West Sussex 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. West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.
The service draws on a range of information to have a good understanding of the local risks facing its communities. It publishes information about its performance on its website. It considers future risk in its integrated risk management plan (IRMP) which runs to 2022. And it uses a risk assessment tool – the Provision of Operational Risk Information System (PORIS) – to determine how often to visit premises, although staff don’t use this consistently.
We have several areas of concern about West Sussex FRS’s effectiveness. It doesn’t have a clear approach to prevention and isn’t referring people to local services quickly enough. We have significant concerns about how it is protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety. Its risk-based inspection programme doesn’t identify the highest-risk premises, and the computer system it uses isn’t robust enough and often loses data. Because of this, the service can’t show, for example, whether it is meeting its building consultation targets.
In its response to fires and emergencies, the service isn’t making the best use of resources. It hasn’t met its response standards since 2014/15. Its fire engine availability is low and it is struggling to recruit and retain sufficient on-call firefighters. It hasn’t produced a clear plan for aligning its procedures to national guidance, its management of information after an incident is often poor and it has had little success in reducing the high number of false alarms it receives. Finally, its cross-border exercising is limited and inconsistent.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure its firefighters have good access to relevant and up-to-date risk information.
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
The service has a good understanding of the local risks in its communities. It achieves this by considering a wide range of information, including health, demographic and historical incident data. It also uses national indices of deprivation to target residents who are hard to reach. From these, it produces a critical-risk fire map. This highlights areas of very high, high, medium and low risk in the county. It reviews this modelling each year to make sure it remains up to date. Other risks such as flooding and road usage are also considered. The service bases its response model on this risk analysis. However, it doesn’t always translate changes in risk into appropriate changes in the services it provides.
The service publishes information such as response standards and on-call engine availability on its website. This allows the public to see how it is performing. It uses social media to communicate incident information and promote recruitment events.
The service produces profiles for each of its fire stations. These show community risks, historic calls attended by the station and performance data. But it doesn’t use these profiles to drive activity at these stations. The service could be missing opportunities to target its activity to risk in the community.
Service personnel have an established role within the Sussex Resilience Forum. For example, the deputy chief fire officer chairs the executive delivery group and operational managers attend the risk and emergency response groups. The service is named in several community risk registers, including the emergency response and recovery plan.
The service considers future foreseeable risk in its IRMP. This looks at the impact of housing developments over the next 15 years, and its area’s ageing population, for example.
Having an effective risk management plan
Each fire and rescue authority must produce an IRMP. The service should consult the public when it writes this plan. The plan should provide an up-to-date picture of the risks within the county. It should also say how the service will manage these risks through its prevention, protection and response activities. The plan should cover at least three years.
The current IRMP runs from 2018 to 2022. It was published following consultation with the communities of West Sussex and received 205 formal responses. The plan explains the service’s approach to understanding risk, and includes links to national and local risk registers. The service uses population data to help it identify where the most vulnerable are located and where response activities will be most needed.
The IRMP is clear enough for the public to understand. It sets five objectives for the service. These are to:
- reduce the number of emergency incidents and their consequences through the continuous improvement of its prevention, protection and response activities;
- as part of West Sussex County Council, work with local communities, districts and boroughs to keep West Sussex safe;
- collaborate with other emergency services and local and national partners to improve the service to the public;
- develop and maintain a workforce that is professional, resilient, skilled, flexible and diverse; and
- provide customer-centred value-for-money services.
The plan also explains the challenges the service faces. These include the limited availability of on-call staff and resources not always matching demand. It also describes some of the actions the service is taking to deal with these problems. For example, it is promoting its on-call recruitment and reviewing operational resources. This plan appears to be in line with the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England.
Maintaining risk information
The service uses wholetime staff to collect and update site-specific risk information for premises and temporary events. A central team then makes this available on mobile data terminals, which are computers on every fire engine.
The service uses a risk assessment tool called PORIS to understand risk and determine how often to revisit premises. This risk assessment measures the impact of fire against six factors. They include firefighter safety, and economic and heritage risk. The service revisits high-risk premises every year and low-risk premises every three years. It couldn’t show that its staff apply this risk assessment method appropriately and consistently, however. This means it may not always be prioritising high-risk premises.
We also found the service was unable to meet the demands of its revisit programme. Targets for the completion of risk visits didn’t align with demand and we found little evidence of performance management to make sure visits were completed on time. As a result, a large number of the risk information cards we checked were out of date. Completed risk records were subject to little assurance. This means the service is missing chances to improve the standard of its risk information. It communicates general information about risk across the whole organisation using health and safety bulletins, flash messages and shift handovers.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure staff understand how to identify vulnerability and safeguard vulnerable people.
