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Oxfordshire 2021/22

People

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Good

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at looking after its people.

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

The service continues to have a very positive working culture. Staff feel valued and listened to. The behaviours it expects and the values it promotes are understood and displayed by nearly all staff.

The service still considers mental health and staff wellbeing to be a priority, and it tailors this to meet individual needs. It has effective and well-understood health and safety policies and procedures in place and promotes them to all staff. However, it could improve the way it monitors the working hours of those on dual contracts and how it manages staff absence, to make sure these are consistent.

The service promotes a positive learning culture, and has effective processes to record and monitor operational skills and competency. However, it should improve its provision of breathing apparatus training, and make sure staff are trained and assessed appropriately.

Staff networks drive EDI activity in the service. The service’s recruitment campaigns aim to increase the diversity of the workforce, although this approach hasn’t resulted in a significant change.

In our last inspection in 2019, we identified lack of appropriate uniforms as an area for improvement. The service has made good progress, providing staff with appropriate uniform.

However, the processes for managing staff performance and development aren’t consistently applied. And although the service has developed its processes for recruitment, promotion and progression, it needs to do more to improve opportunities for non-operational staff and to make sure that promotion processes are fair.

 

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Good

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

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was outstanding 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 monitor secondary contracts to make sure working hours are not exceeded.
  • The service should make sure it has effective absence/attendance monitoring procedures in place to ensure consistency across the service.

Innovative practice

The service has good provisions in place to promote staff wellbeing.

This includes ‘real talk, real people’ sessions which are open to all staff to take part in and have covered a range of topics including the menopause, post‑traumatic stress disorder and mental health concerns. Open and honest discussions about such topics, support staff to identify when they or the public experience these issues and know what they can do to help.

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 positive culture, and promotes positive behaviours and values

The service continues to have well-defined values that are understood by staff. In our staff survey, 94.8 percent (117 of 123) of respondents said they were aware of the service’s values. We saw behaviours that reflected this shown by staff in stations across the service. Staff described putting the community at the heart of what they do, and all have a positive view of the service. Work has been carried out to show how the service’s values align to the new national Core Code of Ethics.

Senior leaders act as role models, with 94.8 percent (117 of 123) of respondents to our staff survey agreeing or tending to agree that senior managers consistently model the service’s values. Staff also described being well supported by managers. They said they have a visible, approachable senior management team, and feel confident to raise concerns.

However, there were a few occasions when staff felt issues had not always been dealt with. They also feel that some middle managers don’t always display the service’s values. The service should make sure a consistent approach is taken by all managers.

There is a positive working culture throughout the service, with staff empowered and willing to challenge poor behaviours when they encounter them. Staff described situations when they had challenged inappropriate language or behaviours and felt well supported by the service. They described an open culture in which they are encouraged to challenge decisions and make innovative suggestions for change. For example, a new on-call forum has resulted in changes to training courses to better suit the needs of the on-call staff group.

Staff’s mental and physical health is well supported

The service continues to have well-understood and effective wellbeing policies in place that are available to staff. A significant range of wellbeing support is available to support both physical and mental health. For example, the service has an occupational health team, a confidential employee assistance programme, mental health first aiders, and promotes use of the Fire Fighters Charity.

After critical incidents, staff are given an immediate debrief. They described the caring approach taken by the service positively. The service considers staff wellbeing in its policies and procedures. For example, the dignity and harassment policy states that when harassment is disclosed the welfare of all parties involved should be considered. This includes the person who disclosed, the person alleged of doing the harassing, and the wider team.

There are good provisions in place to promote staff wellbeing. This includes a new mental health and wellbeing group which was set up to make sure the service is reviewing and updating its wellbeing offer. The group has introduced ‘real talk, real people’ sessions which all staff can take part in. It has covered a range of topics including the menopause, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health concerns. The sessions are led by a member of staff and sometimes include a guest speaker.

Most staff reported they understand and have confidence in the wellbeing support processes available. A survey conducted by the service showed that managers handled welfare concerns during COVID-19 well. Of those who responded to our staff survey, 96.7 percent (119 of 123) of respondents reported that they can access support services for their mental health, and 95.9 percent (118 of 123) said they felt confident that the service would give them support following an incident.

Where staff had discussed their health and wellbeing with their line manager, they often reported this being a useful conversation. But 22.7 percent (28 of 123) of staff responding to our staff survey said they had either never spoken to their manager about their health and wellbeing, or had done this less than once in a year. The service should make sure all line managers take a consistent approach to these conversations.

