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Avon 2021/22

People

How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Avon Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service was inadequate in its 2018/19 assessment

In our 2018 inspection, we highlighted as a cause of concern that the service hadn’t clearly communicated with staff about its new values and how to demonstrate these in the workplace. We are pleased to see how much progress has been made since then. The service consulted with staff to develop a new values and behaviour framework, and its values are now well understood by staff. It has also published a leadership charter, setting out expectations of managers, and a substantial majority of staff told us they think that their line manager meets these standards.

There has also been good progress in how the service looks after the wellbeing and mental health of its staff, which we listed as a cause of concern in 2018. It now has wellbeing policies which are well understood and effective, and a good range of wellbeing provisions for staff. Despite this, some managers did tell us that they hadn’t received training in providing wellbeing support to their teams, and so weren’t always confident in doing so. The service has processes on issues like health and safety, and staff absence, although some of its policies are out of date and need to be reviewed.

In our previous inspection, we said that the service needed to improve the way it deals with succession planning. Its plan for this has not been finalised, and the service still needs to do more in this area. Staffing shortfalls have continued to be a problem. Firefighters are often moved to other stations, and the control room has gone below the minimum number of staff required. Some staff haven’t received the training they need to do their jobs, and non-operational staff can’t access the full range of training available to operational staff. Training in equality, diversity and inclusion has also been inconsistent. We recognise that the pandemic has affected face-to-face training, but the service still needs to do more.

The service also needs to improve its processes for addressing bullying and harassment, and for making its recruitment and promotion processes fair and open. It has made some improvements in increasing diversity at all levels of the organisation – it has identified parts of the recruitment process which could be a potential barrier to female or BAME applicants and is addressing these appropriately. However, staff do not always understand the service’s positive action initiatives.

Overall, the service has made good progress in some areas relating to how it deals with its workforce, but some areas still need improvement.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Good

Avon Fire and Rescue Service is good at promoting the right values and culture.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service was inadequate in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have positive and inclusive cultures, modelled by the behaviours of their senior leaders. Health and safety should be effectively promoted, and staff should have access to a range of wellbeing support that can be tailored to their individual needs.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that managers are appropriately trained and understand the wellbeing provisions available to them and wider staff.
  • The service should assure itself that managers are appropriately trained to manage staff absence.

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

The service has effectively communicated its values and behaviours to all staff

It is encouraging to see the extensive progress which the service has made in communicating its values and behaviours throughout the wider workforce. This was highlighted as part of a cause of concern in 2018. The service worked with staff to develop its new values and behaviour framework. It now has well-defined values which are understood by staff. Of staff who responded to our survey, 99 percent (275 out of 277) said they are aware of the service’s statement of values.

In our previous inspection, we identified as an area for improvement that the service should assure itself that senior and middle managers visibly act as role models. The service has since published its leadership charter, which sets out expectations of leaders at all levels. The senior leaders have engaged regularly with staff. Staff told us they appreciated the two-way communication that has taken place. They told us that the behaviours of both their colleagues and line managers were reflective of the service’s values. Of the respondents to the staff survey, 81 percent (224 out of 275) said that their line managers consistently model and maintain the service values. This figure was 87 percent (239 out of 275) for colleagues. And 80 percent (221 out of 277) said they were treated with dignity and respect at work.

The service has good wellbeing provisions in place

In our last inspection, the service received a cause of concern related to looking after the wellbeing and mental health of its staff. We are pleased to report that significant progress has been made in this respect. The service has wellbeing policies in place for staff, which are well understood and effective. Of the respondents to our staff survey, 95 percent (264 out of 277) reported they can access services to support their mental wellbeing. The service has provided some staff with mental health first aid training which has been well received.

A good range of wellbeing provisions are available to support both physical and mental health. For example:

  • specialist trauma practitioners, who are trained to help people who have experienced a traumatic (or potentially traumatic) event;
  • blue light champions and family liaison officers; and
  • access to Red Poppy, an external workplace counselling service – staff who had used this service spoke highly of it.

Following feedback from staff, the service has introduced dedicated outdoor wellbeing spaces. Firefighters were pivotal in creating these spaces and continue to maintain them. Staff told us they valued having this wellbeing area.

