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Essex 2021/22

People

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Requires improvement

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

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

We are encouraged to find that the culture of the service is improving since our last inspection, as it continues to address previous failings. Senior leaders have been more visible to staff and are driving the change. But there is still lots more work to do, for example, the service needs to make sure that its values are fully embedded, and that staff feel able and supported to challenge unacceptable behaviour. The service must review the effectiveness of its policies and do more to tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination. More needs doing to improve support for victims and to remove barriers to reporting problems.

The service must do more to increase the diversity of its workforce. More work is needed to address disproportionality in recruitment and retention to make the workforce representative of the community.

Workforce planning must take full account of the skills and capabilities needed for the service to be able to meet the requirements of its IRMP. Staff need to be appropriately trained, particularly to carry out their managerial responsibilities, and should have easy access to resources. Staff in specialist roles should be afforded opportunities to undertake continuing professional development. The service doesn’t manage temporary promotions well. We found evidence of them being in place for longer than they should be.

The service should improve how it manages career pathways and make sure its processes to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders are open and fair.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at promoting the right values and culture.

Essex County 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 promoted effectively, 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 make sure all staff understand and demonstrate its values.
  • The service should monitor secondary contracts to make sure working hours are not exceeded.
  • The service should make sure that its absence/attendance procedures are consistently applied.

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

The culture is improving, but the service has more work to do

We are encouraged by the cultural improvements the service has made since our last inspection. The service has a clearly defined set of values, which are now more widely understood, but we found places where they are not fully embedded and we are keen to see sustained progress over the long term.

There is a better working culture in parts of the service, with staff more engaged in decisions that affect them. Staff in fire stations gave examples of the most senior leaders being more visible and listening to their concerns and suggestions.

The experiences of individuals at fire stations depend on the behaviours of others. We found that the service doesn’t always challenge unacceptable behaviours that aren’t in line with its values, and middle managers don’t always deal with problems as they arise. These include accounts of bullying. This affects staff wellbeing.

Staff told us there are still some divisions between different teams, such as between on-call and wholetime members of staff, and those who are operational and non-operational.

The service should make sure the right information and support is available to staff, so it empowers them to be confident to challenge negative behaviours when they happen.

The service needs to do more to make sure it effectively implements the new national Core Code of Ethics.

The service promotes mental and physical health and wellbeing

The service has effective wellbeing policies available to staff, who understand the policies well. A significant range of wellbeing support is available to support both physical and mental health. For example, the service offers trauma risk management following significant incidents. Support is available through line managers, occupational health, counselling and therapy, including cognitive behaviour training. The service also provides a mental health first aid course, fitness testing, medicals and health screening.

When pandemic restrictions meant some staff were working remotely, the service adopted a way of communicating with them digitally.

The service has Dignity at Work Champions, who offer peer support to staff. Not all staff were aware of this, but those who have used the support – and those who offer it as champions – spoke positively about the initiative.

Most staff understand and have confidence in the wellbeing support processes available. Of the respondents to our survey, 93 percent (340 of 366) told us they feel able to access services to support their mental wellbeing.

We found that managers understand the welfare arrangements for staff and can implement these when needed. In our survey, 80 percent (294 of 366) of respondents told us they had had a conversation about their health and wellbeing with their manager. The majority of these (251 of 294) have a conversation at least once a month. But this still leaves 20 percent of respondents who have not had a conversation at all.

Staff understand and have confidence in health and safety policies

The service continues to have effective health and safety policies and procedures, which staff understand well. It learns from health and safety events and has reporting and monitoring mechanisms.

These policies and procedures are readily available and promoted well to all staff. The service updates staff on health and safety issues through bulletins, which are now available through the pdrPro system (software for fire and rescue services).

Our survey showed that 92 percent (338 of 366) of respondents felt their personal safety and welfare were treated seriously at work. Representative bodies agree the service manages the health and safety of its staff well. Both staff and the representative bodies who replied to our survey have confidence in the service’s approach to health and safety.

A health and safety issue was raised by staff on several occasions that breathing apparatus communications are not as reliable or effective as they could be. This included reports of muffled sounds, interference and low range. The service should make sure its breathing apparatus communication equipment is fit for purpose and staff have confidence in it.

The service needs to make sure it adheres to working time regulations

During our last inspection, we found the service didn’t adequately oversee staff working hours. And there was a lack of reliable information about secondary employment. This is despite the service having a policy on working time restrictions for people employed on multiple contracts.

Secondary employment is low compared to other fire and rescue services. At 31 March 2021, 0.2 percent of wholetime firefighters had a dual contract with another service, 15.4 percent had a dual contract in Essex, and 6.6 percent had other external employment.

In this inspection, we found local managers were aware of the policy. But we are still not confident the service can be sure all staff are well rested and safe to work. It also needs to be sure it is adhering to the Working Time Regulations 1998.

