A look in the mirror

Sheltering from talk about Brexit and the ravages of Storm Gareth, blustery Brighton provided a good home for this year’s LGA Fire Conference. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) inspection findings provided a golden thread running throughout the two days, allowing for debate about fire safety, competence, diversity, finance and a new willingness to share what works. With a brief foray into governance, it was a packed agenda with something for everyone.

Government Perspective

With Brexit keeping ministers away (but not stopping Nick Hurd from providing one of his video addresses), it was left to senior civil servants to take the stage instead. Like fire ministers, civil servants change jobs frequently and now it is the turn of Luke Edwards to head up the Fire and Resilience Directorate.

No longer linked with police, the Director can now focus entirely on fire and resilience just like the old days. He has got a bit of police background, but has spent the last few years in health and speaks of business and customers. Only five weeks into the job, he did not have a great deal to say at the conference but was keen to get to know the Service, seeking offers of visits; he is likely to be busy travelling around the country for the next few months.

Former Director of Fire, Neil O’Connor, made a welcome return to the conference. He is a seasoned civil servant, well versed in the world of fire and has been involved in the post Grenfell response pretty much since day one. He now heads up the Building Safety Programme. A lot of what he said was not new, more a summary of the government’s response to the Hackitt Report that was published just before Christmas, but he did make a few interesting points.

The first was about the need for: “A more robust application of existing standards”. He talked about the need for change and more robust enforcement of the existing rules. He urged delegates not to wait for regulatory change but to do more now. Given the phrase ‘The government will consult in spring 2019’ appears 15 times in the government’s implementation plan in response to Dame Judith’s recommendations, fire and rescue services should heed his advice as the wait for change is going to be a long one.

He then went on to pose a rhetorical question to delegates: “Do you have skills and capacity in your workforce to do this now?” He expanded on this point by also asking: “Are your relationships with other regulators good enough?” The HMICFRS tranche 1 summary report provides evidence that in some services skills and capability in the fire protection part of the business is a problem. It notes: ‘Many do not have enough qualified inspectors to carry out their inspection programmes. All too often the service does not have a clear understanding of its highest risks. And some of these services don’t have capacity to carry out whatever remedial activity is needed. Many of the protection teams we spoke to describe themselves as understaffed and under-resourced’ (pg40).

It is also worth looking at the second report from the Competence Steering Group, set up in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. In terms of what is being done to respond to the Hackitt Report, the work of this group is the most transparent and the only one with anything substantial in the public domain. It comprises 12 working groups covering specific areas of competence in high-risk residential buildings. One of these groups is focused on fire safety enforcement officers and is led by the NFCC.

This working group is looking at whether the competency of fire safety enforcing officers should be governed by any overarching competence body that may emerge. It also makes the link with the Fire Standards Board and an intention to submit the revised CFOA publication, Competency Framework for Business Safety Regulators as a standard ‘in due course’.

Work on competence and standards are of course good but if there is not enough staff working on fire safety inspections in the first place, it is not going to solve the problems identified by Hackitt and reinforced by HMICFRS. As fire and rescue authorities review their integrated risk management plans, more attention needs to be paid to the risks in non-residential buildings with an eye to increasing resources for proactive inspection work as well as being bolder about using enforcement powers.

Balancing resources to risk is hard, but fire and rescue services have skilled data analysts to do this modelling and a consistent approach may be the way forward.

Holding up the Mirror of Inspection

“I’m a bit of rarity”, declared Roger Hirst, the first Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. He made it onto the main stage to chair a session about lessons learned from inspections. He introduced HMI Zoë Billingham by saying: “Zoë has been busy inspecting me for a couple of years!” He is an unabashed fan of inspection from a police perspective – and no doubt for fire as Essex is in tranche three of inspection.



HMICFRS Zoë Billingham spoke about the Inspectorate’s task as holding up a mirror to fire and rescue services

The LGA Fire Conference has talked about inspection for the past two years as it emerged from the Policing and Crime Bill in the later part of 2016. Coming three months after the publication of the first tranche of fire inspection reports, this year’s conference focused on the initial findings.

“It’s our job to hold up a mirror,” said Zoë Billingham, lead inspector for fire. As she wandered about the conference floor, mic in hand, her disembodied voice told delegates much of what they had probably heard before. It is worth reiterating her points about the importance of the joint contract between HMICFRS and fire and rescue services. She thanked fire and rescue services for their positive responses, remarking: “We may not always agree but we will always discuss, understand and seek consensus”.

