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Northumberland 2021/22

People

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

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Overall, Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

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

We were pleased to see the service has recently made changes to improve its culture. We look forward to seeing the full benefit of these once they are established.

The service has got better at ensuring it has the right people with the right skills. But it still has work to do in this area.

It needs to keep improving its understanding of equality and diversity. And it needs to do more to engage its staff. It also has work to do in developing leaders and managing talent.

Overall, the service is moving in the right direction to improve how it looks after its people.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

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

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service required improvement 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.

Cause of concern

The management of dual contracts, for staff working on-call and wholetime in the service, must be improved.

Recommendations

By 31 March 2022, the service should:

  • review its current arrangements for managing the working time of staff who are both on-call and wholetime;
  • make sure that arrangements for staff working on dual contracts meet statutory requirements for health, safety, welfare and wellbeing; and
  • make sure staff take appropriate breaks between on-call and wholetime commitments for personal welfare and appliance availability.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure all staff understand and demonstrate the service values.
  • The service should assure itself that arrangements for maintenance of competence for managers who carry out health and safety risk assessments are effective

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

The service needs to continue to improve culture and behaviours

The values of the service are those of the county council.

During inspection, we found a good understanding of these values. Our staff survey reflected this: 98 percent of staff stated they were aware of them.

Our staff survey also showed that 85 percent of staff believe they are treated with dignity at work. It showed that 90 percent of staff believed line managers consistently modelled service values. These results were consistent with most of what we heard from staff during our inspection.

We were consistently told that there had been improvements in culture within the past 12 months. But most staff believed further improvements were needed and expected.

Staff also told us that some senior managers had not always acted as role models for service values. This was also reflected in our staff survey, with 22 percent stating senior leaders did not consistently model service values.

It was clear from our inspection that the service has identified culture and behaviours as a priority. We saw good evidence of efforts to improve in these areas. These improvements are set out in the new people strategy.

The service needs to continue to improve its culture and the behaviours of leaders and managers, as we originally found in our inspection in 2019.

Good provision for mental and physical wellbeing

The service continues to have effective wellbeing policies and practices for staff. There is a significant range of wellbeing support for both physical and mental health. For example, staff have access to occupational health services through a county council contract with the NHS.

Most staff had a good understanding and confidence in the wellbeing support available. They shared with us positive experiences of support.

But some staff had limited appreciation of the clinical-based approach now adopted by occupational health. The service could do more to help the workforce understand this approach to health and wellbeing.

Positive health and safety engagement

The service continues to have effective and well-understood health and safety policies and procedures. The service told us that in the previous quarter it had reported 3 accidents and 11 near misses. We took this as evidence of a positive reporting culture.

The service data return for 2019/20 shows the service had only one workplace injury that was reportable under the regulations for reporting of injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences.

Health, safety and welfare policies and procedures are readily available and effectively promoted to all staff. Both the Fire Brigades Union and the Fire Officers’ Association reported that the service manages the health and safety of staff well. And it usually consults and engages with them on health and safety problems, and risk assessments. Both staff and representative bodies have confidence in the health and safety approach taken by the service.

During the inspection, we were told that managers who carry out risk assessments are trained and qualified to the Managing Safely® award, accredited by the Institution of Safety and Health. We were also told that staff do not have to complete a three-year re-qualification of this award, as it is not a statutory requirement for showing maintenance of competence.

The service should assure itself that it has suitable and sufficient arrangements for maintaining the competence of staff who assess health and safety risks.

Positive absence management but record keeping needs to improve

As part of our inspection, we reviewed some case files to consider how the service manages and supports staff through absence, including sickness, parental and special leave.

We found clear processes to manage absences for all staff. There is clear guidance for managers, who were confident in the process. Absences are generally managed well and in accordance with policy. We found evidence that managers were supporting the return to work of staff absent due to ill health or injury. For example, they maintain contact with staff and take advice from occupational health.

But we also found that managers were not always recording the content of discussions. This makes it harder for the service to monitor and evaluate absence management.

Overall, the service has seen an increase in staff absences over the 12 months from 2019/20 (1,602 shifts lost) to 2020/21 (1,918 shifts lost). Of this, the service told us that 146 lost shifts (46 percent of the increase) were linked to COVID-19 related absences.

Management of staff with more than one contract

During inspection, we saw that 18 percent of wholetime staff have a dual contract for both wholetime and on-call. This is lower than the average of 24 percent for England. And 25 percent of wholetime staff have a secondary contract of employment outside the service.

