The final fifteen inspections: more of the same?

If attendance at the HMICFRS press briefing is a marker of interest in the first inspections of fire in over ten years, then it is safe to say that interest is on the up. In December 2018 just FIRE, PA and the BBC turned up, but one year later, a whole newsagent of mainstream media sat around the table to hear what HMI Zöe Billingham and HMI Matt Parr had to say.

And the reason? London. It was London Fire Brigade’s turn to be inspected and, given the mainstream media’s general lack of interest beyond the M25, it would have been easy to think that they were the only service in tranche 3. That of course was not the case; 14 other services inspection reports were published too.

Inadequate to Good

West Yorkshire joins Cambridgeshire as the only services to get good across the board. Staffordshire is now in the same club as Lancashire with ten good gradings plus an outstanding grading for values and culture. Derbyshire and Oxfordshire also have the same outstanding grades but fall in other areas.

There are four inadequate grades in tranche 3. London’s inadequate is for training and skills. The only other service to get this is Northamptonshire. It is rather perverse that the best funded and the worst funded services end up with the same grading here. How does that happen?

Gloucestershire and Essex receive the other inadequate gradings. It is notable that of the four PFCC-led fire and rescue services, three are in this tranche along with a service where the PCC is trying to take on fire governance.


“The report will help us focus on areas where we still have more to do, in particular around protection”

Essex PFCC Roger Hirst


No surprises in Essex where there are lots of areas that require improvement. But there is hope as under leadership and capability, the inspectors gave a good grading. This is really encouraging; the change in governance alongside the revitalised leadership team is already starting to pay dividends.

Responding to the report, Essex PFCC Roger Hirst said: “The report will help us focus on areas where we still have more to do, in particular around protection, especially technical fire safety, prevention and above all getting the culture of the service to where it needs to be, including better recruitment and retention of our on-call firefighters. We will continue to invest in the areas that require improvement, which we have already recognised as priorities within the Fire and Rescue Plan.”

Like Essex, North Yorkshire PFCC also has a relatively new chief fire officer in Julia Mulligan, but North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service receives a requires improvement grading for leadership. The inspectors do point to the appointment of the new chief fire officer, viewing this as a: ‘Positive step towards building a more open and inclusive atmosphere’.

By this, the inspectors are referring to how North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service relates to its people and how women are treated. In North Yorkshire 4.7 per cent of firefighters are women. ‘Women in the service struggle to get standard issue uniform. Despite efforts to make it available, many stated they still buy their own because of availability and fit’. Not only is uniform a problem but the facilities are not appropriate either, simple things like places to shower and change. ‘The service has now set up a female uniform working group to look at such concerns’.

While there may be efforts to sort out the more prosaic problems of poor fitting kit, there are more fundamental issues relating to language. The inspectors found, ‘Male-orientated culture and language being used at station level – for example, male-orientated language and terminology, and lots of references to “firemen” and working with the “lads”‘.

The third PFCC-led service in this tranche is Staffordshire. The inspectors said: ‘The service is outstanding in promoting the right cultures and values. Staff know the values of the service and the standards that are expected of them. They see their leaders putting those high standards into practice. Leaders encourage staff to ask questions and to expect honest answers. They also take time and trouble to support members of staff’.

This is impressive and with CFO Becci Bryant a recipient of the QFSM in the New Year’s Honours, it was certainly the end of a great year for her.

Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service join Avon, Surrey, Northamptonshire and West Sussex who all received two or more inadequate gradings. Given that Gloucestershire has the worst set of gradings in tranche 3, the response from Cllr Dave Norman is rather upbeat. He said: “So much work has been going on at the fire service to tackle the issues that have been raised here. While we would obviously have loved to get a more positive outcome in this inspection we are on a journey and I have every confidence that this journey is moving positively and in the right direction.”


“What can be done to improve things? What are those 12 services who achieved good for leadership doing right and what can others learn from them?”


Martin Surl is the PCC and his response to the HMICFRS report is rather different, demonstrating the depth of the acrimonious relationship between him and the County Council. “Sadly, nothing in this report surprises me. It was crystal clear in 2017 long before the chief fire officer resigned, or Gloucestershire’s County Council’s auditors became involved that all was not well in Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service. That was why with Home Office support and finance I prepared a report for the Police and Fire Minister which recommended a change of governance. Unfortunately, throughout the entire period the council was in denial and rather than co-operate with the report attacked me at every opportunity. I have huge respect for the firefighters and wish them well. I remain open minded about to who they should answer to; that is now a matter for the Home Secretary.”

The first inspection of fire and rescue services by HMICFRS does not look at governance so the issues relating to the PCCs are mentioned briefly in passing and are merely statements of fact. HMICFRS recently consulted on a proposed fire and rescue services inspection programme and framework. This closed on November 29. The consultation referred to governance and stated: ‘We are still developing an approach to corporate governance inspections and will consult on this shortly’.