The health and safety culture within the service is positive

The service continues to have effective and well-understood health and safety policies and procedures in place. Staff conduct thorough safety critical checks of equipment and routinely report accidents and near misses. The service has a new accident investigation system which has helped it to find and investigate a problem with breathing apparatus. It worked with the manufacturer to resolve this.

The service has identified those staff who might be at risk when working alone and has given them a tracker on their mobile devices. Firefighters continue to take annual fitness tests and are supported to maintain a good standard of fitness.

The service’s policies and procedures are readily available and effectively promoted to all staff. The service makes sure staff are trained in health and safety principles, and in the completion of risk assessments. It has a quality assurance process for both.

Both staff and representative bodies have confidence in the service’s approach to health and safety. Of those who responded to the staff survey, 94.3 percent (116 of 123) said that they feel their personal safety and welfare is taken seriously at work. The representative body survey results agreed with this statement.

However, the service doesn’t actively monitor staff who have secondary employment or dual contracts. It should make sure that staff follow the secondary employment policy and don’t work excessive hours.

Station managers are responsible for monitoring working hours locally and there were inconsistencies in the approaches to this, so some staff don’t know if they are complying with the working time regulations and taking enough time to rest.

Absence isn’t consistently monitored within the service

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

The service has an absence policy, but it isn’t always widely understood by staff or managers. In the files we reviewed, we saw some inconsistent decisions made. We were told this was because of lack of clear guidance. Staff didn’t always follow policy, for example, there were inconsistent approaches to making decisions about when hearings may or may not take place.

The service has several systems in place to record absence. Short-term absence is managed locally by station and department managers. But in the current system there is no simple way to monitor how much cumulative time off staff have taken. This means staff who should be on performance improvement plans are not always being identified.

Overall, the service has seen a slight increase in long-term staff absences over the past 12 months. Some of these were COVID-19-related absences.

2

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

Requires improvement

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

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

Fire and rescue services should have a workforce plan in place that is linked to their integrated risk management plans, 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 it has the capacity to ensure staff are trained and assessed promptly in safety-critical skills, such as breathing apparatus.
  • The service should assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained for their role, especially where specialist skills are required to implement the CRMP.

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 process to monitor and plan its workforce requirements

The FRS has good workforce planning in place. Workforce and succession planning is subject to consistent scrutiny in the form of regular meetings to discuss requirements. An establishment group made up of senior managers meets monthly to review the service’s workforce profile and to plan for and anticipate changes, such as upcoming retirements. This makes sure staff skills and capabilities align with what is needed to effectively deliver the CRMP.

The service has a good process to monitor operational skills and capabilities

Operational staff told us that they could access the training they need to be effective in their role. The service’s training plans make sure staff can maintain competence and capability effectively. For example, all operational staff can use the maintenance of competency system to access current and understand future training opportunities.

The service plans to monitor staff competence over the next 8 years using a new 37‑module programme and a 4-year cycle of training courses, aligned to national operational guidance. These are stored, monitored, and updated on a centrally maintained database. We heard that, after some initial issues, staff are now happy with this new system. The expectation is for on-call staff to meet almost the same level of competency as wholetime firefighters, which can be difficult given the short training time attended by this staff group.

The service regularly updates its understanding of staff’s skills and risk-critical safety capabilities through the performance monitoring board and the establishment group. Regular training team meetings also let managers know if any skills are out of line with service expectations. Local managers can easily review staff competence and plan how to meet training needs through station-based training and exercises.

The service’s breathing apparatus training provision needs to improve

Although, the service has good monitoring processes for its workforce skills, it has gaps in its workforce capabilities and resilience. It is aware that there are a number of new on-call staff waiting to complete their assessment for breathing apparatus. Increased on-call recruitment, reduced numbers of staff able to attend a course during the pandemic, and changes in staffing in the training department who deliver and assess staff competency have contributed to this.

The pressures caused by staff waiting to attend breathing apparatus courses and assessments have resulted in the service having to run courses outside of its normal policy. As a matter of urgency, the service should consider innovative ways to make sure all its on-call staff can complete this risk-critical training without long delays.

The service promotes a positive learning and improvement culture

A culture of continuous improvements is promoted throughout the service and staff are encouraged to learn and develop. For example, staff must complete management and leadership courses as they progress in the service. Protection team staff complete appropriate qualifications for their work, and staff in the prevention team have monthly continuing professional development sessions.

