to improve the way information is shared across all levels of the organisation. We found that staff working at its headquarters feel more informed about current issues, and able to challenge and consult with the senior team. This isn’t the case for some operational fire crews – they described a culture of fear, a lack of trust in organisational decisions and feeling talked at rather than listened to. We found that staff in temporary positions are reluctant to challenge decisions made by senior managers in case it adversely affected their likelihood of a permanent promotion.

We reviewed the service’s grievance procedure. We found that it deals with staff grievances in a proper and prompt manner. Where cases took longer to resolve, the service had recorded the reasons and kept the person informed. All cases showed that staff had been offered wellbeing support, as well as support from a representative body.

The service has several internal networks in place to support staff from under represented groups. These include:

  • Asian Fire Service Association (AFSA);
  • FireOut, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) staff;
  • Affinity, for women; and
  • Inspire, for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff.

These groups are chaired by the staff themselves and feed into the strategic enabling team performance meetings. The service is part of the Stonewall network and is ranked in the top 50 inclusive employers in the West Midlands.

Diversity

West Midlands Fire Service has clear policies about equality and diversity in pay, employment practices and recruitment. It has put a significant emphasis on positive action and set itself ambitious targets to recruit a workforce that is more reflective of its communities. As at 31 March 2018, 9.3 percent of its firefighters were from a BAME background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 29.8 percent. As at 31 March 2018, 6.7 percent of firefighters were female.

It was interesting to hear that the service has proactively used section 159 of the Equalities Act 2010. This allows employers to treat an applicant or employee who has a protected characteristic (for example, race, sex or age) favourably in connection for recruitment or promotion than someone without that characteristic who is equally qualified for the role.

The service uses a range of positive action tools to attract applicants. For example, it uses a toolkit called Thinkology to target social media recruitment campaigns at those from under-represented groups. It also runs taster sessions in areas with diverse communities. It gives women more information about practical tests, as this is known to be an area that female applicants find more difficult.

Despite all this good work, there are some issues that the service should address. We were disappointed to find that some staff, including some managers, don’t understand or support the need for a more diverse workforce. We also found that some staff simply don’t agree with this need.

We were equally concerned that some staff with protected characteristics hadn’t applied for promotion. This was because they felt that colleagues might see them as getting preferential treatment, rather than achieving promotion on their own merit. While we recognise the good work the service is doing, it needs to understand and address the effect that its recruitment strategy is having on staff with protected characteristics.

The service recognises that the role of a firefighter has changed considerably. To reflect this, it has introduced a different set of skills as part of its recruitment process, including caring, communication and other softer interpersonal skills. Candidates role-play various scenarios to see how they react in certain situations, such as having to deal with someone who may be vulnerable (for example, a hoarder or a victim of domestic abuse).

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 ensure processes for development and promotion of staff are open, transparent and fair.

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

Managing performance

West Midlands Fire Service has effective arrangements in place to manage and develop the individual performance of its staff. Each member of staff is expected to have a regular individual personal development review (IPDR) with their line manager. This gives an opportunity to discuss performance and aspirations, and identify development opportunities. Operational staff must record their level of competence against the four main areas (prevention, protection, response and people) in their IPDR.

The process is designed to be a continuous development and learning opportunity. However, we found that completion of IPDRs wasn’t consistent across the service. Also, not all staff had confidence in the IPDR process. As at 31 March 2018, 91 percent of wholetime firefighters, 86 percent of fire control staff and just 29 percent of support staff had completed an IPDR.

The service offers a suite of online learning modules called the effective manager series. It covers a wide range of managerial and people knowledge areas to support those in managerial roles. Topics covered include managing absence, investigations and underperformance. As these courses aren’t mandatory, the service doesn’t know how many managers have completed them.

West Midlands Fire Service also gives opportunities for staff to attend management masterclasses taught by external speakers such as employment lawyers, and one-day seminars for staff who want to improve their personal effectiveness. The seminars are voluntary, and cover subjects such as change management, coaching, planning and organising, and strategic awareness. 

Developing leaders

The service doesn’t have a system to identify, develop and support high potential staff. However, it does have processes to develop leaders both in operational and management roles. It also offers development opportunities to support staff, such as role-specific specialist qualifications and higher education.

During our inspection, we reviewed the service’s promotion process. We found that there is a framework in place to make sure promotions are conducted in a fair and consistent way. However, we found the results of the promotion process and the feedback to candidates weren’t always well recorded.

The service gives appropriate training to staff sitting on promotion panels. They all receive unconscious bias training. Despite this, we found that not all staff believe the promotions process is fair. This was most apparent among operational staff. There is also a perception among some support staff that opportunities for their progression are limited.