Alleged bullying in West Sussex’s fire and rescue service highlighted by inspector’s report

West Sussex's Fire and Rescue Service has been rated by inspectors
West Sussex's Fire and Rescue Service has been rated by inspectors

Accusations of bullying due to gender or race were listed alongside ‘significant concerns’ about public protection in a highly critical report of fire services in West Sussex.

The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) came weeks after children’s services in the county were rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.

Overall, West Sussex Fire & Rescue was rated ‘requires improvement’, but two areas – ‘protecting the public through fire regulation’ and ‘ensuring fairness and promoting diversity’ – were found to be ‘inadequate’.

While exploring the latter, inspectors found that work to address bullying within the service had not yet started, despite concerns being raised in a staff survey in 2017.

They also reported that, during the inspection, they had met staff ‘who told us they had been bullied because of their gender or race’.

‘WE TAKE FINDINGS SERIOUSLY’

Neil Stocker, acting chief fire officer, said: “We are committed to a culture which lives and breathes our values, where all our people are able to work in an empowered, collaborative and innovative way to make a real and positive difference to all our communities.

“Any behaviour that is not consistent with this ambition is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

“I want to reassure staff that we take the report’s findings seriously and have already taken action to address the concerns raised.

“We have developed a people and culture strategy, we are working with an independent organisation to run listening groups with our staff and we are in the process of appointing a diversity and equalities officer.

“To support this, we are planning to launch a new policy which includes clear guidance on bullying, harassment and victimisation at work and we are developing a mandatory awareness training programme for all staff.”

Mr Stocker and the inspector noted that fewer than 100 people had contributed to the staff survey out of a workforce of 698.

He added: “I want to emphasise again, that our staff are our greatest asset and we will continue to make any improvements necessary to create an environment that celebrates difference and ensures equality.”

SERVICE NOT MAKING BEST USE OF RESOURCES

When it came to firefighting and keeping people safe, the inspectors provided a list of areas which required improvement – all of which appeared to be bread and butter fire service skills.

They were: understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies; preventing fires and other risks; responding to fires and other emergencies; and responding to national risks.

The report pointed out that, when it came to fires and emergencies, West Sussex had not met its response standards since 2014/15.

It added: “In its response to fires and emergencies, the service isn’t making the best use of resources. Its fire engine availability is low and it is struggling to recruit and retain sufficient on-call firefighters.

“It hasn’t produced a clear plan for aligning its procedures to national guidance, its management of information after an incident is often poor and it has had little success in reducing the high number of false alarms it receives.”

Figures in the report showed that, in the 12 months up to September 30 2018, more than half of the 9,345 incidents attended – 51 per cent – turned out to be false alarms. That’s around 4,766 calls.

Almost 2,000 calls were to fires and around 2,600 were to non-fire incidents.

UNRELIABLE DATA

In the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, the need to ensure buildings undergo fire safety inspections has never been higher.

This was among one of the ‘inadequate’ areas identified by inspectors.

The report stated that, at the end of 2018, West Sussex had 2,624 buildings identified as high-risk, which the fire & rescue service had committed to visiting every three years.

But the lack of a clear protection strategy, coupled with a database which was described as ‘unreliable’ and ‘not always accurate’ has led to a backlog.

Regarding the accuracy of the data, inspectors were concerned that figures submitted to the Home Office in March 2018 about building inspections showed ‘a notably higher rate of satisfactory outcomes than the England average’.

Mr Stocker said: “We accept the findings of the report in this area and have taken action to improve the quality of data and are increasing the resource needed to clear the backlog of outstanding building inspections.

“We had a good understanding of this issue before the inspection as published in our risk report last year.

“The main reasons for the backlog included: a nationally recognised shortage of skilled staff trained to carry out audits and our prioritisation of high-rise building inspections in response to the Government request, post Grenfell.

“I am confident this backlog will be cleared as a key priority.

“We have produced reliable buildings data, we are recruiting trained staff and we are in the process of commissioning a third party organisation to help us clear the backlog.

“We are also on track to deliver a new data system by the end of this year and we have appointed a senior leader to oversee our protection work.”

NOT ENOUGH INVESTMENT IN TECHNOLOGY

The level of cuts endured by the fire service over the past ten years was made painfully obvious in the report. And Dru Sharpling, of HMICFRS, questioned the long-term financial sustainability of the service.

Between 2011/12 and 2016/17, it cut staff and engines to save £7m, while administration and support costs were cut when the service integrated with the county council.

At the end of March 2009, West Sussex had 46 fire engines. This was reduced to 35 by 2018.

Regarding the savings, the report stated: “We found that the service hasn’t invested these savings in technology that would allow it to use its resources more efficiently.

“An example of this is the computer system it uses to manage prevention and protection work.

“Staff explained the various problems they had encountered with this system, including inaccurate reporting and loss of data.”

The inspectors said new systems had been introduced to ‘try to manage the inefficiencies the IT system has created’.

STARTING TO MAKE IMPROVEMENTS

Ms Sharpling said inspectors returned to West Sussex after the main inspection to check on the progress being made by the fire and rescue service.

She said: “We were encouraged to see the service had taken on board our comments and was starting to make improvements.

“We will carry out a full re-inspection in the future and report on the progress made.

“We expect to see further improvements.”

Mr Stocker said an improvement board had been set up to carry out an ongoing review of an action plan to address the recommendations in the report.

He added: “We acknowledge the findings and recommendations in the report and thank the inspectors for carrying out a detailed review of our service; the first of its kind.

“I want to reassure the public that the safety of our residents remains the top priority for our Fire and Rescue Service and we are determined to address the concerns raised in the report.”

Debbie Kennard, the county council’s cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, said: “I want to reassure residents that their safety is the absolute priority for the fire and rescue service and although areas for improvements have been identified, I welcome the progress already made in addressing them.

“For the last two years we have come to understand the challenges the Fire and Rescue Service faces and we recognise the observations made by the inspection team.

“We will support the Fire and Rescue Service in making the positive changes that are necessary and I have confidence we will deliver our action plan to address any outstanding concerns.”

The inspection report and improvement plan will be subject to scrutiny at a special meeting of the environment, communities and fire select committee, at County Hall, Chichester, on July 10.