All staff have regular refresher training in topics including safeguarding, health and safety, and EDI. Staff are also trained to use new IT, such as laptops.

We are pleased to see that the service has a range of resources in place. These include:

  • online e-learning packages;
  • face-to-face training delivery from internal staff or external specialists;
  • video and PowerPoint content; and
  • practical training courses both on and off site.

Some staff told us they can access this range of learning and development resources easily through the central ‘maintenance of competence’ system, annual training application processes, and the Fire Service College. This allows them to do their job effectively.

However, some staff require specialist training and this isn’t always easy to access. Staff, especially those in support roles, have to complete a training request form and may not be successful in the process. In our staff survey, 25.2 percent (31 of 123) of respondents said they didn’t have the same development opportunities as others in the service.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and promote diversity?

Good

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service was good 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.

Innovative practice

EDI is a priority for the service.

The service establishes a positive approach to EDI, through several staff networks and an equality and inclusion working group. These groups drive a range of different activities in the service and are led by senior leaders. Staff are confident to address inappropriate language and behaviour and feel confident that the service will act on matters raised with the most appropriate and open approach.

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

The service is good at encouraging and acting on staff feedback, and promotes a culture of positive challenge

The service has developed several ways to engage with staff on issues and decisions that affect them. This includes methods to build all-staff awareness of fairness and diversity, as well as targeted engagement to identify matters that affect different staff groups. In our staff survey, 82.1 percent (101 of 123) of respondents agreed or tended to agree that they felt able to challenge ideas without detriment as to how they would be treated afterwards.

Senior managers create formal and informal opportunities for staff to raise concerns and give feedback. Face-to-face visits and online meetings called ‘keeping you connected’, which started during the pandemic, give staff the opportunity to ask questions about matters that affect them. The service also has several staff support networks, which give staff the opportunity to seek support from peers in the service and in the council.

The ways in which the senior management team or local managers have addressed any matters raised have been positively received by staff. Representative bodies and staff associations reported that the service works well with them. A survey by the representative body at the time of this inspection showed that the service regularly works with and consults it, and that it feels its opinion is valued by the service.

However, some staff now feel disconnected from the service due to a move towards fully flexible working. The service should consider the effect of this change on certain staff groups.

The service is good at tackling bullying, harassment, and discrimination

Staff have a good understanding of what bullying, harassment and discrimination are, and their negative effect on colleagues and the organisation.

In this inspection, 5.6 percent (7 of 123) of staff survey respondents told us they had been harassed, and 9.7 percent (12 of 123) had been discriminated against over the past 12 months. Of these, 21 percent (4 of 19) thought their concerns were dealt with appropriately.

Most staff are confident in the service’s approach to tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination, grievances, and disciplinary matters. Staff told us about positive experiences even when raising grievances. They described action plans that the service had put in place to improve environment and culture in the service.

The service regularly reviews its dignity and harassment policy, and grievances of this nature are monitored so that the service can address any level of bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

The service has made sure all staff are trained and clear about what to do if they encounter inappropriate behaviour. Service leaders have put in place several ways for staff to give feedback. They have also improved how they respond to feedback, so that staff, including those from diverse backgrounds and under-represented groups, have a better experience.

The service could do more to increase diversity in its workforce

The service knows it needs to go further to increase workforce diversity. It has made some improvements to recruitment campaigns, to reach under-represented groups and increase the diversity of its workforce. For example, it has used a wide variety of representatives from the service in its more recent recruitment campaigns, to highlight the different range of roles a firefighter might take on in their day-to-day duties. We were told that the service plans to promote future opportunities via local fire stations and by working with community groups, which include faith-based groups and groups from ethnic minority backgrounds.

But the service needs to do more. There has been slow progress at improving ethnic background and gender diversity for all staff in the service. Since 2017/18, 3.5 percent of new joiners have self-declared as being from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 16.6 percent of new joiners were women. At 31 March 2021, of the whole workforce, 3.4 percent were self-declared as being from ethnic minority backgrounds and 12.7 percent were women. The proportions of staff in all services in England are 5.3 percent from ethnic minority backgrounds and 18.0 percent women.

The service needs to improve its recruitment processes

The service needs to do more to make sure its recruitment processes are fair and accessible to applicants from a range of backgrounds. For example, only 51.2 percent (63 of 123) of respondents to our staff survey agreed that recruitment processes were fair and accessible. The service should make sure all its selection panels are diverse. All staff on these panels should receive the proper training to reduce unconscious bias.

