How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness is good.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies. It uses data from partners to help set its priorities. Station plans reflect risks and priorities. The service uses social media more and more often to communicate with local people. But it should engage better with local minority communities. It gathers risk information about buildings well. It regularly tests response plans for high-risk buildings.
Generally, the service directs its extended home fire safety checks (known as safe and well visits) at those most likely to be at greatest risk from fire. Not all operational staff fully understand the value of these visits.
While the service takes a risk-based approach to fire safety audits, it could improve its prioritisation. It should monitor its protection resources to maximise efficiency.
- taken effective action with partners against rogue landlords; and
- reduced false fire alarms between the 12 months to 31 March 2017 and 12 months to 31 March 2018.
But it needs to be sure that staff use enforcement powers when needed.
The service responds well to incidents. It takes risk into account. It seeks to understand why response times are getting longer.
Some supervisors don’t understand the up-to-date national guidance. This relates to incident command. The service must also learn more from debriefing. It should share this more regularly with frontline staff.
The service prepares well with partners for major incidents. We found that staff know what procedures to follow, and test plans regularly. But not all operational staff know how to access risk information from other fire and rescue services.
How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
Bedfordshire FRS is good at understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to improve how it engages with the local community to build up a comprehensive profile of risk in the service area.
All fire and rescue services should identify and assess all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks. They should also prevent and mitigate these risks.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Understanding local and community risk
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has a comprehensive community risk profile, which takes into account data from partner and other organisations. It uses this profile to shape its community risk management plan (CRMP), commonly referred to as an integrated risk management plan, and aligns activities to risks.
To help protect people, the service uses a range of socio-demographic data sources. It uses this data to classify people into risk groups. These groups define how at risk a person may be from fire within their home. The service uses this data to help understand risk and to direct its prevention activities.
To reduce the risk of fires in buildings, the service uses a risk-based inspection programme to ensure that each year it inspects the highest risk buildings.
To evaluate the operational risk that higher-risk premises may present, the service has an established process to identify and gather site-specific risk information. We found this to be well understood by operational staff.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service understands its broader community risks, as defined through the community risk register. It works well as an integral part of the local resilience forum (LRF) and has plans to support responses to larger incidents with other emergency services and organisations.
The service carries out some activities to inform the public of its functions. Many fire stations increasingly use social media to engage and communicate with their local communities. While we found positive examples of this on the part of the service, we identified some inconsistency across the county.
The service makes good use of Beds Fire Alert, a community messaging service for communicating key messages and gaining community feedback. We found positive examples of this being used to ask the public for its views on proposed changes to the service’s website.
The service seeks out customer feedback. Following a fire, safe and well visit or fire safety audit, it uses customer satisfaction surveys to gain feedback on its service, for which it receives a high level of return.
Data provided by the service on the 12 months to 31 March 2018 showed that 94 percent of people, in their feedback to the question: “How satisfied were you with the overall service provided?” responded that they were “very satisfied”.
Having an effective risk management plan
The service strategically assesses every six months how its risks may change in the future, for example, as a result of major changes to road or rail infrastructure, or proposed new building and housing developments. This information informs its CRMP, which the service plans to refresh in 2019; the current plan uses data as old as 2010.
Across the service, each station has a station plan. This is considered annually and sets out the local objectives in relation to prevention, protection and operational activity. They clearly link the risks contained within the CRMP and corresponding local activity. Responsibility for the local provision of each station plan is devolved to the relevant borough command team.
The population of Bedfordshire presents a broad and complex range of diversity and vulnerability. We found that some opportunities to better engage with hard-to-reach communities had been missed. The service needs to do more to understand and identify the people who are at greatest risk from fires among these diverse communities. This could lead to other benefits, such as better engagement.
Maintaining risk information
Information about building risks within the county is systematically gathered by staff. It is used to prepare for an operational incident, such as a fire or rescue. The service categorises the level of building risk, and this determines the inspection frequency and operational response, namely the number of fire engines that the service will send to a reported emergency at that address.
The service has robust plans to test its operational response at high-risk buildings. It does this through familiarisation visits, and desk-top and practical exercises.
Practical exercises often use multiple fire engines and other emergency services to test the response plan against a mock incident.
When undertaking fire safety inspections, operational staff also ensure that operational risk information is gathered. Risk information is available through fire engine mobile data terminals (MDTs). We found that the service’s operational teams have a good working knowledge of accessing local risk information through their MDTs.