Despite the good wellbeing provisions in place, some managers told us they weren’t always confident in providing wellbeing support to their teams as they haven’t been provided with the appropriate training. This may result in some staff not receiving regular wellbeing conversations. Our staff survey showed that 47 percent of respondents (131 out of 277) only had two or fewer wellbeing conversations with their line manager each year.

There is a clear approach to health and safety

The service takes a good approach to health and safety. There are clear policies for lone workers, managing secondary contracts, risk assessments, and fitness testing. The service provides health and safety training to all its staff as part of their induction. We sampled training records, which showed most firefighters received training in manual handling (lifting, carrying or moving anything using your hands or body). The service monitors health and safety trends in various ways, including through local performance monitoring and at senior leadership meetings.

Our staff survey shows that 87 percent of staff (242 out of 277) feel their personal safety and welfare is treated seriously at work, while 98 percent (271 out of 277) said the service has clear procedures to report all accidents, near misses, and dangerous occurrences. Staff and their representative bodies have confidence in the health and safety approach taken by the service.

We did find that the number of health and safety incidents has increased in the last year and not all staff receive refresher training in health and safety. The service could benefit from reviewing its health and safety policy, as we found this had passed its review date.

The service has effective absence management processes in place

As part of our inspection, we reviewed some case files where staff were absent for more than 28 days. We considered how the service manages and supports staff through absence, including sickness, parental and special leave. We found these cases were managed well – centrally and in accordance with policy.

The service’s policy states that a return-to-work interview will only take place for staff who are absent for four days or more. We recognise that a trial is being carried out where a welfare check will take place for staff who are absent for less than four days. But the service needs to assure itself that managers are discussing absences with staff regardless of how long they are absent from work, in line with its own policy.

We did find that most managers we spoke to hadn’t been provided with the appropriate training in how to manage staff absence. With the lack of training, the service may not be tailoring the extra support that could be provided to the individual.

The service records the reason for all absences, which enables it to monitor any trends. Overall, the service saw a decrease in overall staff absences for wholetime firefighters, fire control and non-operational staff over the 12 months between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Requires improvement

Avon Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at getting the right people with the right skills.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have workforce plans in place that are linked to their integrated risk management plans, set out their current and future skills requirements, and address capability gaps. This should be supplemented by a culture of continuous improvement that includes appropriate learning and development across the service.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place a credible succession plan, for the whole organisation.
  • The service should assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained for their role.

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

The service should improve its approach to succession planning

In our previous inspection, we identified as an area for improvement the fact that the service should put in place a credible succession plan for the whole organisation. There hasn’t been enough progress in this area as the succession plan is still in draft.

We recognise the pandemic has affected the service’s ability to recruit for additional posts. However, firefighters told us that they are regularly deployed to other fire stations across the service at the start of their shift, as there aren’t enough staff to crew the fire engines. This was a frustration, as the firefighters felt that they were missing out on training and development opportunities with their team. We also found that fire control went below the minimum staffing levels on many occasions. The service would benefit from having a succession plan for the whole organisation.

The service does some workforce planning, such as forecasting future retirements, but needs to do more. For example, the departmental heads are responsible for planning their own respective areas. But the human resources team still isn’t always included in the succession planning process, as was identified in the last inspection.

The service would benefit from ensuring a clearer link between its service plan and the organisation’s strategic overview of succession planning. We found limited evidence that the service’s planning allows it to fully consider workforce skills and overcome any gaps in capability. For example, each departmental manager plans the training needs for the current financial year, but most don’t plan beyond this period.

The service needs to improve the way it understands the training needs of its workforce

The service should make sure that all staff are appropriately trained for their role. We were disappointed to find that some staff told us they haven’t received the appropriate training for their roles for several years. For example, it has been more than three years since some operational staff received training in carrying out home fire safety visits (HFSVs), or how to gather risk information. Most managers that we spoke to hadn’t received the appropriate training in how to resolve workforce concerns or how to conduct a performance development review. The service rightly recognises this, and some middle managers are now receiving management training. But the appropriate training should be provided to all managers across the service.

The service carries out most of its risk-critical training for operational staff well. We found good systems in place to make sure managers take responsibility for maintaining their team’s critical competencies. Monthly performance data is provided which allows them to scrutinise and monitor training records. The service has introduced a training planner. The operational staff we spoke to were positive about this as it allows them to see what training is planned at least three months in advance.

