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Bedfordshire 2018/19


How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?

Last updated 20/12/2018
Requires improvement

Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

Wellbeing and fitness of staff are priorities for the service. Staff value the occupational health team and the support that the service provides. The service carries out a staff survey every two years. The last survey, in 2017, raised concerns about the behaviour of some leaders. Staff do not have confidence in raising grievances. Although it has since made some progress, the service recognises it needs to do more.

The service is good at training staff. Training facilities are excellent. But some operational supervisors did not understand current guidance on commanding incidents. The service trains already competent on-call staff who join the wholetime service. This might be inefficient and the service is reviewing this.

Turnover of on-call staff is high. A project started in 2015 has yet to improve this. The service should make its workforce more representative of the communities it serves. Some staff do not understand the value of this, or the case for taking positive action to increase diversity. A wholetime recruitment process in 2017 did not improve the situation. The service has reviewed the process and is making changes.

Staff feel positive about the staff appraisal system. Completion rates are high. But the service has no formal talent management process. There is no process to identify high potential staff. Staff lack confidence in the promotion process. Some operational supervisors have been reluctant to apply for promotion. The service is trying to understand why.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure its values and behaviours are understood and demonstrated at all levels of the organisation.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Workforce wellbeing

Promotion of the wellbeing, fitness and healthy lifestyles of its workforce is a priority for the service.

The occupational health department is proactive in promoting health and wellbeing. We found evidence of regular communication on wellbeing promotion, including advice on nutrition, hydration and mental health. Staff from the department arrange events for the workforce, to raise awareness of specific health-related topics.

We found that staff see mental health as a priority for the service. Staff from the occupational health department have visited all its stations to discuss mental health; their work is supported by a mental health awareness e-learning package. Staff we spoke to were positive, both about the occupational health team and the employee assistance programme, which provides confidential advice and information on work and personal matters.

Wholetime and on-call staff have access to fitness equipment in gyms in all the service’s stations. There are 54 members of staff trained to support physical training across the service. The service has a trauma risk management (TRiM) process to provide support to staff following a critical incident. Many staff we spoke to know of and value TRiM and know how to access this support. However, this wasn’t the case for all staff we spoke to. The service should ensure that all staff know about TRiM, and how to seek out support.

The service is making positive steps to improve its management and review of staff sickness data. At present, the system for collating sickness data relating to on-call staff doesn’t allow the service to review trends. It recently introduced a new ICT system to solve this. The new system is better able to record staff availability, and the service expects it to lead to better management of sickness records across the service.

Health and safety

The service’s health and safety policy sets out both organisational and employee responsibilities to support safe working practices. The service consults with the workforce and representative bodies on the development of this policy.

Health and safety training, including manual handling (i.e. heavy lifting), is part of the new starter induction process. Health and safety responsibilities are given in job descriptions and person specifications. The service provides role-specific training for every level of service operation.

Fire safety audits of premises include a requirement to make a note of and report any hazards that could affect the safety of operational firefighters responding to an incident. When working alone, staff members book in and out of appointments with fire control, giving an address and predicted duration for the appointment. If fire control receives no contact within 60 minutes of the visit’s scheduled conclusion, a follow-up call is made to check on the staff member.

Culture and values

The service has an organisational vision, which defines its objectives, priorities and values. This is displayed on posters in all its fire service buildings and communicated to the public via its website. However, it is not easy to find on the staff intranet.

Every two years, the service carries out a staff survey operated by an independent company. The most recent survey, in 2017, identified a significant number of concerns about the behaviour of some senior leaders, specifically, that some had overly autocratic management styles and disciplinary processes. Some management practices were seen as inappropriate.

Staff told us of a divide in the organisation between those based in the north and south of the county. Many staff spoke of mistrust in the disciplinary system; some matters were too quickly escalated for formal action and the resulting management action was deemed harsh. We learned that, following the 2017 survey, a number of disciplinary cases were reviewed, and decisions changed.

Following the recent staff survey, some senior managers were offered coaching and mentoring. However, the service could not confirm to us whether the relevant members of staff had taken this up.

Some staff told us they had seen recent improvements in the practices of some leaders. However, many staff doubted these improvements would last. It is clear that leaders still have to do more to demonstrate that they model and maintain the service’s values.

The findings of the survey were used to develop the Moving Forward Together programme. Staff from across the service told us there has been some improvement to the organisation’s culture since the launch of the programme.

Many staff were positive about the chief fire officer and his changes following the 2017 survey. These included introducing management briefing sessions and the ‘ask the chief’ initiative, and enhancing work with representative bodies.

Senior leaders told us the service has made improvements but acknowledged more work is needed to ensure that staff feel engaged and part of a positive culture.

