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Buckinghamshire 2021/22

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This is HMICFRS’s third assessment of fire and rescue services. This assessment examines the service’s effectiveness, efficiency and how well it looks after its people. It is designed to give the public information about how their local fire and rescue service is performing in several important areas, in a way that is comparable with other services across England.

The extent to which the service is effective at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks requires improvement.

The extent to which the service is efficient at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks requires improvement.

The extent to which the service looks after its people requires improvement.

Matt Parr, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services

HMI summary

It was a pleasure to return to Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service and I am grateful for the positive way the service connected with our inspection. I want to thank the service for working with us by accommodating the virtual approach of this inspection. Inspections would normally be conducted using a hybrid approach but inspecting against the backdrop of the pandemic meant we had to inspect virtually. I also want to recognise the disruption caused by the pandemic. This has been considered in our findings.

Since there was a gap of only 18 months between our first and latest inspections and much of the intervening time was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t surprising that many of our findings are like those in our first report.

The service has worked hard to address the cause of concern from our 2019 inspection about whether its resources can meet its unique model of operational response. It has increased its capacity to meet its public safety plan and so this cause of concern has been closed.

We are encouraged by the service’s work to improve value for money, but we still have concerns about the service’s funding model as its limited reserves are being used to supplement funding of its response functions.

The service operates an innovative, flexible and graduated approach to operational resourcing, designed to cover low level daily demand and infrequent high risk. It knows it needs 12 immediately available fire engines to deal with normal daily demand. There are 19 stations throughout the county with 30 fire engines: the leading 12 fire engines are located to deal with typical incidents. The service plans to increase the number of fire engines and staff when needed for an unprecedented incident, or if several incidents happen at the same time.

There are, therefore, a further 18 fire engines in readiness to resource this 1 percent of occasions. These additional crews are available on ‘delayed turnout’ of 20 minutes, 60 minutes or up to 3 hours and can be called upon to respond to incidents or provide cover arrangements. They have, by design, low availability and although may not cost too much to run on an annual basis, at some stage the little-used stations and fire engines will need capital investment.

Moreover, the daily demand is met by a mixture of current (but reducing) on-call staff, and wholetime staff conducting extra ‘bank’ shifts. We believe it would be a very significant challenge to crew all the additional fire engines it holds should a major incident occur.

The service needs to prioritise how it identifies and works to reduce risk and communicate this to the public. Focus on improving its prevention work is especially important.

Staff are committed to the service and feel pride in the work they do. Many staff, however, feel overworked and under pressure, which negatively affects their productivity and morale. Support for staff, especially under-represented groups, could be better. The service needs to do more to provide a fair, diverse and inclusive place to work.

The service is a valued member of its local resilience forum, through which it worked well with other emergency services and local government to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its support to vaccination centres and community health agencies continues. It functioned well during the pandemic and did a good job of working with its staff in this difficult period.

We look forward to seeing the service build on the improvements it has already made to address these important areas where work is clearly needed.

Effectiveness

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.

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

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service is a small and tightly resourced service. Staff work hard to keep people safe and secure. But the service doesn’t have clear processes for prioritising its work. This means that it is not always focused on areas of highest risk and is less effective than it should be.

The service’s integrated risk management plan (for 2020–25) doesn’t explore the broad range of community risks in enough detail. The information the plan uses to identify risks is more limited than it used in its previous plans. And for those risks that it does identify, it doesn’t lay out what the possible impacts of the risks are or how it intends to use its prevention, protection and response functions to address them. Accordingly, our assessment of this specific area has dropped from ‘good’ in our previous report to ‘requires improvement’.

We are particularly concerned about low productivity in the service’s prevention work. Staff in these teams told us that the system used to record their work is not fit for purpose, and we found little evidence of managerial oversight. We are particularly disappointed that the management of fire and wellness visits hasn’t improved, given that this was raised in our previous inspection.

The service has an innovative approach for resourcing its response functions. It is based on the risks it has identified in the integrated risk management plan and on extensive research to identify patterns of demand, which it uses its engines and response staff flexibly to meet. It has increased its capacity and the availability of its immediate response fire engines since our first inspection. Accordingly, our assessment of this specific area has improved from ‘requires improvement’ in our first report to ‘good’.

The service has done a good job of anticipating and planning for possible major risks and threats it may face – not just in its own service area, but also in neighbouring areas where it might be asked to respond in an emergency. It works well with the other two Thames Valley fire and rescue services, sharing information up to 10 km across borders, and is a valued member of the local resilience forum (LRF). It regularly carries out planned exercises for major and multi-agency incidents, including mass casualty, mass evacuation, wildfire and flooding.

View the five questions for effectiveness

Efficiency

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

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

The service remains in a similar financial position as it was in our first inspection in 2019. Its lean operational response model, combined with an increase in capacity, has addressed our previous cause of concern. The service maintains its 12 immediately available fire engines on nearly all occasions; this is a significant improvement from our first inspection.

However, the response model is supported by spending from its reserves. The service hopes that its income will increase in the future, but it is not sufficiently addressing its current shortfalls to effectively allocate resource to risk. This gives us concerns about whether the service’s model, and in particular its 18 additional resilience fire engines, are long-lasting over time.

This model is having negative effects on staff throughout the service. Staff are working hard to do what they can within the resources they have, but some teams are overstretched and aren’t getting the support they need to do their work effectively, improve their processes, increase productivity and develop their careers.

These concerns are acknowledged by the service, but the lack of a clear plan for improving this situation is leading to staff feeling frustrated and to low productivity in its statutory functions of prevention and protection. The service needs to improve this situation by setting clear priorities for what it wants to achieve with the resources it has to make the best use of them. It should also do more to use its existing collaborations and explore new opportunities.

View the two questions for efficiency

People

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

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

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

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s staff are committed to their work and are proud to work for the service. The service’s values are well defined and well understood and it did a good job of working with its staff during the pandemic. Despite this, there are some areas where it needs to improve.

We acknowledge that the service has fewer available opportunities for staff progression compared to other bigger services, but staff feel frustrated that prospects for developing their career and being promoted are limited. Some feel that their workloads are too great and are unsure about whether the service has any plans to deal with this in the future.

Equality, diversity and inclusion doesn’t appear to be a priority for the service. Its policies and action plans in this area are limited and it relies on its staff to keep themselves informed and resolve issues locally. It needs to do more to engage with both its equality, diversity and inclusion working group and with external networks to inform this area. It should particularly focus on its promotions process and how it develops future leaders. Accordingly, our assessment of this area has dropped from ‘good’ in our previous report to ‘requires improvement’.

View the four questions for people

Key facts – 2019/20

Service Area

723 square miles

Population

0.81m people
up4% local 5 yr change

Workforce

74% wholetime firefighters
26% on-call firefighters
0.40 per 1000 population local
0.57 national level
down18% local 5 yr change
down8% national 5 yr change

Assets

20 stations
30 fire engines

Incidents

2.5 fire incidents per 1000 population local
2.7 national
3.8 non-fire incidents per 1000 population local
3.1 national
4.0 fire false alarms per 1000 population local
4.1 national

Cost

£20.08 firefighter cost per person per year
£24.53 firefighter cost per person per year (national)

Judgment criteria