Cause of concern
Prevention activity doesn’t always align with risks identified in the IRMP. Home fire safety checks aren’t being done in a timely manner and there is a large backlog of high-risk cases.
- The service should ensure it targets its home fire safety check activity at people most at risk.
- The service should ensure it carries out home fire safety checks in a timely manner.
The service doesn’t have a clear prevention strategy, although its IRMP outlines its strategic approach to prevention. We found that its prevention activity doesn’t always align with the risk the IRMP has identified. The service now offers safe and well visits to its most vulnerable residents. As at 31 March 2019, the service states that prevention visits include ensuring that working smoke alarms are fitted, identifying potential fire risks, acting to reduce those risks, and giving advice on social welfare and avoiding slips, trips and falls. However, operational staff were still conducting home fire safety checks and not providing documented advice on social welfare or slips, trips and falls and signposting to other organisations. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 6,647 home fire safety checks, equating to 7.8 per 1,000 population. Of these, 1,568 were to those registered as disabled and 5,073 to the elderly. At the time of our inspection the service told us that over 400 of its high-risk home fire safety checks assigned to fire stations were incomplete.
The information system the service uses to support prevention activities is not effective and doesn’t support the range of activities delivered during safe and well visits. We saw prevention specialists trialling new software while operational crews continued to complete their home fire safety check process by paper. This means the service can’t accurately check progress against its home fire safety check programme.
Specialist teams deliver educational programmes such as FireBreak and a cadet scheme, which aim to reduce risk of fire setting by engaging with young people. The service seeks feedback from those who attend these programmes. Little external evaluation takes place that might assist the delivery or prioritisation of such activities.
Promoting community safety
The service works closely with other departments in the council and external organisations to promote community safety. For example, Careline supports elderly people living independently in their homes. Details are then shared with the fire service so it can carry out prevention visits.
The service runs FireWise, an educational programme that targets children who show fire-setting behaviour. It created this programme in collaboration with East Sussex FRS and an external company. Social workers and youth services refer children to the programme. West Sussex FRS also runs FireBreak, a week-long programme that encourages positive role modelling for young adults. The service works with schools and youth advisers to deliver courses tailored to the needs of pupils.
Staff in specialist teams are well trained to identify and support vulnerable people. But we found that training for operational crews on identifying the full range of vulnerability was limited. What was available was also not mandatory. Operational crews can access safeguarding information, and access to the service’s safeguarding lead is available through fire control. The service should assure itself that all staff have up-to-date safeguarding knowledge and are able to recognise vulnerability.
The service has a volunteer section that supports prevention activities such as Safe Drive Stay Alive. This group also undertakes follow-ups for safe and well visits. The service could develop this group more, and increase its capacity to do prevention work.
The service’s IRMP contains details of road traffic collisions, including the number of people killed on the roads. The service is part of the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership in which East Sussex and West Sussex county councils, the police and FRSs work together on road safety. The service uses dedicated prevention teams and volunteers to run its Safe Drive Stay Alive programme targeting 16 to 18-year-olds, in collaboration with the police, the NHS and the ambulance service. The service told us that, since 2006, it has provided this programme to about 100,000 students. An external company recently evaluated this work, although at the time of the inspection it had yet to report. We also saw examples of local fire stations promoting road safety messages with visual scenes, highlighting the dangers of drinking and driving at Christmas.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it addresses effectively the burden of false alarms (termed ‘unwanted fire signals’).
Cause of concern
West Sussex FRS doesn’t have a clear strategy for using its risk-based inspection programme to identify the highest risk premises. The database it uses to manage premises information is unreliable and not always accurate. The service can’t carry out the number of audits of high-risk premises that it commits to as part of its programme.
- The service should ensure that its risk-based inspection programme targets it highest risk premises.
- The service should ensure that effective and robust systems are in place to manage its protection activities.
- The service should ensure it conducts the number and frequency of high-risk premise audits that it sets out in its 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.
The service doesn’t have a clear protection strategy, although its IRMP sets out its strategic approach to protection. The service isn’t confident its risk-based inspection programme is identifying the highest-risk premises. The computer system it uses to manage its protection work is making this job harder, which the service acknowledges. Staff who use the system told us it doesn’t provide consistent reporting and often loses data. This means protection managers can’t prioritise their work based on accurate information. The service should make sure its IT system supports better risk profiling and its protection activities are resourced to meet the risks the IRMP has identified.