However, we found that incident commanders would benefit from having a continuous professional development plan as they don’t receive regular training in between the two-yearly assessments. We also found that fire control staff should be provided with refresher fire survival guidance training, as this is only provided when they first start their jobs. The service has identified this as part of its Grenfell action plan.

There are inconsistencies in the way staff undertake learning and development

We found that non-operational staff feel there is a lack of equality between operational and non-operational staff in what learning and development they can access. For example, they told us they can only undertake specialist courses that are specific to their roles. Operational staff can participate in a wide range of learning and development, but this is not always available to non-operational staff. In the staff survey, 28 percent (77 out of 277) of staff told us they were not satisfied with the learning and development available to them.

There is a structure in place for operational staff to follow to further develop themselves. For example, supervisory managers must complete an Institution of Occupational Safety and Health qualification. They must also complete the relevant technical papers to be considered for promotion.

During the inspection, we also found that the learning created from operational debriefs isn’t always available to staff, so they aren’t able to continually learn from incidents or training exercises that have taken place.

The service adapted how it provides learning and development during the pandemic, including the use of virtual platforms. However, some staff felt that the level of learning and development available to them had decreased during this time.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Avon Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service was inadequate in its 2018/19 assessment.

Creating a more representative workforce will provide huge benefits for fire and rescue services. This includes greater access to talent and different ways of thinking, and improved understanding of and engagement with their local communities. Each service should make sure that equality, diversity and inclusion are firmly embedded and understood across the organisation. This includes successfully taking steps to remove inequality and making progress to improve fairness, diversity and inclusion at all levels within the service. It should proactively seek and respond to feedback from staff and make sure any action taken is meaningful.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure that it has effective grievance procedures. It should identify and implement ways to improve staff confidence in the grievance process.
  • The service should make sure that its bullying, harassment and discrimination policy is up to date and is understood by all staff.
  • The service should make sure it has robust processes in place to undertake equality impact assessments and review any actions agreed as a result.
  • The service should make sure that all staff understand the benefits of equality, diversity and inclusion, and their role in promoting it.

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

The service has made progress in equality, diversity, and inclusion, but more needs to be done

In our previous inspection, we identified as a cause of concern that the service should act immediately to change staff behaviours. We also highlighted the need for all staff to understand equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) principles. The service recognises that it needs to make sure all staff receive meaningful EDI training, as we found this is inconsistent across the service. The service provided face-to-face EDI training to most senior and middle managers, but we found that most staff we spoke to hadn’t received this training. We recognise the pandemic has affected face-to-face training. The service has refreshed its e-learning package, but staff who received this training told us it was ineffective.

The service has introduced a variety of EDI initiatives, such as wrapping fire engines with key messages. Some initiatives haven’t always received initial support from staff. And without a clear strategy or evaluation mechanism in place, it was difficult to understand how effective they had been. The service should continually engage with staff and network groups.

Following our last inspection, the service introduced processes for involving staff and seeking feedback. One of these is the staff engagement network, which provides the opportunity for staff to give any feedback or suggest improvements on any matters in relation to their work. It is run and chaired by staff, and a senior leader attends who can provide extra support to the network when required. We spoke to some staff who were members of the network. They were enthusiastic about it and the way it is helping the service make positive change.

The service has a process in place to carry out equality impact assessments. However, these were not always completed. Therefore, the impact on each of the protected characteristics wasn’t being properly assessed or dealt with. More could be done to engage with both internal and external networks to inform this. The service recognises this is an area it could improve, and the equality impact assessment process is currently being reviewed.

The service must do more to instil confidence in the bullying, harassment and discrimination process

In our previous inspection, we identified as an area for improvement the fact that the service should have an effective grievance process in place. We found some progress in this area, but more work is required. We were disappointed to find that the grievance policy was last published in January 2007, and there hasn’t been any meaningful review since then.

The service could go further to improve staff understanding of bullying, harassment and discrimination, including its responsibilities for eliminating it. We found that the bullying and harassment policy had also passed its review date and was last updated in September 2015.