The service recognises this as a priority area for improvement and is acting to
address concerns.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?


Bedfordshire FRS is good at getting the right people with the right skills. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that its requirement for competent on-call staff who join as wholetime to complete a probationary training course is value for money and the best use of for improvement are to go here.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Workforce planning

The service is aware of the imbalance in its current senior management structure. There is a high ratio of senior managers. To address this, it intends to carry out a review of the service, including the management structure.

The service has a people strategy. However, a recent station manager recruitment process attracted no applications; the service needs to do more to understand the reasons for this.

The service recently appointed a new deputy chief fire officer, who joined from another fire and rescue service. It has started a national recruitment process for managerial roles. Following staff feedback, it recently cancelled an external transferee process, in order to allow internal candidates to apply for supervisory-level roles. The service has a significant number of staff who have been in positions of temporary promotion; some for months, and in a few cases, for over a year.

In 2017, the service began its first wholetime firefighter recruitment campaign in a number of years. Further wholetime firefighter recruitment has taken place in 2018.

On-call firefighters make up approximately 30 percent of firefighters, and the service relies on its on-call staff to enable it to provide the right level of cover to respond to fires and other emergencies. However, the turnover of on-call employees is a problem: 16 percent of on-call staff left in the 12 months to 31 March 2018. Exit interviews indicate the main reason for on-call staff leaving the service is that the rota system isn’t family-friendly. The service has been aware for some time that improvements are needed. A project started in 2015 to review various aspects of the on-call system but this hasn’t yet improved staff retention.

The service requires on-call staff who are successful in the wholetime recruitment process to undergo the same 12-week probationary trainee course as all new recruits. This applies even if they are fully competent in their on-call role. We recognise that when competent on-call staff go on recruit training, their presence enhances the course for all attendees. But the service could consider whether this maximises efficiency. Some staff are having to undergo training in areas where they have been assessed as competent, often for many years. In addition, in transferring from on-call to wholetime posts, staff do not automatically keep their most recent on-call rank; they will be employed at whatever rank the recruitment exercise is recruiting people for.

Learning and improvement

The wholetime and on-call staff we spoke to were consistently positive about the training they receive. They told us of their access to good quality training facilities and of the high standard of the training itself. On-call staff told us they appreciate the flexible approach to scheduling and the availability of the central training team, which provides them with good access to training.

Practical training is supported by a well developed e-learning system. Training records and requirements to maintain skills are managed well, both by individuals and their supervisors, who have good management oversight. We found that nearly all training records are up to date across all skill areas.

Through testing, we identified gaps in the technical knowledge of supervisory commanders. Specifically, we found knowledge gaps in command practices that were implemented in 2015. While there is no specific re-assessment in strategic command, staff should maintain competency, including through exercises and simulations.

To gain new skills, staff attend courses at the service’s training centre, where they are instructed by specialist trainers. Responsibility for maintaining these skills then falls to individuals and line managers. Practical station-based training sessions are supported by technical learning through e-learning packages.

We note that there is periodic, central maintenance training in most safety-critical areas, such as fire behaviour and water rescue techniques. For example, operational staff are formally assessed in breathing apparatus competence every two years. The service also has online learning, mentoring, monitoring and periodic assessments in place for incident command.

The service should consider whether more standardised training input from its specialist trainers would better support maintaining the competence of its workforce, particularly for safety-critical training areas.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • To identify and tackle barriers to equality of opportunity, and make its workforce more representative, the service should ensure diversity and inclusion are well-understood and become important values of the service, led by chief officers.
  • The service should assure itself that it has effective grievance procedures.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Seeking and acting on staff feedback

The service carries out a staff survey every two years. Its most recent staff survey identified some areas of culture and behaviour that needed exploring. It commissioned an independent research company to gain a better understanding.

One of the improvements that came out of the findings from the last staff survey was the ‘ask the chief’ initiative. This has been well received. It enables all members of
the workforce to take part in online two-way communication sessions with the chief fire officer. Staff told us that senior leaders are becoming more accessible, and now have more contact with staff at stations. Staff also told us that the service had broadened the range of staff permitted to attend management briefing sessions, which was welcomed.

Groups have been established to gain staff views in certain areas. For example: a HR focus group with female firefighters to review operational welfare provisions; and the Voices Plus scheme, a new group set up for LGBT staff to provide feedback to the service.

We found improvements are still needed for staff to feel confident in raising and reporting problems. We found many staff do not have confidence in raising problems through the grievance procedure. Staff also told us they would be unwilling to use the service’s confidential reporting line in case they were identified. We found that some staff didn’t have confidence in speaking to managers outside of their immediate teams. Senior leaders acknowledge that cultural changes take time; they are actively trying to increase levels of trust across the workforce, to help staff feel more engaged.