Through its participation in the LRF, the service is aware of its role in larger multi-agency incident responses. The community risk register is well understood, and we found evidence of the active testing of response plans. These tests comprise both desk-top exercises and live practical exercising at high-risk sites.
How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it targets its prevention work at people most at risk.
- The service should ensure staff carry out prevention work competently. This includes understanding how home fire safety checks help keep people safe. The service should ensure staff understand how to identify vulnerability and safeguard vulnerable people.
- The service should evaluate its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s CRMP sets out its strategic vision for preventing fires, which focuses mainly on house fires. Detail is limited on wider prevention activities, such as road safety, water safety and arson. The overall objectives for prevention activities are unclear.
The service has a dedicated prevention strategy, known as the community safety strategy 2014–18. Similarly to the CRMP, the information that it contains doesn’t provide specific objectives against prevention areas.
The service’s station plans define local risk and target prevention activity. Through these plans, staff have a good understanding of what is required from them, with specified prevention activities across the year. These plans are used to direct activities and are positive for local communities.
Promoting community safety
The CRMP defines the service’s broader prevention objectives. The station plans use Experian data to obtain local risk information; they are used to target local prevention activities. Staff carry out a range of activities to promote safe practices. These are based on an assessment of local risk and include arson reduction, road safety, preventing chimney fires and electrical fires. Local community safety activities are also based both on national, and the service’s own, campaign schedules.
In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, the rate of fires per 1,000 of the population in Bedfordshire was higher than the national rate. However, over the same period, the number of non-fatal injuries from fires in Bedfordshire was low compared with other services in England.
To reduce the number of house fires, the service conducts extended safe and well visits. The service began undertaking extended prevention activity in April 2017. In addition to fire safety advice, these visits enable staff to give broader advice covering areas such as slips, trips and falls, and smoking cessation.
Using its data sources to define at-risk groups, the service seeks to target its safe and well visits towards those most likely to be at greatest risk from fire. The service provides training for partner organisations, such as adult social services, so that they, too, can identify high-risk addresses and make referrals for safe and well visits.
The service knows further work is needed to better target those most at risk, in relation to safe and well visits and other community safety activities. Improvement to the referral system is needed: how referrals are prioritised and the timescales in which they are made. At present, the service doesn’t prioritise referrals made from partner organisations (for example, risk assessments made by adult social care services) over those identified as a ‘potential risk’ through its own data.
We found that many operational staff did not show an understanding of the link between the wider aspects of safe and well visits, for example alcohol and smoking dependency, and keeping people safe from fire. We found that operational staff are reluctant to ask broader questions during visits. This meant not all staff were carrying safe and well visits competently. Vulnerability is linked to the occurrences of fires, although staff did not generally understand this. The service should ensure its staff understand vulnerability. Similarly, we found safeguarding knowledge to be inconsistent, both among operational staff and central specialist teams, in relation to identifying vulnerable people and on how to refer to other organisations for support.
In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, Bedfordshire FRS conducted three safe and well visits per 1,000 population. This rate is lower than many other services in England. The service recognises that it can improve in this area and has increased the targets for visits.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service conducts limited evaluation of its prevention activities, such as reviewing the benefits of safe and well visits and of local campaigns. In a rare example of the service making an internal assessment, it withdrew its support for an initiative relating to arson prevention following concerns about its value. The service should evaluate its main prevention activities, to identify learning and improve outcomes.
We found positive examples of the service working with partner organisations in the Luton area, such as the Safe at Home scheme.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service carries out a variety of road safety activities. This includes promoting the national Brake campaign, Biker Down courses, and work with the Fire Bike Team. Through the Bedfordshire Strategic Road Safety Board, the service conducts road safety initiatives with other organisations. Its involvement in promoting road safety extends further: during the recent World Cup tournament, it worked with a local council to raise awareness of the dangers of drink driving.
The service’s local operational teams support road safety initiatives according to their station plans. Plans are used to identify the at-risk road user groups. Staff then devise and conduct local campaigns to promote road safety, targeting those groups. Staff we spoke to were passionate about the value of these activities.
As with other aspects of prevention, in our inspection we weren’t able to see how, or whether, the service was evaluating some of these activities. Evaluation is needed to ensure the service understands which activities are most effective in promoting safety messages, so that good practice can be identified and shared more widely.