The most requires improvement grades across all three tranches – 33 – are in the area of leadership. This is swiftly followed by fairness and diversity, which gets 26. If there is a place for HMICFRS to start their themed inspections, it must be in these two areas. What can be done to improve things? What are those 12 services who achieved good for leadership doing right and what can others learn from them?

What Makes a Good Service?

Taking this one step further and looking for the ingredients of what makes a good service across the board, the reports do not give enough examples of notable practice that others can learn from. Detailed case studies would make useful additions to these reports.

In the response area, South Yorkshire’s report makes interesting reading: ‘Overall, we commend South Yorkshire FRS for its performance. This provides a good foundation for improvement in the year ahead’. The Inspectorate is clearly pleased but uncovers an oddity: there are no response times in the IRMP.

The latest IRMP is dated September 2019. It clarifies this position. ‘In 2013, we asked the public whether they thought we should have a response time target and, if so, what it should be. The feedback we received was very clear – that instead of focussing on targets and standards, we should simply try to get to life threatening incidents as quickly as we can. Our position remains the same today – we aim to get to emergencies as fast as we can, every time’.


“The reports do not give enough examples of notable practice that others can learn from. Detailed case studies would make useful additions to these reports”


HMICFRS is not keen on this approach and says so in the inspection report. ‘In our view this is undesirable as it is not a measurable standard against which the public can hold the service to account’. Expanding on this point, HMICFRS notes: ‘The service’s average response time to primary fires has increased from seven minutes 57 seconds in the year to 31 March 2013, to eight minutes 55 seconds in the year to 31 March 2018. This is higher than the average for other predominantly urban areas’.

Compare this with Cleveland’s performance, which is not a Metropolitan service like South Yorkshire but nevertheless, it demonstrates what is possible; the average response time to primary fires was six minutes and 35 seconds and is the fastest response time of any service.

Perhaps the NFCC Community Risk Programme will dig around this issue a bit more: do response times matter? For a recent view on that, look at Graham Holland’s article in the June 2019 edition of FIRE.

Operational Response

Elsewhere in the response area, the inspectors found that in South Yorkshire: ‘The commanders we spoke to felt well prepared to use their discretion and were confident that the service would support their judgment’. HMICFRS offers a simple and helpful description of what it means by operational discretion in the South Yorkshire report.

‘A range of materials is available to help commanders manage incidents, such as decision logs and incident risk assessments. There are also operational aide-memoires on the MDTs to help deal with different incident scenarios. Some incidents aren’t covered by standard procedures. When this happens, commanders may have to use operational discretion’.

However, many services in this tranche are picked up for not using operational discretion appropriately, including high performing services like West Yorkshire. In the context of NOG the inspectors said of West Yorkshire: ‘Some of the incident commanders we spoke to weren’t confident in their understanding of either’.

In London, the inspectors are particularly critical of the approach being taken. ‘We were told that organisational culture inhibits commanders from using operational discretion. Incident commanders aren’t confident that the brigade would support them in using operational discretion. Moreover, not all staff feel that the tone of the brigade’s post-incident debrief meetings, which review such decisions, supports a learning environment’.

National Operational Guidance is referred to in every inspection report and the link is often made between that and operational discretion. Not using NOG is clearly frowned on by HMICFRS and again London is criticised. ‘While the brigade has a comprehensive set of operational policies and procedures, we are concerned that they don’t fully reflect NOG. This means that brigade operational practice in risk-critical areas doesn’t reflect good practice and could therefore affect how well and how safely firefighters can respond to incidents. Progress is checked by an NOG implementation board, but this is slow to make changes’.

Cleveland does well; it is Good across the board except for fairness and diversity. The inspectors note that during 2017/18, Cleveland reviewed the productivity of its firefighters, something they had not seen in many other services. ‘This review analysed how long firefighters were spending doing the essential elements of their role such as responding to incidents and training. In doing so this identified the time left for other things, in particular prevention and protection activities’.

While this is cited in positive terms, they criticise the lack of action to improve the diversity of the workforce and advise Cleveland to give workforce diversity its full attention. Cleveland is not alone here; the lack of diversity in all fire and rescue services comes up again and again.

Improvement Outline

This review of tranche 3 seeks out interesting nuggets contained in some of the 15 service reports while at the same time continually coming across the same worrying observations. These include a lack of evaluation of prevention and protection work, under resourcing inspection of non-domestic properties, a high number of staff reporting bullying and harassment, high levels of reserves, insufficient support for the leaders of the future and so on.

Of course, all of this and more appears in the State of Fire. Sir Tom Winsor has much to say about the Fire and Rescue Service: a lot is positive and rightly so, but some is critical. It is OK to have a critical friend, but it is going to be much more helpful to set out what improvement looks like and that is not really the job for HMICFRS. What is good and how a service can get there will depend to some extent on learning from others and a mechanism for doing this would be a step in the right direction.

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