A business fire safety team of trained specialists carries out protection activities. But the service doesn’t prioritise regulatory activities enough and the team is under-resourced. Again, the service has identified this problem and has acknowledged its prevention activity doesn’t align with the risks its IRMP has identified.
The service identifies highest-risk premises using a range of criteria. They include historical incident data and fire service emergency cover toolkit codes, such as sleeping accommodation and care homes. As at 31 December 2018, the service has identified 2,624 high-risk premises, which it is committed to visiting every three years. It has been unable to provide an accurate figure for the number of high-risk audits it carried out in the year to 31 December 2018, however. In its IRMP, it acknowledges it isn’t undertaking enough high-risk audits to meet the demands of its risk-based inspection programme.
The service told us it meets 100 percent of its building consultation target. However, it was unable to supply evidence of this because of the limitations of its computer system.
We have concerns about the quality of the data submitted to the Home Office on protection and fire safety audits. The data the service provided showed that, in the year to 31 March 2018, its audits had a notably higher rate of satisfactory outcomes than the England average. The service should assure itself that it is directing protection resources at the highest-risk premises.
We saw examples of joint enforcement action with other organisations, such as the county council’s housing department. In these cases, the fire service and the housing department support each other and agree which will be the lead agency. In the year ending 31 March 2018, the service issued eight enforcement notices, six prohibition notices, one prosecution and no alteration notices. Duty fire safety officers can serve these at any time. The service successfully prosecuted one business in 2017 that had failed to comply with its legal duties under a fire safety order. It uses the council’s legal services to support its work in this field.
Working with others
The service doesn’t manage any primary authority schemes, but does work with local businesses to improve their awareness of their responsibilities under current fire safety legislation. The service engages with businesses through seminars. We also saw examples of how it monitors call rates each month and sends letters to those with the highest level of false alarms. Since the year ending 30 September 2011, the number of false alarms attended has remained relatively stable, at around 4,600 each year. In the year ending 30 September 2018, false alarm incidents made up 51 percent of all incidents attended, which is higher than the England average of 40 percent over the same period. The service should make sure it has a clear approach to reducing the impact of these false alarms.
We were informed about the service’s work with Trading Standards to reduce the risk to the public from fireworks on Bonfire Night. Other organisations told us the service was a good organisation to work with, although the capacity of its prevention team was limiting opportunities to do more joint work.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it has an effective system to use learning from operational response to improve its command and control.
- The service should ensure the availability of its on-call fire engines is aligned to the risks identified in its IRMP.
- The service should ensure it has an effective system to maintain the competencies of all incident commanders.
Managing assets and resources
As at 31 March 2018, the service had one wholetime fire station, 14 retained fire stations, and nine mixed fire stations.
The service uses a mixture of staffing models to provide its operational response. These include wholetime and on-call staff. It also uses a crewing optimisation group to move resources around the county to help support areas where the availability of fire engines is low.
The service acknowledges its resources aren’t always available when they are needed. Demand for fire engines is greater during the day and less at night, whatever the day of the week. But the service has most of its fire engines available during the night and fewest during the day. This is not the best use of its resources. The service has also seen an increase in its response times. In the year to 31 March 2014, its average response time to primary fires was 9 minutes and 9 seconds. In the year to March 2018, its average response time to primary fires had increased to 9 minutes and 48 seconds. Staff and fire engines are moved across the service to cover shortfalls. There is an agreed procedure for taking this action through fire control and the service duty manager.
The service also operates a separate technical rescue unit. This provides specialist rescue capabilities, including line rescue, confined space and large animal rescue. This team doesn’t attend fires or deliver prevention work. The service should make sure it uses the team effectively to support the service’s wider operational workforce.
In the year to 30 September 2018, the service attended 10.96 incidents per 1,000 population. This compares to the England rate of 10.47 over the same period.
The service aligns its response model to those areas identified in its critical risk fire maps. Areas of very high risk will have a quicker response time than lower-risk areas. The service refreshes these maps every year, but acknowledges it rarely adjusts its response model to reflect any changes that occur.
The service publishes response standards and performance against these standards on its website. These standards were agreed in 2008. They include a commitment to attend the most critical incidents with the first fire engine in 8 minutes and the second in 11 minutes 89 percent of the time. The service hasn’t met this standard since 2014/15. It has also reduced the number of operational fire engines it uses. As at 31 March 2009, it had 46 operational fire engines, which was reduced to 35 as at 31 March 2018.
The service meets its commitments on wholetime fire engine availability, but its on-call engines are rarely all available. Between April 2018 and December 2018, the overall average monthly pump availability ranged from 65 percent to 70 percent. However, in some cases, individual pump availability is far lower. The situation is worse during the day. The IRMP acknowledges this problem and the service is actively promoting the on-call role and recruiting in its communities.