Zoë confirmed that HMICFRS would only inspect governance by exception. She said that none of the services in tranche one came near to triggering it – and yet the consultation for what constitutes a trigger is not yet available, so it is unclear what criteria could have been used.

Andy Dark, Assistant General Secretary of the FBU, queried what it would take to be an exception and wryly suggested that it might take someone running off with the authority’s reserves to trigger it. Zoe responded that it would only happen when things had gone wrong, declaring: “I’m an optimist. I am confident that the 14 already inspected have all taken a number of steps to improve where required.” It did not answer the question and she would not be drawn on the Avon and Surrey-shaped elephant in the room, concluding: “I don’t want to waste public money where there isn’t the case”.

When the mere mention of PFCCs results in hisses from the audience, it is clear that this is not a sympathetic audience, but Roger Hirst is not easily cowed and was bullish when responding to a question about whether PFCCs could be included in a governance inspection. He said that PFCCs were exempt from a fire-related governance inspection but he would welcome it should the legal position change.

In previous years, collaboration or partnership would have been a key topic for discussion. Not so in 2019. Collaboration gets a mention in the inspection reports, but with little evidence of evaluation appearing in the first 14 inspections; it feels like this is not something of huge interest right now. What is of interest is sharing. Sharing the ‘golden nuggets’ as Cllr Nick Chard put it.

Learning and the Golden Nuggets

Cllr Chard suggested sharing best practice using video; a TED talk style approach to give fire and rescue services 15 minutes to share what works. Instead of spending time poring over every report, looking for the good bits, the LGA is going to do this for everyone. Done well this could be a valuable resource for all fire and rescue services to draw on.



DCFO Justin Johnson spoke with humility in describing the journey that Lancashire has been on, how they ‘came out of the gloom’ to be the highest rated service in the first tranche of inspections


A good place to start would be to record Lancashire’s DCFO, Justin Johnston (see pg 23 for Focus on Lancashire). He was the best speaker at the conference. His humility in describing the journey that Lancashire has been on, how they ‘came out of the gloom’ to be the highest rated service in the first tranche of inspections was beautifully judged and entirely authentic.

Greater Manchester’s DCFO, Dawn Docx, also did a good job sharing the experience of fighting the Winter Hill fire last year. The GMFRS inspection report is likely to include reference to this, so again, a good topic for a TED talk – perhaps a double act with Justin as Lancashire was also dealing with Winter Hill while simultaneously hosting their inspection team.

It feels right to be a bit humble, willing to share the good bits because it is good to not only tell the story of when things work but also to listen and learn when it does not. It reflects the approach being taken by the National Fire Chiefs Council and its investment in national operational learning. It takes a lot to share learning because that mostly means things went wrong and no one wants to air their dirty linen in public.

Take the Kings Dock fire in Liverpool where the hundreds of cars caught fire in a multi-storey car park on New Year’s Eve or the more recent Ocado warehouse fire in Andover: both major incidents, both with stacks of learning and loads to share. No longer having to wait years for reports to come out, fire and rescue services are now sharing earlier than ever before and it is to the betterment of the Service that this is becoming the norm.

Bullying Back on the Agenda

Looking back at the 2015 review of this conference, instead of inspection shining a spotlight on fire and rescue services, the Thomas Review was doing a similar job. Adrian Thomas presented to that conference and despite not having actually published his report, he provided an overview of what was to come with bullying front and centre. Fast-forward to 2019 and what is being talked about on the agenda? Yes, it is bullying, again.

If the Inspectorate is reporting that staff cannot access or do not trust grievance procedures; that 25 per cent of respondents to an HMI survey of 1,001 staff in tranche one say that they have been bullied or harassed in the last 12 months, then it is hardly an endorsement of progress in this space. Steve Polly also from HMICFRS told delegates to expect ‘more of the same’ from tranche two so it does not get any better.

The LGA’s Fire Vision 2024 states: ‘Bullying, victimisation, discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated and there will be effective routes to report such behaviour and effective consequences for employees found to have engaged in these practices’. These are the right words, but if the actions are not commensurate, they remain just that: words.

There is a point at which – and that may be now – continuing to talk about the problems in the workforce just becomes pointless. What works should be the focus. What are the golden nuggets of good practice? If Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service can get an Outstanding rating for its work on values and culture then let us find out how, get that out in the open and use it to help other fire and rescue services improve. Let us have learning as the focus for next year’s conference and be proud of sharing what works.

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