The service knows it needs to do more to increase the diversity of its workforce. To help with this, in 2017, a female firefighter focus group was established to gain feedback on women’s experiences in the service and to help develop ways through which more women might be recruited. The service also hosts ‘have a go’ days for underrepresented groups: potential applicants can try some of the activities that form part of the recruitment process and speak to operational staff about the work. The service has recently attracted 14 ‘positive action volunteers’ from its workforce to support future recruitment processes for wholetime and on-call firefighters (such as for the ‘have a go’ days). At the time of our inspection, it was recruiting for a new recruitment and positive action post.

The 2017 wholetime recruitment process didn’t achieve the increase in the number of women and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates and appointees that the service had hoped for. It has made efforts to learn from this, by ensuring the tests are not biased against underrepresented groups. It also conducted a comprehensive review of its recruitment processes; the proposed changes are intended to promote equal opportunity. It is important that the learning and leadership focus on improving representation within the workforce is also applied to on-call and support staff.

service recognises it has more to do in relation to its workforce’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). We agree: some staff we spoke to, including managers, do not understand the value of having a diverse workforce, or the rationale behind the positive action to promote the service as an employer of underrepresented groups.

Our sample review of training records for on-call staff found no records of any EDI training. For wholetime staff, some training was recorded, although many of these dated back to 2011. Non-uniformed staff receive EDI training as part of their induction. However, there was no evidence of a refresher period for this training.

We think more attention must be paid to ensuring that EDI is well understood across the workforce, and that senior managers themselves must demonstrate the organisation’s commitment. A recent requirement to set EDI objectives has been added to senior leaders’ appraisals.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.
  • The service should ensure its selection, development and promotion of staff is open, transparent and fair.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

Managing performance

The service’s staff appraisal system has developed notably over the last three years and the completion rate is high. All staff have an annual appraisal, which is reviewed after six months. Appraisals are linked to a continual professional development payment for operational staff. They are subject to first and second-line manager review and sign-off. Appraisals that are held by HR are dip-sampled for completion standards.

The service supports staff well through its provision of bespoke training. Through their appraisals, staff can request additional training appropriate to their role. We found this process to be managed well; we saw that a significant number of requests had been reviewed and approved.

The service acknowledges that further training is required for some managers to better support the appraisals process. An internal review found that completion of appraisals is of varying standards, and objectives are not always set in a timely manner. Overall, however, we found that staff view the appraisals process as positive in setting personal goals and supporting development.

Newly-appointed commanders are allocated a senior manager to act as mentor and support them in command decision-making and use of tactics at incidents, while they develop competence and gain experience.

Data supplied by the service shows it has 145 staff members on development programmes. Their purpose is to provide extra training and support for those who have held their role for less than three years and aren’t yet fully competent.

Firefighters expressed frustration at the lack of opportunity to develop other skills. Some would like to develop in more specialist roles, such as prevention, protection or training, but these posts are only for more senior staff.

Developing leaders

The service has a mix of uniformed and non-uniformed senior leaders.

The service doesn’t have a formal talent management process, or one that seeks out high-performing or high-potential staff. There is no process in place to fast-track progression to a higher role. However, we did find examples of informal coaching and mentoring to support individuals’ development.

For operational roles, there are prescribed development programmes to complete at each tier of promotion. This ensures role-specific development. We found that many staff don’t have confidence in the promotion process. A recent internal opportunity for promotion to the role of station manager didn’t attract any applicants, despite some staff being on the middle manager development process. The service is considering the reasons for this.

Staff reported that, to be promoted to a substantive role, they would have to take on a position of non-shift working, i.e. daytimes from Monday to Friday. Many shift-based staff told us they felt reluctant to apply for promotion; giving up their existing shift pattern would negatively affect their family and work-life balance. Other factors relating to staff reticence to seek promotion that we were told of included potential loss of continual professional development payment and concerns about the management culture.

On-call staff told us that some felt little incentive to apply for promotion, particularly from the role of firefighter to crew manager. They told us there was very little difference in remuneration compared with the significant increase in responsibility and time commitment. We learned that, for retained watch managers who show high potential, there are no opportunities to join the wholetime system other than going through a full recruitment process, which would mean their loss of rank.

Some non-uniformed staff told us they believe a ‘glass ceiling’ exists, and that opportunities for their promotion or skill diversification are very limited. We found that, too often, the managers of largely non-operational teams are uniformed officers, limiting the opportunities for non-uniformed staff still further.