How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it makes better use of its specialist resources in implementing its risk-based inspection programme.
- The service should assure itself that its enforcement plan prioritises the highest risks and includes proportionate activity to reduce risk. It should also include appropriate monitoring and evaluation.
- The service should assure itself that its operational staff carry out fire safety audits competently.
All fire and rescue services should assess fire risks in buildings and, where necessary, require building owners to comply with fire safety legislation. Each service decides how many assessments it does each year. But it must have a locally-determined, risk-based inspection programme to enforce the legislation.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
The service identifies buildings that require inspection through its risk-based inspection programme. This is used to define both the level of risk and the inspection frequency for a building. The service’s aim is to inspect all buildings deemed to be of the highest risk each year.
A team of specialist protection officers carry out fire safety audits on high-risk buildings. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, Bedfordshire FRS inspected 89 percent of the 112 buildings identified as of high risk.
The service also carries out a large number of audits on non-high-risk premises. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, it audited 1,321 premises, which equates to 6.7 percent of all known premises in Bedfordshire. This is higher than the proportion of known premises audited in England as a whole.
It is positive to note that, in addition to the specialist staff, both wholetime and on-call firefighters carry out protection audits of low-risk buildings. Operational staff go through a four-day internal training course before undertaking fire safety audits. However, the service should assure itself that operational staff are appropriately trained; its internal training course doesn’t enable staff to achieve the accredited status for carrying out certain types of audits, in accordance with national guidance.
The organisational oversight and monitoring of the service’s protection function could be improved. At the time of our inspection, the service was drafting a new strategy to guide its approach to protection activity. There is no formal performance management system to monitor the activity of the central protection team. Protection staff told us that they regularly reached their individual target number of inspections and had capacity to do more. Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service should ensure it makes the full use of its specialist protection staff. Moreover, there is no formal quality assurance process to review and learn from inspection findings. The service should ensure quality assurance as part of its audit process.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s approach to inspections is adaptable, to meet changes in risk and demand. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, all residential high-risk buildings across the county were inspected.
The service is currently developing a bespoke software package to support the administration of the protection department. It should ensure that this software is effective and works well within its overall ICT system.
Through its work with premises’ owners, the service has implemented a policy change, which is not to attend automatic fire alarms in the daytime in certain circumstances. This risk-based approach means that less time is wasted attending false alarms, while firefighters and appliances are available to attend genuine emergencies more quickly. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, the service attended 2,266 false alarms, a reduction from 2,635 over the same time period in 2017.
The service’s approach is one of working with and supporting businesses to ensure they comply with fire regulations, with legal enforcement action considered only as the last resort. There have been no fire and rescue service-initiated prosecutions since at least 2011. Over the past few years, the levels of recorded enforcement and prohibition notices served against building owners who do not comply with fire safety legislation have been consistently low.
The service should assure itself that it makes effective use of its enforcement powers.
The service receives legal support through a contract with another fire and rescue service. This contract is currently being reviewed; the service is considering how best to secure appropriate legal advice to support protection action.
Working with others
The service works with partner organisations to support and educate business owners through events such as ‘business action days’.
As noted earlier, we found evidence of effective work with premises’ owners to reduce the burden of unwanted fire signals. This happens at premises protected by automatic fire detection and fire alarm systems.
The service has well-established collaboration with partner organisations to tackle rogue landlords in the Luton area. This has resulted in many successful prosecutions under housing legislation, which have been led by the local authority.
The service has an agreement with another fire and rescue service authority to provide technical support, such as fire engineering advice, should it be required.
The service’s customer satisfaction survey report for the 12 months 31 March 2018 shows that 97 percent of 474 responders were either very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the fire safety audit they had received.
How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
Bedfordshire FRS is good at responding to fires and other emergencies. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure staff know how to command fire service assets assertively, effectively and safely at incidents.
- The service should ensure it has an effective system for staff to use learning and debriefs to improve operational response and incident command.
Managing assets and resources
The service has access to a range of operational resources. These enable it to respond to incidents involving people, property and environmental risks. The service is aware of the varying risks associated with different incidents types, such as fires in high-rise dwellings and multi-vehicle road traffic collisions. It has pre-determined attendance protocols for different incident risks, so that the appropriate resources can be sent to incidents.