The service manages and records absence inconsistently

The service must make sure it applies its absence management policy consistently. Staff and managers don’t widely understand the policy, and there is no equality impact assessment for it. The service needs to make sure it trains staff with absence management responsibilities so they can carry out their duties competently.

As part of our inspection, we analysed some case files to consider how the service manages and supports staff through absence. From those files, we found several inconsistencies in the way the service carries out and records return to work interviews, and in the way it records contact during absence.

The service actively monitors sickness absence trends, and human resources and managers now have a more collaborative approach to managing absence. In the year ending 31 March 2021, the number of days or shifts lost to long-term sickness was 28 percent lower than during the previous 12 months (8,223 compared to 11,467). The number of days or shifts lost to short-term sickness was 46 percent lower than during the previous year (2,631 compared to 4,896).

2

How well does the FRS get the right people with the right skills?

Requires improvement

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

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

Fire and rescue services should have a workforce plan in place that is linked to their IRMPs, sets out their current and future skills requirements and addresses capability gaps. They should supplement this with a culture of continuous improvement that includes appropriate learning and development throughout the service.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure its workforce plan takes full account of the necessary skills and capabilities to carry out the IRMP.
  • The service needs to assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained for their role. It needs to ensure all staff keep their skills up to date and have a consistent method of recording when they have received training.

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 it has the skills and capabilities it needs

The service does some workforce planning, but it doesn’t take full account of the skills and capabilities it needs to be able to meet the requirements of its IRMP. We found limited evidence that the service’s planning allows it to fully consider workforce skills and overcome any gaps in capability. For example, there are skills shortages in prevention and protection work, and limited training capacity for control staff.

Since our last inspection, the service has started using pdrPro, a system for managing workforce capabilities. It is introducing the system in phases. Information from before April 2021 is held in the Task system, which the service used before moving to pdrPro.

The service doesn’t manage temporary promotions well, and we found evidence of them being in place for longer than they should be. At 31 March 2021, 111 people were on temporary promotions. The average length of these temporary promotions was 420 days, with the longest being 1,812 days.

The service must make sure succession planning meets its needs and enables continuity in critical roles, including on-call staff. Recruitment, promotion and progression processes must be effective and carried out at the right pace. The service can’t yet be sure it has an accurate understanding of the skills and competence of all its staff.

The service needs to improve its culture of learning and development

Although the service provides some learning and development, it doesn’t always meet the needs of staff or indeed the service. For example, there is no formal exercise programme for control staff and senior officers.

There aren’t good enough processes in place to let staff access the resources they need to do their job well. The service provides general information inconsistently, meaning staff don’t always have access to it. Some staff in specialist roles (both operational and non-operational) say they struggle to maintain competence and carry out continuing professional development for their areas of expertise.

The training records we reviewed showed the service is planning and recording risk‑critical operational training. But the service doesn’t have a consistent approach to training staff in their managerial duties, such as safeguarding, equality, diversity and inclusion, and absence management.

The service introduced a Leadership, Resourcing and Succession process in early 2021. This includes assessments and individual development plans for staff working towards promotion. This process is new, and so far the take-up has mostly been by operational staff. At the time of our inspection, there were no examples of anyone having completed their development and progressing through to the resource pool for deployment to other roles.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and promote diversity?

Requires improvement

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

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service required improvement 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 equality, diversity and inclusion are firmly understood and demonstrated throughout the organisation. This includes successfully taking steps to remove inequality and making progress to improve fairness, diversity and inclusion at all levels of 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 issues identified through its staff survey are appropriately addressed and that actions taken are communicated to staff in a timely way.
  • The service should review how effective its policy on bullying, harassment and discrimination is in reducing unacceptable behaviour towards its staff.
  • The service should make improvements to the way it collects equality data to better understand its workforce demographic and needs.
  • To identify and tackle barriers to equality of opportunity, and make its workforce more representative, the service should ensure diversity and inclusion are well understood and become important values of the whole of the service.

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 continue improving how it seeks and acts on staff feedback and challenge

The service has made some progress in addressing the area for improvement established in 2019 relating to improving its engagement with staff. Senior leaders are keen to hear feedback from staff. The service does have some ways of gathering staff feedback, such as:

  • the staff survey;
  • independently run focus groups;
  • a portal the service used when it developed its values and behaviours;
  • staff networks; and
  • staff representative bodies.

But staff say they don’t feel well informed about outcomes or changes as a result of their feedback. In the staff survey, only 55 percent of staff felt confident in the feedback mechanisms.

We are pleased to find improvements in the way the service and representative bodies engage. It has developed a Working Well Together initiative and a Failure to Agree mechanism. There are also bi-monthly Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee meetings between service managers and local representative bodies.

The service must do more to tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination

The service has produced a new grievance policy since our last inspection. But it could go further to improve how well staff understand bullying, harassment and discrimination, including their own responsibilities for eliminating it. Staff told us there are still problems caused by senior colleagues, as well as a lack of support for victims and barriers to reporting. They also said the service doesn’t resolve issues quickly enough.

