COVID-19 inspection: Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service
In August 2020, we were commissioned by the Home Secretary to inspect how fire and rescue services in England are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This letter from HMI Wendy Williams to Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service sets out our assessment of the effectiveness of the service’s response to the pandemic.
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The pandemic is a global event that has affected everyone and every organisation. Fire and rescue services have had to continue to provide a service to the public and, like every other public service, have had to do so within the restrictions imposed.
For this inspection, we were asked by the Home Secretary to consider what is working well and what is being learned; how the fire sector is responding to the COVID-19 crisis; how fire services are dealing with the problems they face; and what changes are likely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognise that the pandemic is not over and as such this inspection concerns the service’s initial response.
I am grateful for the positive and constructive way your service engaged with our inspection. I am also very grateful to your service for the positive contribution you have made to your community during the pandemic. We inspected your service between 5 and 16 October 2020. This letter summarises our findings.
In relation to your service, the chair of West Mercia Local Resilience Forum (LRF) declared a major incident on 23 March 2020.
In summary, the service prioritised its operational response and, in doing so, decided not to provide the full range of protection activity. It suspended its risk-based inspection programme, but didn’t replace it with a suitable alternative risk-based approach, such as introducing desktop reviews. It did continue some protection activity, such as enforcement, albeit at a reduced level. As a result, we are concerned that the service hasn’t undertaken the full range of protection activity expected during the initial period of the pandemic. It did continue with its prevention work.
The service has significant experience of major incidents and is a key member of the LRF. It provided additional support to the community during the first phase of the pandemic. It used its wholetime firefighters to respond to emergencies. And the increased availability of its on-call workforce gave extra resilience. Response times improved. Wholetime and on-call firefighters were trained and ready to give additional support to the community, such as by driving ambulances and dealing with the movement of the deceased, but ultimately these duties weren’t needed. Both wholetime and on-call firefighters undertook the face fitting of masks.
Following the service’s decision to suspend its risk-based inspection programme, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) was mainly done by staff redeployed from prevention and protection functions. Work to adapt and continue the risk-based inspection programme was not prioritised in the way we would expect.
The service managed its financial resources well, and its financial position was largely unaffected, especially as it didn’t have to use reserves to cover extra costs. The service could respond quickly to staff absences. It trained more staff for its control room roles and supported on-call firefighters who were affected financially by the pandemic. The service communicated well with its staff throughout the pandemic, including on issues relating to staff wellbeing. It continued its risk-critical training. It also made sure all staff had the resources they needed to do their jobs effectively, including providing extra IT and putting in place new flexible working arrangements.
We recognise that the arrangements for managing the pandemic may carry on for some time, and that the service is now planning for the future. In order to be as efficient and effective as possible, Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service should focus on the following areas:
- It should determine how it will adopt, for the longer term, the new and innovative ways of working introduced during the pandemic, to secure lasting improvements.
- It should consider how well its plans allow it to maintain all its statutory functions during an extended event such as the pandemic. If needed, it should adjust its plans to make sure it can do so.
- It should determine what steps it could take to align itself more closely with the National Fire Chiefs Council’s (NFCC’s) guidance on protection.
- It should consider what steps it needs to take to maintain its risk-based inspection programme. This should include what activity it can complete remotely and how to adapt its approach according to the restrictions in place at any time.
Preparing for the pandemic
In line with good governance, the service had a pandemic flu plan and business continuity plans in place that were in date. These plans were activated.
The plans were detailed enough to enable the service to make an effective initial response, but understandably, they didn’t anticipate and mitigate all the risks presented by COVID-19.
The service has reviewed its plans to reflect the changing situation and what it has learned during the pandemic.
The plans now include further detail on social distancing, making premises ‘COVID-secure’, remote working, supply of PPE and arrangements for vaccinations.
Fulfilling statutory functions
The main functions of a fire and rescue service are firefighting, promoting fire safety through prevention and protection (making sure building owners comply with fire safety legislation), rescuing people in road traffic collisions, and responding to emergencies.
The service has continued to offer its response and prevention functions throughout the pandemic. But it didn’t offer the level of protection measures expected as it chose to suspend its risk-based inspection programme, stopping face-to-face fire safety audits and not replacing these with desktop reviews. Instead, it used its protection staff for other duties, including the delivery of PPE.
The service told us that between 1 April and 30 June 2020 it attended fewer incidents than it did during the same period in 2019.
The overall availability of fire engines was better during the pandemic than it was during the same period in 2019. Between 1 April and 30 June 2020, the service’s average overall fire engine availability was 91.9 percent compared with 79.4 percent during the same period in 2019. We were told that this was as a result of an increased number of on-call firefighters being available to respond to emergencies because of being furloughed from their primary employment.
The service told us that its average response time to fires improved during the pandemic compared with the same period in 2019. This was due to several reasons, including lower sickness levels, better fire engine availability and 30 percent fewer non-fire incidents during this period. This may not be reflected in official statistics recently published by the Home Office, because services don’t all collect and calculate their data the same way.