The service has 14 fire stations, eight of which are retained stations that have fire engines staffed by on-call staff. There are three further on-call staffed fire engines based at wholetime stations. However, the availability of fire engines staffed by on-call firefighters varies. Maintaining daytime availability for many on-call fire engines is a known challenge for the service. The service tries to manage staffing deficiencies by moving staff and fire engines to different locations as needed. If there is an incident and the nearest fire engine is not available, the next nearest will be called to attend the incident. This may delay the time for getting a fire engine to an incident.
The service’s on-call staff turnover is high. As at 31 March 2018 on-call made up 23.4 percent of all staff headcount. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018 on-call staff accounted for 37.9 percent of all staff leavers from the FRS. As such, the service has a continual need for recruitment and training. On average, it takes an on-call firefighter three years to achieve competence in the full range of skills required.
The service has implemented a new system of attending incidents to ensure the most appropriate fire engine is mobilised. However, this is not fully integrated with the system used by control staff. Operational staff continue to update their location on their MDTs. However, these are not always accurate on location. As a result, control staff continue to confirm the exact location by contacting the fire engine. The service is in the process of procuring an improved mobilising system, which should resolve this issue.
The use of previous years’ data for average attendance times for each station helps to ensure that the most appropriate fire engine is sent. However, we found that the service does not deploy neighbouring fire service resources as frequently as it could, even where they may be nearer and have a faster attendance time. The service should ensure that it sends the most appropriate response to an incident.
We asked the service to provide data on its target and actual availability of fire engines for one week in June 2018. The data we received indicated that the availability target was not always met. During our inspection, we noted that on-call fire engine availability varied: a small number were unavailable during our visits. When a fire engine is unavailable, it is likely to increase the attendance time to an incident. It can also reduce the service’s effectiveness at protracted incidents.
In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, the service recorded 28 failures to mobilise a fire engine to attend an incident. However, we found that even in those instances when the service was unable to mobilise a fire engine, it was always able to find an alternative to attend, although the response was probably slower.
During our inspection week, the service sent ten fire engines and specialist vehicles and four senior officers to an emergency incident. This was a pre-determined incident response. Although no support was available from a neighbouring service, it achieved a full incident response; on-call fire engines were used to maintain appropriate fire cover across the rest of the county.
The service is in the process of adopting the new national operational guidance. A gap analysis has been carried out, and an action plan is to be implemented.
At present, the service works to the 2014 (not to the available 2018) guidance in relation to breathing apparatus.
The service has not yet adopted the latest national guidance procedures for searching buildings, which involve the use of breathing apparatus by firefighters. The service is working with neighbouring fire and rescue services to do this as part of a regional partnership. The service should ensure it uses the most effective search and rescue procedures, and that it can operate with other services at cross-border incidents.
All of the service’s fire engines have MDTs, which are used to access local risk information. Staff are proficient in accessing and using various types of risk information.
All operational commanders undertake an initial training course. They then maintain their skills through e-learning packages. All commanders have an annual or bi-annual assessment, depending on their seniority.
We found knowledge gaps in certain technical areas of some supervisory-level commanders. These concerned changes that had been made to national command practices in 2015. The service should ensure all commanders have the required level of current technical command knowledge. Our checks of the command knowledge of more senior commanders showed a good level of understanding.
We found that there is no role-specific command assessment for strategic commanders; a more junior-level assessment has been adapted for this purpose. However, it is positive to note that strategic command assessments are peer-assessed by another service.
Keeping the public informed
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s website contains information about the service it provides. However, information about the latest news and current incidents is out of date. The service uses a number of social media platforms to engage with the public. Centrally, a corporate Twitter account is updated regularly with safety messages and information of note (although there is little about incidents).
Each fire station has its own Facebook site, which station staff see as largely positive. Confidence in the use of social media varies across the service and its stations.
Fire control staff undertake regular fire survival training, to advise people making emergency calls what to do if they are involved in a house fire. However, the processes in relation to high-rise building fires were unclear; staff did not have consistent levels of fire survival knowledge. The service should ensure control staff have a clear understanding of the advice to be given to those in high-rise buildings.
Evaluating operational performance
The service sets targets to measure its attendance times to incidents. Currently, it isn’t meeting its target for attendance times to critical fire incidents. The average time taken for the first fire engine to attend a primary fire has been increasing since 2013. The service is in the process of commissioning research on its response performance to understand this better.