Staff and line managers told us that it was not unusual for some staff with on-call and wholetime dual contracts to report for their wholetime duties late and/or tired because they had been deployed in their on-call capacity before their wholetime shift. This appeared to be particularly prevalent at the start of a day shift when staff had been on call the night before.

We are concerned that arrangements for managing rest periods between on-call and wholetime commitments are neither suitable nor sufficient. The service needs to address this issue as a priority.

2

How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Requires improvement

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

Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service required improvement 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 assure itself that control staff are appropriately trained for their role.
  • The service should make sure its workforce plan takes full account of the necessary skills and capabilities to carry out the IRMP.

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

Workforce planning needs to improve

Since our last inspection, we have seen improvements to the recording, monitoring and delivery of risk-critical training. This is now a priority for the service.

The service does some workforce planning. But it is not clear how this takes full account of the skills and capabilities it needs to meet the needs of its IRMP. We found limited evidence that the service’s planning allows it to fully consider workforce skills and overcome capability gaps. For example, the service’s people strategy makes six commitments, including one to development and education. But there are no timescales for implementing these promises about work that should already be in place.

The service has identified itself that it must further improve its succession planning and how it considers future needs. The service has committed, within its own people strategy, to develop a service-wide succession planning and talent management framework. But it has not set a date for achieving this or measuring progress.

There is a system in place to review workforce capabilities. But it was unclear how this is linked to a training needs analysis to ensure the annual training planner aligns to the IRMP and is properly funded. For example, we heard how the service had no plans to train more on-call firefighters until February 2022, even though it has vacancies at stations.

For a service that is reliant on on-call firefighters, we were surprised to see how reactive it is to on-call training requirements. This training could be planned in advance.

Staff learning and development needs to improve

During inspection, we saw how the new people strategy aims to improve the service’s approach to learning and development, and to create consistent standards. We also saw improvements to the training and recording of risk-critical skills. This includes those needed by incident commanders; breathing apparatus skills; and emergency response driving.

Current arrangements for learning and development lacked the standard of consistency and quality assurance of an established competency-based framework.

This was especially evident with staff in the control room. The service’s own improvement action plan highlighted (as recently as June 2021) that plans to develop a competence framework need further attention.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

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

Northumberland 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 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 assure itself that staff are confident using its feedback mechanisms, including the grievance process.
  • 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 identify and overcome barriers to equal opportunity, so that its workforce better represents its community. This includes making sure staff understand the value of positive action and having a diverse workforce.

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

More improvements to act on staff feedback and challenge

In our 2019 inspection report, we said that the service needed to improve mechanisms for staff to give feedback safely and confidently to managers and leaders. The service still needs to improve these mechanisms.

At the time of inspection, we heard from staff that the new staff forum, Fire away, was a welcome improvement. This is a sign that the service is moving in a positive direction with staff engagement.

But the forum is relatively new. The only evidence of its use that we saw was a single example about the use of name badges.

From what we observed, the service is making progress with staff engagement. But it needs more time to build staff confidence and show there has been real change.

Understanding of equality and diversity needs to improve

The service has a process for equality impact assessments. At the time of inspection, we saw that the process does not properly assess the impact on each of the protected characteristics. So the service does not have a good enough understanding of its impact on equality.

The service could better inform this activity by engaging more with both internal and external networks. Networks available through the county council include LGBTQ+, menopause, carers, and race equality.

All staff within Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service have access to county council staff support groups for people with protected characteristics. But at the time of inspection, there was no mechanism for the service to get feedback from these groups. So it might not have a perfect understanding of the issues being raised.

The service could do more to encourage staff to engage with these support groups. And it could do more to understand the issues being discussed and raised.

More needed to overcome barriers to improve the diversity of the workforce

The service needs to do more to increase staff diversity. And it needs to do more to ensure diversity and inclusion are well understood and established, as reported in our 2019 inspection.

Since 2017/18, no new joiners to the service self-declared as being from a BAME background. In the same period, 16.7 percent of new joiners declared themselves female.

For firefighter recruitment specifically, 10.3 percent of all new recruits were female and none were recorded from a BAME background.

In the whole service’s workforce, 0.7 percent are recorded as BAME and 16 percent female. As of 2020, 0.8 percent of firefighters are recorded as BAME and 7.7 percent of all firefighters are female.

The service has a slightly higher proportion of female firefighters than the national average – 7.7 percent compared with an England average of 7.0 percent. But the actual number of wholetime female firefighters has not grown in real terms since 2015/16. It has fluctuated between 13 and 14.