The service had good arrangements in place so that its control room had enough staff during the pandemic.
This included effective resilience arrangements, including training more staff for control room roles, restricting access to the control room and enhanced cleaning.
The NFCC issued guidance explaining how services should maintain a risk based approach to continuing prevention activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The service broadly adopted this guidance.
The service conducted fewer home fire safety checks than it would normally undertake. It reviewed which individuals and groups it considered to be at an increased risk from fire as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The service decided to continue offering face-to-face home fire safety checks on a risk-assessed basis and provided staff with suitable PPE to do so.
The service introduced the option of a home fire safety check by telephone instead of face-to-face home fire safety checks. It also introduced other options, including delivery of equipment for carers to install.
The NFCC issued guidance on how to continue protection activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes maintaining a risk-based approach, completing desktop audits and issuing enforcement notices electronically, including carrying out audits on those premises that are at the greatest risk from fire. The service didn’t introduce desktop audits and stopped its programme of face-to-face fire safety audits.
The service didn’t review how it defines premises as high risk during the pandemic but did identify and assess some new and additional risks.
During the initial lockdown period, the service deferred most of the fire safety audits that it would normally undertake. It did conduct some protection activity, but this was reactive as a result of complaints or other reports from members of the public. The service continued with pre-existing enforcement cases. It also continued responding to statutory building control consultations.
It also introduced other measures to reduce social contact, such as using telephone and/or email to make contact about ongoing enforcement and reducing the number of staff carrying out visits.
This level of protection activity is less than what we would expect and is not in line with national expectations.
Staff health and safety and wellbeing
The service gave some consideration to the wellbeing needs of staff. But more could have been done to talk to staff about their needs so that the right support could be put in place.
Most staff survey respondents told us that they could access services to support their mental wellbeing if needed. Support put in place for staff included occupational health, counselling and peer support. The service doesn’t yet have plans to discuss with its staff the potential longer-term effects of COVID-19 on its workforce.
More could have been done to identify and address the specific needs of staff members most at risk from COVID-19, including those from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background and those with underlying health problems. The service asked staff to self-identify as being at risk, rather than proactively identifying them. The members of staff who didn’t self-identify didn’t get the tailored support that they may have needed.
The service made sure that firefighters were competent to do their work during the pandemic. This included keeping up to date with some of the firefighter fitness requirements. The service suspended its fitness testing programme, but fitness activity continued on stations. The service kept under review the impact of suspending the testing programme.
The service assessed the risks of new work to make sure its staff had the skills and equipment needed to work safely and effectively.
The service provided its workforce with suitable PPE on time. It participated in the national fire sector scheme to procure PPE, which allowed it to achieve value for money.
Absences have decreased compared with the same period in 2019. The number of days/shifts lost due to sickness absence between 1 April and 30 June 2020 decreased by 54.4 percent compared with the same period in 2019.
The service updated the absence policy so that it could better manage staff wellbeing and health and safety, and make more effective decisions on how to allocate work. This included information about recording absences, self-isolation, testing, shielding and training for managers. Data was routinely collected on the numbers of staff either absent, self-isolating or working from home.
Most staff survey respondents told us that the service provided regular and relevant communication to all staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included regular written correspondence and some one-to-ones with a manager or equivalent about wellbeing and health and safety.
The service made use of telephone, email, social media and messaging services when communicating with on-call staff during the pandemic.
The service intends to maintain changes it has made to its ways of working in response to COVID-19, including agile working and the use of SharePoint as a single point of communication.
Working with others, and making changes locally
To protect communities, fire and rescue service staff were encouraged to carry out extra roles beyond their core duties. This was to support other local blue light services and other public service providers that were experiencing high levels of demand, or to offer other support to its communities.
The service carried out the following new activities: delivering PPE and face fitting for masks. In addition, the service trained and prepared staff for other duties, including the movement of bodies, but these duties weren’t needed.
A national ‘tripartite agreement’ was put in place to include the new activities that firefighters could carry out during the pandemic. The agreement was between the NFCC, National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and specified what new roles firefighters could provide during the pandemic. Each service then consulted locally on the specific work it had been asked to support, to agree how to address any health and safety requirements, including risk assessments. If public sector partners requested further support from services with additional roles that were outside the tripartite agreement, the specifics would need to be agreed nationally before the work could begin.
The service consulted locally to implement the tripartite agreement with the FBU, the Fire Officers Association and the Fire and Rescue Services Association.
Other unions were engaged, including UNISON, if their members were asked to do extra work, including under the tripartite agreement.
All of the new work done by the service under the tripartite agreement was agreed on time for it to start promptly and in line with the request from the partner agency.
All new work, including that done under the tripartite agreement, was risk-assessed and complied with the health and safety requirements.
The service hasn’t yet fully reviewed and evaluated its activities to support other organisations during this period. It hasn’t identified which to continue.
Local resilience forum
To keep the public safe, fire and rescue services work with other organisations to assess the risk of an emergency, and to maintain plans for responding to one. To do so, the service should be an integrated and active member of its LRF. Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service is a member of West Mercia LRF.