The practice of hot (immediate) debriefing straight after an incident is widespread; all commanders we spoke to are aware of the process. However, we noted that no structure is in place on how to conduct a debrief; practices varied across the service.
The service conducts a more formal debrief after incidents involving more than three fire engines. We found examples of where learning through experience had directly led to a change in operational practice and policy, such as a change of practice relating to cross-county radio-communication, and policy change relating to attendance at bariatric rescues.
All commanders we spoke to said they know how to feed information into the debrief process (in which a central team reviews information to seek out trends and learning). However, most operational staff are not aware of how to access learning from incidents or exercises in which they are not directly involved. The service should continue to ensure that all parts of the service are involved in the formal debrief process, and consider how to improve its dissemination of learning to support improvements.
Operational incident monitoring is in place. The service focuses on areas for specific scrutiny. They include road traffic collisions, bariatric cases and incidents involving breathing apparatus. Operational commanders we spoke to told us that feedback from this process was inconsistent and was normally limited to the specific areas for scrutiny, rather than command. As with the process of debriefing, we weren’t able to see how learning is shared with the wider workforce.
We found that findings from fire investigations, most notably after serious and fatal house fires, are not shared consistently with staff. Doing so would help staff to better understand how fires start and develop, and how vulnerability affects people differently in fires. As well as supporting operational learning, use of this information would reinforce to staff the benefits of extended prevention activities undertaken during safe and well visits.
We found positive examples of the service contributing to national operational learning (NOL) and joint operational learning (JOL), and of using e-learning to communicate to staff learning from other services.
How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?
Bedfordshire FRS is good at responding to national risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service should ensure it understands national and cross-border risks and is well prepared to meet such risks.
- The service should ensure operational staff have good access to cross-border risk information.
- The service should arrange a programme of over-the-border exercises, sharing the learning from these exercises.
All fire and rescue services must be able to respond effectively to multi-agency and cross-border incidents. This means working with other fire and rescue services (known as intraoperability) and emergency services (known as interoperability).
The service is an active member of the county’s local resilience forum (LRF). The forum prepares an annual plan of multi-agency exercises, in which the service takes part. This includes testing plans for dealing with events such as a major incident, widescale flooding, and major transport incidents. Incident preparation includes virtual and practical exercises and setting up tactical and strategic co-ordinating groups. Fire control and commanders have good knowledge of the procedures required in relation to major incidents.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has a marauding terrorist attack (MTA) capability. Plans are in place to prepare for an incident of this type. These are rehearsed through an exercise programme, often with other fire and rescue and emergency services. The most recent exercise programme took place in February 2018.
Fire control has an effective process to direct staff in what to do when attending a MTA incident. However, unlike other incident types, there are no prompts for the operator to challenge calls reporting such an incident, or to advise them on what information to take from callers. The service should consider providing call-handler guidance in this area.
Working with other services
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service shares a county border with four other fire and rescue services. It holds risk information for three of the neighbouring services which, if needed, can be accessed via fire engine MDTs. When tested, we found many staff are unaware of what cross-border risk information is held or how it can be accessed. We found some evidence of cross-border exercising, but no evidence of how regularly this is carried out.
The service should ensure it can work effectively with neighbouring fire and rescue services. Operational staff should know how to access cross-border risk information via their MDTs, and the service should develop a regular programme of cross-border exercises.
The service intends to align some of its operational practices with Cambridgeshire FRS. It shares a single area commander operational rota with Cambridgeshire. Area commanders from both services are part of the rota, to increase resilience across both service areas in case of a significant incident.
Both services have intentionally procured the same type of command vehicle so that staff from either can operate the technology. They have also standardised some of their pre-determined incident attendances. Further collaboration through procuring the same fire control mobilising software will enable both fire controls to view and mobilise each other’s assets, providing more resilience and opportunities for future collaboration.
Working with other agencies
The service works with other partner organisations, such as the police, ambulance and local authority, to prepare for non-premises-based risks. These include large community events, such as the Bedford River Festival. These events are normally managed through a safety advisory group (SAG), on which a representative from the service sits.
The service works well with such partner organisations to ensure an effective response to more significant incidents and events. The partner organisations we spoke to commented positively on working relations with the service, and on its willingness to share appropriate information and data. In terms of Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles, the service is better equipped because of the good working relationship between the service and the police.