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Cheshire 2018/19


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

Last updated 20/12/2018
Requires improvement

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

The service requires improvement in two of the areas to do with looking after its people. In the other two areas, it is good.

The service’s promotion of the right values and culture requires improvement. Station-based staff do not have regular access to senior managers. This means that these managers are not able to role model the behaviours which the service expects in the organisation to their staff.

Staff have little faith that leaders will act on feedback from the staff survey. However, the service has recognised this, and now has a more inclusive approach to dealing with the survey findings.

Ensuring fairness and promoting diversity need improvement. The service also needs to improve communication between staff and senior managers.

The service knows that it needs to improve recruitment of under-represented groups. It is reviewing its recruitment processes and is using several tactics to increase diversity.

The service is good in two areas: getting the right people with the right skills, and managing performance and developing leaders.

The service has a good understanding of workforce planning, and a strong culture of learning and improvement. Training records and the system used to monitor competence are comprehensive.

The service’s approach to performance management is well developed. The annual appraisal system is recognised by staff as a means to access progression and development. It is the primary means for identifying future leaders.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that staff understand and have confidence in the purpose and integrity of wellbeing policies, especially sickness.
  • The service should take early action, such as monitoring overtime, to improve the wellbeing of staff.
  • The service should assure itself that senior managers are visible to act as role models by demonstrating their commitment to service values through their behaviours.

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

Workforce wellbeing

The service has a wellbeing programme, and occupational health practitioners are routinely used to manage staff back to work after periods of ill health. However, staff are not clear about the role of occupational health and line managers. They view the sickness policy as focused on getting staff back to work, rather than supporting staff through sickness.

The service undertakes operational fitness testing in accordance with national guidelines. Provision is in place to support staff following traumatic incidents. The service monitors incidents that may cause distress to crews. Staff who have had training in debriefing will offer support. Staff are also shown how to access professional support services.

The service has several teams in place who are responsible for health and wellbeing. These teams provide advice on workplace health and the provision of health, medical and fitness screening. Advice is also available on providing reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities and facilitating employees’ rehabilitation and return to work.

Health and safety

The service has a comprehensive health and safety policy, and there is a positive safety culture within the service. Several groups within the organisation provide oversight on health and safety.

We found evidence that monitoring arrangements for allocating overtime are not understood by all staff. Each fire station manages the use of overtime to cover shortfalls ‘in house’. Firefighters can be called to work overtime, particularly where specialist skills are required to ensure availability of special appliances. Once triggers had been exceeded, some alerts appear to have been given as a consequence but there is no overall, consistent management.

Culture and values

We found significant evidence that station-based staff are disconnected from the senior team. Staff have not had regular access to senior managers. Staff spoke of a ceiling above which managers were required to sever ties with frontline firefighters. This means that managers are not effectively communicating the behaviours which the service expects in the organisation to their staff. Some staff reported a feeling of ‘us and them’ between station-based staff and those above them. This has led to a breakdown in trust in the leadership team, reflected in the most recent staff survey.

The service has recognised that staff have little faith that leaders will act on feedback from the staff survey. The service has learned lessons from the way in which it dealt with the findings from the 2015 staff survey. Consequently, it has adopted a wide-ranging and inclusive approach to deal with the findings and outcomes from the 2017 survey. These include:

  • using the external company which developed the survey to help with providing the feedback to the workforce;
  • during the last five months the service has undertaken 13 road shows across the organisation;
  • seeking feedback from staff through the roadshows, inviting them to be part of the solution;
  • personal briefings by the senior team and the external company to representative bodies;
  • conducting briefings to all station managers and above; and
  • focusing more on the important messages, such as going from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

This has resulted in a staff engagement action plan, ‘Your opinion our future’, dated April 2018 but only recently launched. As part of the action plan, the service has commissioned a complete review of its reward and recognition process, having asked staff what ‘good reward’ looks like. The service is also reviewing its values, which have been in place for eight years, to see if they are fit for purpose, together with a plan to improve the visibility of the senior team across the service.

The service has recognised that it needs to improve the trust staff have in leaders by meeting staff more regularly to listen to their concerns. It is taking proactive steps to achieve this.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?


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 appears to have a good understanding of workforce planning. It has relevant management processes in place, and recruits according to operational need. Staff competence is managed by the watch manager to ensure skills gaps are identified and appropriate training is provided.

Quarterly meetings are held at which the service examines its retirement and recruitment plans and assesses the rate at which people are leaving and retiring. It uses a broad range of data. In the 12 months to 31 March 2018, 161 members of staff left the service. More than half of these were support staff who took other opportunities for employment prior to the move to the police. The service encourages exit interviews with all staff.

All staff have had mandatory online training for equality and diversity, and an input regarding dementia that has assisted with their Safe and Well visits. Staff are up to date with safeguarding training for adults and children.

On-call staff spoke positively about the electronic availability system. They like the system which can be accessed from home or via an app. It has the capability to show all retained firefighters’ availability, and allows them to update their status regularly. This enables the service to always know the availability of fire engines and other resources.

Learning and improvement

The service has a strong culture of learning and improvement. An example of this is fire protection. Fire protection officers have their work audited and quality-assured every year. This results in a personal report for the individual, while a collective annual report identifies themes that emerge. As an example of learning from the last report, auditors were able to obtain and review the fire risk-assessment prior to their visit.

The organisation has a process for complaints to be investigated by a relevant person. Following the investigation, the findings are reviewed to see if any wider organisational learning can be put in place.