The service was an active member of the LRF during the pandemic. The service told us that the LRF’s arrangements enabled the service to be fully engaged in the multi-agency response.
As part of the LRF’s response to COVID-19, the service’s principal officers volunteered to be on the weekly rota to chair the strategic co-ordinating group, which was occasionally required to substitute for the appointed police gold commander. It is the chair of the business management working group, though this group has yet to meet. It vice-chaired the risk assessment working group. It was also a member of the operational working group. The service was able to allocate suitably qualified staff to participate in these groups without affecting its core duties.
Use of resources
The service’s financial position hasn’t yet been significantly affected by the pandemic.
The service has made robust and realistic calculations of the extra costs it has faced during the pandemic. At the time of our inspection, its main extra costs were £114,000 spent on PPE, £77,000 spent on IT and £30,000 spent on cleaning supplies. It fully understands the effect this will have on its previously agreed budget and anticipated savings. Where possible, it has exploited opportunities to make savings during this period and used them to mitigate any financial risks it has identified.
The service received £690,000 of extra government funding to support its response. It has shown how it used this income efficiently, and that it mitigated against the financial risks that arose during this period. It has largely offset the additional costs by making savings in training, travel and subsistence. It expects to use the grant to support the budget in future years, when income from business rates and council tax are expected to fall.
The service didn’t use any of its reserves to meet the extra costs that arose during this period.
When used, overtime was managed appropriately. The service made sure that its staff who worked overtime had enough rest between shifts.
Ways of working
The service changed how it operates during the pandemic. For example, it introduced agile working and video conferencing. It had the necessary IT to support remote working where appropriate. Where new IT was needed, it made sure that procurement processes achieved good value for money.
The service could quickly implement changes to how it operates. This allowed its staff to work flexibly and efficiently during the pandemic. The service plans to consider how to adapt its flexible working arrangements to make sure it has the right provisions in place to support a modern workforce.
The service has received positive feedback from staff on how they were engaged with during the pandemic. As a result, the service plans to adopt these changes into its usual procedures and consider how they can be developed further to help promote a sustainable change to its working culture.
The service made good use of the resources and guidance available from the NFCC to support its workforce planning and help with its work under the tripartite agreement.
The service had enough resources available to respond to the level of demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to reallocate resources where necessary to support the work of its partner organisations. However, the management decision to suspend the risk-based inspection programme and subsequently to use protection staff rather than on call or other wholetime staff to deliver PPE meant that the service potentially stopped identifying premises at risk of fire.
Arrangements put in place to monitor staff performance across the service were effective. This meant the service could be sure its staff were making the best contribution that they reasonably could during this period. Extra capacity was identified and reassigned to support other areas of the service and other organisations. For most of the pandemic, the main role for wholetime firefighters was to provide the service’s core response responsibilities, while work under the tripartite agreement was mainly done by other parts of the workforce. The service took this approach because it felt this was the best way to make sure it had the resources it needed to meet its foreseeable risk. We expect services to keep their processes under review to make sure they use their wholetime workforces as productively as possible, where capacity permits, and fulfil their statutory responsibilities.
The on-call workforce took on extra responsibilities covering some of the roles agreed as part of the tripartite agreement and the shifts of absent wholetime staff.
Governance of the service’s response
Each fire and rescue service is overseen by a fire and rescue authority. There are several different governance arrangements in place across England, and the size of the authority varies between services. Each authority ultimately has the same function: to set the service’s priorities and budget and make sure that the budget is spent wisely.
Members of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Authority were actively engaged in discussions with the chief fire officer and the service on the service’s ability to discharge its statutory functions during the pandemic. Members maintained a constructive relationship with the service throughout the pandemic. Arrangements were put in place to give authority members relevant and regular information about how the service responded to the pandemic. The authority made use of technology and held meetings virtually.
During the pandemic, members of the fire and rescue authority were kept informed about decisions the service made. The authority reduced its oversight because it recognised the critical nature of this incident, and the need for the chief fire officer to be able to quickly adapt the service’s response, to effectively support its staff and communities. The authority maintained regular communication with the chief fire officer and received the service’s written briefings.
Looking to the future
During the pandemic, services were able to adapt quickly to new ways of working. This meant they could respond to emergencies and take on a greater role in the community by supporting other blue light services and partner agencies. It is now essential that services use their experiences during COVID-19 as a platform for lasting reform and modernisation.
Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service has reinforced its collaboration with other agencies through its effective relationships within the LRF. The service also transformed its use of technology, and is considering how virtual platforms and remote working can help it become more effective and efficient. Staff appreciated the improved communication and ways of working during the pandemic.
Good practice and what worked was shared with other services through the NFCC. This includes the initial workplace COVID-19 secure assessments, the recovery actions log and, once approved, the recovery framework for Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.
We propose restarting our second round of effectiveness and efficiency fire and rescue inspections in spring 2021, when we may follow up some of our findings.