It is positive that the service advertises both internally and externally for new entrants, middle and senior level positions. It uses a range of media platforms to do this. It clearly describes the skills, behaviours and expectations for potential candidates.

It recently conducted a review with women who had left the service to better understand the reasons for their departure and look for areas it could improve. We look forward to seeing more activity in the service because of this work.

EDI is a priority for the service

The service has improved its approach to EDI. It is making sure it can offer the right services to its communities and that it can support staff with protected characteristics. For example, the deputy chief fire officer is chair of the equality and inclusion group, which staff from across the service’s staff support networks attend monthly. Networks encourage activity in the service, raise awareness, and support staff and the service to test new ideas and projects.

Diversity and inclusion are a priority in the service’s CRMP. The service gives all staff regular online and face-to-face training. It also has a dedicated people and wellbeing plan, and a working group to monitor and encourage progress.

The service told us that they have recently seen an increase in the rates of staff diversity declaration. This means that staff are comfortable to share equality information such as sex and race. The service believes this is due to increased supportive discussions and consultations with staff about the benefits of having this information, and the way it can be used to break down barriers.

The service has appropriate facilities in its stations, and staff reported that in some places these had been recently refurbished. The service has given all its staff correctly fitting and appropriate uniform after we identified this as an area for improvement in our last inspection.

The service has recently embarked on a new campaign with Oxford United Football Club to jointly promote and raise awareness of EDI. It also works with other fire and rescue services in the region to share skills, knowledge and expertise in matters affecting both the fire sector and wider communities.

It has a new process in place to assess equality impact and acts as needed to improve equality. The service gave us examples. These included assessing the effect changes to one of its shift patterns might have on staff and assessing how making safe and well education available to the public in different formats might negatively or positively affect people with protected characteristics.

The service has a plan to train staff in this new equality impact process and to involve members of the staff support networks or equality and inclusion group to develop the assessment. It should continue to review and update policies and procedures using the new process.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

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

Oxfordshire 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 staff and improving diversity into leadership roles.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should improve all staff understanding and application of the performance development review process.
  • 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 should make sure it takes a consistent approach to managing individuals’ performance

The service has an inconsistent process in place for managing individual staff performance and development. Not all staff have specific and individual objectives or have had their performance assessed in the past year. The service should make sure it takes a consistent approach to managing staff performance and development.

However, in our staff survey 70.8 percent (87 of 123) of respondents reported that they do have regular, meaningful discussions with their manager. Some staff reported following Oxfordshire County Council’s 12:3:2 performance framework, which includes an informal monthly conversation about wellbeing and performance, 3 more in-depth individual meetings a year and 2 annual team review sessions. The use of this framework varied between staff groups and didn’t connect with the service’s current promotion process.

Promotion and progression processes could improve

The service needs to do more to make sure its promotion and progression processes are seen as fair by staff. Although the process is clearly outlined in the service’s policy, we heard that it can be inconsistently applied, that it is overly onerous at lower management levels and for on-call staff, and that it doesn’t apply to those in support or specialist roles. In our staff survey, 32.5 percent (40 of 123) of respondents disagreed or tended to disagree with the statement that promotion processes in the service were fair.

We are encouraged to see that the service understands this is an issue. It has drafted a new development pathway and recently commissioned an external company to help review this area. We look forward to seeing the progress it makes with this proposal.

We also reviewed the service’s recent promotion processes. We found that they were conducted fairly and that a diverse interview panel was used. We saw evidence that the service supports the future development of candidates by offering constructive feedback to those who are unsuccessful in the promotion.

The service has improved the way it manages temporary promotions, but we found evidence of them still being in place for longer than appropriate. For example, in the year to 31 March 2021, there were 53 temporary promotions in the service, lasting on average for 282 days.

The service still needs to improve its ability to identify and develop its future leaders and high-potential staff at all levels

The service still needs to improve how it actively manages the career pathways of all staff, including those with specialist skills and for leadership roles. The service has made limited progress in addressing this area for improvement, which we identified in 2019. As such, the area for improvement remains. The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop, and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.

It has some talent management schemes in place to develop leaders and high‑potential staff. These include traditional assessment centres, as well as the service actively considering the new leadership and development framework developed by the National Fire Chiefs Council. But staff described these as not always being managed openly or fairly. The schemes don’t apply to non-operational staff, and the application process is too complex for some roles. This has resulted in inconsistency and undermines staff’s perception of fairness in the process.

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