In our staff survey, 18 percent (49 out of 277) of respondents told us they had been subject to bullying or harassment. Of those, 78 percent (38 out of 49) said the bullying or harassment was by someone senior to them. We were surprised to find that approximately half of these respondents hadn’t reported it, mostly because they thought nothing would happen. Twenty-five percent of respondents (68 out of 277) told us they had been subject to discrimination over the past 12 months; of these, only 19 percent (5 out of 27) felt their concerns had been properly dealt with.

In the absence of any clear policies, staff will not have the confidence to report any bullying, harassment or discrimination concerns. We recognise that updated policies are in the consultation stage before being published, but more could be done to prioritise this.

The service is continuing to improve its workforce diversity

The service has made some improvements in increasing diversity at all levels of the organisation. For firefighter recruitment specifically, 16 percent of all new recruits since 2018 have been women and 16 percent from a BAME background. This is an improvement from previous years. Of the service’s entire workforce, 17 percent are women and 2 percent are BAME.

Positive action initiatives are carried out to promote roles across the service. However, these are not always understood by the workforce. Staff would benefit from understanding what positive action is as part of their EDI training.

The service is continuing to learn from its firefighter recruitment campaigns and evaluates each stage. It has identified that some female and BAME applicants didn’t hold a driving licence, which was a requirement of the recruitment process. This requirement has now been removed from future recruitment campaigns to encourage more female and BAME applicants to apply to become firefighters.

We were pleased to see the service has reviewed its fire stations to make sure they have appropriate facilities for all staff. As a result, the service created new changing facilities at Weston-Super-Mare Fire Station. Some stations have been prioritised for refurbishment or redevelopment. In our staff survey, 95 percent (261 out of 275) of respondents told us they have access to gender-appropriate workplace facilities.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

Avon Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at managing performance and developing leaders.

Avon Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have robust and meaningful performance management arrangements in place for their staff. All staff should be supported to meet their potential and there should be a focus on developing high-potential staff and improving diversity in leadership roles.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should improve all staff understanding and application of the performance development review process.
  • The service should make sure its selection, development and promotion of staff is open and fair.

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

The service should make sure its performance development reviews are meaningful

The service is carrying out a review of its performance development review (PDR) process to make it more relevant to staff. But the service has not made enough progress in this area, which we identified as an area for improvement during our 2018 inspection. Most staff we spoke to had received an annual PDR, but not all staff found it meaningful. In the staff survey, 40 percent (103 out of 257) of respondents said they don’t find the PDR useful. We found that managers hadn’t received the appropriate training in how to conduct the PDR. This may prevent it from being effective.

The service should make sure that staff have confidence in the promotions process

In our previous inspection, we raised as an area for improvement the fact that the service should make sure its promotions process is consistent and fair. It has made some progress in this area. For example, HR is represented on interview panels, and a transfer, appointments and promotions panel for operational staff has been introduced. The service has also introduced a new promotions policy, but it is heavily focused on operational roles.

From the files we sampled, we didn’t find the promotions process consistent for all roles across the service. For example, we found the HR function wasn’t always involved in all aspects of the shortlisting and selection process of senior leadership roles.

We also found that there is no pass mark for interviews of operational staff. The service recognises this and will be introducing one.

Most staff we spoke to didn’t have confidence in the promotions process. Some felt that middle managers weren’t consistent when applying the promotions policy. The staff survey showed that 56 percent (156 of 277) of respondents disagreed that the promotions process is fair.

The service has invested in developing leaders

In our previous inspection, we identified as an area for improvement that the service should improve its talent management process and identify talented individuals who could be future leaders. The service has now invested in a range of leadership programmes. These include training by the Institute of Leadership & Management:

  • level 3: for aspiring leaders;
  • level 5: for middle managers; and
  • level 6 and 7: bachelor’s and master’s degree level.

The service doesn’t have a specific talent management process. But during our inspection, the service published its ‘development pathway’, which provides a career structure for all roles, including non-operational staff. We look forward to seeing how this develops in the future.

The service knows it needs to go further to increase workforce diversity in middle and senior management roles. Plans are in place to address this. The service has subscribed to the Springboard and Stepping Up programmes. These aim to unlock potential and develop talent, and are aimed at women, BAME staff, and staff with disabilities.