The service has aligned some of its procedures to national operational guidance, but its progress has been limited. It has not produced a clear plan about how it might adopt the full guidance. Staff described an over-reliance on Learning Pool, the service’s e-learning platform, to deliver changes in operational procedure.
The service also completes a range of documentation as part of a command and control system. These include risk assessments, and the message and decision logs completed at operational incidents. But we found that management of this information after an incident has been poor. Documents haven’t always been returned and few reviews have been done that might help improve operational practice and staff competence.
The service has an established framework to develop those who are new to the command role. This includes command courses that the training team runs, and external courses for more senior commanders. Operational commanders showed a mixed level of understanding of national models such as the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) and the incident command decision control process. We found that, while these skills were tested at the assessment stage, commanders have rarely had the chance to practise them because of a lack of incidents or joint exercises.
Generally, those required to command incidents felt competent, but they told us they would like to practise their skills more often. Maintenance of command training at all levels lacked structure and oversight. The service should make sure its incident commanders have opportunities to maintain these core skills.
The levels of command at operational incidents are proportionate based on risk. We found that control operators were confident about adjusting resources when necessary.
Keeping the public informed
The service shares information with the public via its communications team. It does this through its website and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. It uses these to promote safety messages, including on the dangers of drink driving. It also uses them to promote service recruitment events. Fire stations have their own Twitter accounts to allow them to communicate with their local community. But we found that little training has taken place to make sure operational staff use social media in line with the service’s expectations.
Fire control operators can access fire survival guidance and were confident they could provide the public with this guidance in an emergency. But the guidance could be more comprehensive. It could also cover a wider range of incidents than it currently does.
The service provides safeguarding information to frontline crews. Concerns about vulnerable people can be raised immediately through fire control.
Evaluating operational performance
We found that hot debriefs, which operational crews carry out immediately after an incident, were well established. An electronic feedback form allows crews to share feedback more widely and a central team collects and monitors this information. After large or more significant incidents, this team makes sure formal debriefs take place. We saw examples of incident debriefs involving other organisations, including the police and Network Rail. Learning from this debrief process was evident. But we saw few examples of this being used to change operational practice. We also found that not all operational staff understood the benefits of the process. The service has acknowledged the process is new and is still being established.
The service undertakes limited assurance of its operational staff through its tactical advisers. These officers are sent to incidents to review the performance of incident commanders at operational incidents. But we found this process being applied inconsistently, which meant the benefits for operational officers and the service was limited.
The service has a point of contact for national operational learning. We saw examples of where this information had been shared with staff.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure that, where possible, LRF exercises include operational staff at all levels to improve interoperability and competence.
- 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).
Staff in the control room and operational commanders were clear about how to mobilise and request national assets when needed. The service has a high-volume pump and the means to make it available at times of need, although we found that operational staff weren’t always confident in using it. We were told by firefighters that they didn’t have many opportunities to maintain such additional skills.
The service has arrangements in place to increase its resources at times of increased demand. These include cross-border arrangements. But we found that recommendations arising from a recent major incident, which involved using national assets, haven’t yet been tested.
Working with other services
The service has arrangements to support operational response. Those with Hampshire FRS mean the quickest engine is sent to a fire, whichever county the fire is in. Cross-border exercising was limited and inconsistent, however. There is no structured exercise programme that could make cross-border work between West Sussex FRS and other services more effective. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of staff to get their views of their service (refer to About the Data page for more details). The results showed that, of the 67 firefighters and specialist support staff who responded, 1 percent agreed that the service regularly trains and exercises with neighbouring FRSs, while 75 percent disagreed and 24 percent didn’t know.
Staff receive risk information when they work across borders. But we found it wasn’t always available and we came across examples of information that was out of date. This could increase the risk operational staff face when responding to incidents, as they don’t have access to current risk information.
Working with other agencies
The service told us about a major incident that occurred in March 2018. Water shortages across the county drew a co-ordinated response from a range of agencies, co-ordinated by the Sussex Resilience Forum. We found established arrangements for senior officers to exercise with other agencies for major events. These include exercising and testing emergency plans at sites like Gatwick Airport. Other operational staff do such tests far less often. Joint exercises between West Sussex FRS and agencies such as the police and ambulance service are limited and applied inconsistently.
The service has a dedicated team that responds to marauding terrorist firearms incidents. It comprises operational staff from the workforce that can be called on if an incident occurs. We were given examples of recent occasions when this team was mobilised and made available.