In our survey, 14 percent of respondents (53 staff members) told us they had been subject to bullying or harassment over the past year. And 25 percent (92 staff members) said they had been discriminated against in the same period. Out of those 92 people, 48 hadn’t reported the discrimination. Reasons they cited for not reporting this behaviour to the service included feeling like nothing would happen, and fear of victimisation and labelling.

Although the service does have clear policies and procedures, staff have limited confidence in its ability to deal effectively with cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination, as well as with grievances and discipline. In the survey, staff members reported the service took no action in 23 of 44 bullying and harassment cases that had been formally or informally raised with it. The service should review how effective its policies are.

The service needs to do more to address disproportionality in recruitment and retention

Senior leaders show willingness to make the workforce more representative. But the service’s limited equality data means it hasn’t yet made enough progress in improving both race and gender diversity throughout the service.

We found that the service has directed recruitment campaigns at under-represented groups. For example, it has information on a dedicated recruitment site with case studies and videos to promote and improve the diversity of the workforce. As well as general virtual Q&A sessions with local people, it has also held some sessions specifically for women and members of the community from ethnic minority backgrounds. A recent diversity review has produced recommendations on how the service can improve.

At 31 March 2020, only 2.5 percent of staff members stated their ethnicity as from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to 6.8 percent of the local population. Also at 31 March 2020, 16 percent of staff members declared as female, as did 4.2 percent of firefighters. At 31 March 2020, 44.8 percent of staff hadn’t declare their ethnicity, so the service couldn’t fully understand its diversity. We are pleased to see that data for 31 March 2021 shows this value has decreased to 24.2 percent.

The service needs to encourage applicants from diverse backgrounds into middle and senior-level positions. It isn’t making the most of opportunities to make its workforce more representative. This was an area for improvement from our last inspection, and it remains after this inspection. The service could make better use of exit interviews to understand why staff leave the organisation. It could then learn from this.

The service must keep improving its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion

The service must make sure the workforce understands how it should continue to embed equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It should ensure it can offer the right services to its communities, and that it can support staff with protected characteristics.

Equality data has improved since our last inspection, but it is still not as complete as it could be, so the service still doesn’t have a good understanding of EDI issues. Since our last inspection, it has started assessing equality impact through its people impact assessments. But it doesn’t always properly assess or act on the impact on people with protected characteristics. The service hasn’t completed people impact assessments for many of its main policies yet. It could be engaging more with internal and external networks to guide this work.

So it can improve its approach to EDI, the service must make sure staff, particularly managers, are competent, skilled and willing to challenge negative behaviours and inappropriate use of language. The service has tried to improve its communication to the workforce, and it launched a monthly newsletter called Inclusion Insights in April 2021. Also, specific staff networking groups feed into the Inclusion and Diversity Action Group, which is chaired by the chief fire officer.

The service has networking forums for under-represented groups. These are actively used to contribute to issues such as recruitment, retention, and development.

But we found there are still examples of people reporting being treated unfairly, including those with protected characteristics. Staff cite a lack of managerial action in some of these cases.

The service hasn’t clearly set EDI training requirements in policy, and it can’t be sure managers are competent in identifying issues and responding well when they arise.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

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

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service was good 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 staff and improving diversity into leadership roles.

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.

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 a good individual performance management process

There is a good performance management system in place, which allows the service to effectively develop and assess the individual performance of all staff. Staff have annual appraisals with a six-monthly review. We are pleased to see there has been an increase in the number of completed appraisals since our last inspection. The figure is now 79 percent for wholetime staff, 84 percent for on-call staff, 82 percent for control staff and 81 percent for support staff.

In our staff survey, 90 percent (329 of 366) of respondents reported that they have had a personal development review in the past 12 months, and 65 percent (213 of 329) of respondents felt that the reviews were meaningful. Staff feel confident in the service’s performance and development arrangements.

The service needs to ensure fairness in recruitment and promotion processes

The service needs to do more to make sure and demonstrate its recruitment and promotion processes are fair. Our analysis of promotion processes found the service carries out interviews and assessments in accordance with the selection criteria, and it records and retains information. But there is a distinct lack of staff confidence in promotion processes being applied consistently, and not all staff clearly understand career pathways and opportunities.

On-call supervisory managers can’t transfer on to the wholetime duty system at the same level. This means the service doesn’t make full use of these existing skills.

The service needs to improve how it develops leadership and high-potential staff

The service needs to improve how it actively manages the career pathways of staff, including those with specialist skills and those progressing to leadership roles.

The service has some talent management schemes in place to develop leaders and high-potential staff, such as the Leadership, Resourcing and Succession process, but it needs to improve the accessibility of these schemes. For example, there aren’t enough ways of identifying and removing barriers for people with specific learning needs. This has resulted in inconsistencies, and it undermines staff perception of fairness in the processes.

The service should consider putting in place more formal arrangements to identify and support members of staff to become senior leaders. There is a significant gap in its succession planning. This area for improvement, established in our last inspection, still needs to be addressed.

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