Recruitment campaigns aren’t sufficiently directed at, or accessible to, under‑represented groups. The service isn’t leading change in this area to increase the diversity of its workforce. We saw evidence that attempts to recruit women during a recent wholetime recruitment campaign were limited in scope and ambition. We understand measures to control the spread of COVID-19 meant positive action events needed to be modified. But we saw limited effort to target under-represented groups and campaigns did not challenge barriers to recruitment into the service.

Barriers to open and fair recruitment and promotion need to be challenged and overcome

Overall, our inspection found that most staff had trust and confidence in processes for recruitment and promotion, including some who had been unsuccessful. It was also good to see that two recent senior staff appointments were made from outside the service. This shows the promotion process is open.

Disappointingly, we saw the service doesn’t ordinarily recruit on-call staff into wholetime roles above the role of firefighter. We cannot understand why it would exclude on-call staff from applying for operational roles at, or above, the level they are working at in their on-call capacity. This is an area of recruitment and promotion where we found part-time workers to be treated less favourably than wholetime workers. This position is also inefficient. It means that trained and qualified crew and watch managers must join wholetime as firefighters and repeat the development process through wholetime positions.

Tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination

The service could go further to improve staff understanding of bullying, harassment and discrimination, including their responsibilities for eliminating it. Through our staff survey, 11 percent of staff told us they had been subject to bullying or harassment, and 13 percent to discrimination, over the past 12 months. Of these staff, 50 percent thought their concerns had been properly dealt with, and 50 percent thought it was too early to tell.

The service has clear policies and procedures for this. But staff have limited confidence that the formal processes deal with it safely and effectively. Our staff survey showed the biggest reason people did not report bullying, harassment or discrimination was because they feared being labelled a troublemaker.

Data provided by the service shows that only two grievances were submitted over the last two years. Some staff told us that informal procedures were preferred to the formal grievance process. But we found that informal outcomes were not recorded, and some staff lacked confidence in formal procedures.

Both the Fire Brigades Union and Fire Officers’ Association reported confidence in the formal grievance procedures. But the evidence shows they are not encouraging members to use this option.

The service needs to continue to educate staff and managers on bullying, harassment and discrimination. It needs to continue to build trust between staff and managers. Staff and managers also need a better understanding of formal ways to resolve grievances and to have trust and confidence in the grievance process.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

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

Northumberland 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 put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.
  • The service should assure itself that staff in management roles are trained in relevant leadership and management skills.

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

Positive line management conversations but room to improve

The performance management system allows the service to address performance, learning and development, and wellbeing of all staff. Overall, we heard more positive than negative comments about arrangements for conversations between staff and line managers. Encouragingly, we heard positive feedback on the new form that is used. Some described it as more people-centred.

For example, our staff survey found that 86 percent of staff have had a conversation about personal development with their line manager in the past 12 months, of which 69 percent found useful. Our staff survey also shows that 87 percent of staff have had a useful conversation about their performance with their line manager in the past 12 months. And it showed 83 percent of staff have had a useful conversation about their wellbeing in the past 12 months.

We were told that, in response to staff engagement, on-call firefighters receive group appraisals, although individual appraisals remain available on request. We think the service should do more to understand why on-call staff feel an individual appraisal is limited in value for them, rather than adopting a group appraisal as the preferred alternative.

More support required to develop future leaders

We are encouraged to see the service has actively opened a pathway for staff from a non-operational background to reach a senior position within the service. This makes the overall process more open and fair.

But the service needs to improve how it actively manages staff career pathways. This includes those with specialist skills and those for leadership roles.

The service has limited talent management schemes to develop leaders and high-potential staff. And these aren’t managed in a structured way that is open to evaluation. For example, the only process we heard any detail on was the assessment process to identify staff for future promotion. We didn’t see or hear how the assessment process identifies development needs and how these might be supported through a structured programme.

We heard how the service has access to mentoring schemes through the county council. But we saw no evidence of this being used to support staff development. Equally, we didn’t see evidence of other development tools and processes, such as peer support groups, action learning sets or shadowing of staff in senior roles, to gain a wider and deeper understanding of the service.

The service should consider more formal arrangements to identify and support members of staff to become senior leaders.

Leadership and management training need to improve

We saw an inconsistent approach to training and development of managers once staff adopt managerial roles.

We were told supervisory managers have access to a level 3 qualification in leadership and management, and middle managers have access to a level 5 qualification. But it was clear during inspection that access and support for these qualifications was not consistent. It was also unclear if this training was mandatory or optional.

Overall, we consider the development of leadership and management skills is an area for improvement.