Training records and the system used to monitor competence are comprehensive. Proficiency in the use of firefighting and safety equipment is logged from practical training, and e-learning activities are carried out on areas of technical understanding. The system identifies areas that are incomplete. The manager can then review for any gaps on an ongoing basis. There is a requirement to complete 100 percent of training. Extra training frequency is built into the system as a safety net, to ensure compliance. It is not clear how operational managers are currently using the electronic competence recording system to effectively record or manage poor performance.

Staff undertake a considerable amount of operational training and take part in many exercises each year. Watch managers are subjected to incident audits whereby their command skills are tested with no prior notice at an incident. We spoke to staff who consider this to be good practice, as it enables them to receive immediate feedback.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure leaders can demonstrate that they act on and have made changes as a direct result of feedback from staff.
  • The service should improve communications between staff and senior managers, so queries and suggestions are responded to in a timely and appropriate way.

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

Weaknesses in the flow of communication through the organisation sometimes cause blockages between local stations and the senior leaders making decisions. For example, on-call staff have asked through their line management arrangements if they could be used to take over from crews at protracted incidents. But nothing happened. After raising this with the chief fire officer at an on-call station visit, their idea was implemented within a week.

The service has well-used feedback mechanisms through representative bodies and during change programmes. For example, when new stations have been developed, working groups are set up. These groups allow staff to provide feedback and allow issues to be raised. However, informal feedback mechanisms outside consultative practices are not effective and the service does not always listen to staff.

The service communicates survey outcomes and ongoing associated work to the workforce. It does this through the staff newsletter (called Green Bulletin), as well as the staff engagement action plan, which it updates regularly.

The organisation is making changes as a result of feedback. It has acknowledged the negativity surrounding informal records of discussion. Recently the service made changes to enable managers to apply a common-sense approach to performance matters. These changes should be more widely understood.

Some operational staff are reluctant to share concerns, due to the perceived reaction of management. Some staff feel that managers see feedback as negative, or staff being unwilling to change. However, we found grievances were handled in accordance with policy, and staff were aware how the process worked.


The service aspires to be an employer of choice, and has processes in place to address inequality in the workplace. The service has received national recognition for the work associated with attracting and retaining staff from LGBT communities, is an accredited disability confident employer and has also authored the national NFCC Ageing Workforce Toolkit.

As at 31 March 2018, 6 percent of firefighters in Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service were female. In the same period, 1.7 percent of firefighters were from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared to a BAME population of 3.1 percent in the service area as a whole.

The organisation is reviewing its recruitment processes to make language and process more fit for purpose. The service recognises that it needs to improve recruitment of underrepresented groups. It has an attraction strategy in place and a positive action steering group. It holds several events each year that target the recruitment of females. The service’s ambition is to be a fair and inclusive employer with a 50 percent female workforce in both uniformed and non-uniformed roles.

The service has a generous maternity policy. Although we applaud the service having high ambitions for improving the diversity of its workforce, we would wish to be reassured that plans are tempered by a rather greater degree of realism and financial affordability.

It uses a number of tactics, including a buddy system, together with a female physical training instructor who advises on fitness and diet, to encourage more females through the process. The service also has an internal female network for all staff, called ‘Limitless’. Current membership includes a small number of male staff who have become advocates. Despite significant work in this area, the organisation is struggling to increase diversity.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?


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 approach to performance management is well developed. It uses an annual appraisal system which staff recognise as a means to access progression and development. Managers are encouraged to set performance objectives for staff. These objectives are monitored at regular meetings.

While the appraisal is an effective process for those seeking development, it is seen as ‘box-ticking’ for those staff whose needs are met through mandatory operational training. For these staff the element of ‘how well am I doing my job?’ is in many cases superficial.

There is a well-understood system for setting performance targets for Safe and Well visits and site-specific risk information. Watch managers are clear about how to meet expectations. We found examples of regular one-to-one meetings between watch and station managers to discuss performance. This performance is reported on and discussed at a higher level in the organisation.

For staff seeking promotion or new role-related skills, there are good development opportunities. The organisational development team reviews all applications for development, and arranges opportunities for staff seeking promotion. The service runs workshops to help staff in completing mandatory exams. We saw an example of an individual with English as a second language who was sponsored through a formal English qualification.

The recent collaboration with Cheshire Constabulary has opened up additional opportunities for non-uniformed staff who support operational service to apply for a greater variety of jobs in both fire and police.

Developing leaders

The service uses its appraisal scheme as the primary means for identifying talent and potential senior leaders. There is a talent management framework in place which includes a dedicated ‘Step Up’ development programme. This is aimed at those progressing to watch manager, but is extended to crew managers and support staff equivalents. Several staff told us the programme has given tangible benefits for their prospects for progression.

Promotion processes are well documented and transparent. We spoke to staff who clearly understood what they needed to do to access leadership positions. Assessment processes are overseen by HR and are subject to Equality Impact Assessments. The process uses set criteria to avoid bias. All staff who attend an assessment centre are given feedback. Those who are successful are given a specific development plan.

Since 2014, the service has operated a scheme to recruit operational firefighters who are existing undergraduates. Such individuals have been recruited as having the potential to move into leadership positions. We are interested to see how this scheme is evaluated moving forward.

The service acknowledges it needs to do more to assist the development of senior leaders. It holds two senior management team development days each year and recognises these needs to be more structured. The service does offer several personal development tests, e.g. psychological assessments and 360–degree feedback, and senior staff have the opportunity to apply for the sector executive leadership programme.