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Durham and Darlington 2018/19


How effective is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?

Last updated 17/12/2019

An effective fire and rescue service will identify and assess the full range of foreseeable fire and rescue risks its community faces. It will target its fire prevention and protection activities to those who are at greatest risk from fire. It will make sure businesses comply with fire safety legislation. When the public calls for help, the fire and rescue service should respond promptly with the right skills and equipment to deal with the incident effectively. County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness is good.

The service is good at preventing fires and other risks. It is clear about how it prioritises its work, and its community safety strategy focuses on prevention activity. Both specialist prevention and operational staff understand safeguarding practices well. It is particularly good at making considerable numbers of safe and well visits but should prioritise those most at risk, such as vulnerable people.

The service is also good at responding to fires and other emergencies. It gets firefighters to the most serious fires quicker than other mainly rural services. This response, however, isn’t based on a thorough enough understanding of local and community risk of fire and other emergencies. Crucially, its risk management planning includes only limited detail on main priorities, such as keeping the public safe. And the service couldn’t explain how its community risk profile shapes its work, now or in the future.

Staff are well trained for dealing with a range of major incidents and have a practical understanding of joint working principles with other emergency services. The service’s response to national risk is good. It is an important partner in the local resilience forum (LRF). It has plans in place to test scenarios for the high-risk buildings it has identified.

The service requires improvement in how it protects the public through fire regulation. Inspections of risk sites and information recorded about them aren’t consistent, and protection work is under-resourced because of a lack of fully qualified inspectors.

The service doesn’t make full use of the range of enforcement powers available to it in supporting businesses to comply with legislation.

Questions for Effectiveness


How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure its integrated risk management plan is informed by a comprehensive understanding of current and future risk. It should use a wide range of data to build the risk profile and use operational data to test that it is up to date.
  • The service should ensure its firefighters have good access to relevant and up-to-date site-specific risk information.

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

The service’s integrated risk management plan (IRMP) covers 2018/19 to 2020/21. We found this isn’t based on a thorough understanding of risk.

The risk assessment the service has used to develop its IRMP is unclear and there is no co-ordinated approach or clear owner for this work. It is also unclear
how the service uses risk information in its operational modelling to validate its response model. This includes how the service has positioned its resources geographically to meet demand and potential risks.

The service completed an emergency response review in 2017. It further reviewed some of the data in 2018, when it evaluated the potential effect of changes to its operational response model. The reviews examined a wide range of data including:

  • previous incident data;
  • response times; and
  • a range of societal and community data.

The service used this information to inform consultation proposals for a change in its operational response model. The consultation took place in early 2019 and received 790 responses. The service made good use of social media to promote it, using videos to explain the effect of potential changes and invite feedback. It published responses to all the feedback it received on its website and used this feedback to help shape the final proposals. The service consults well with the public.

The service recently created a community risk profile (CRP) for 2018/19 to 2020/21. This will inform a new IRMP, which will replace the existing one in April 2020. The CRP reviews a wide range of data sources – including incident and societal data, and national and local risk registers – to determine the top 20 incident risks. Information from the CRP could inform operational planning assumptions and focus areas for prevention teams. However, during our inspection it was unclear how this will inform future organisational direction or help align activities to risk.

The service should ensure that it bases its new IRMP on a thorough understanding of risk and demand.

Having an effective risk management plan

The service doesn’t have an effective integrated risk management planning process and there is a lack of clarity in relation to the IRMP. The life span of the IRMP was unclear and managers had a mixed understanding of its origin and how it was informing organisational business. The service’s strategic plan also does not link to the IRMP.

Strategic documents, such as the response and business safety strategies, contain more detailed information about the IRMP’s focus areas. However, these documents don’t cover all areas of the organisation, some had outdated information, and some managers had no, or only limited, knowledge of them. We couldn’t see how information in the IRMP supports the allocation of resources to prevention, protection and response activities.

Fire stations have district plans. Station-based staff are clear on important performance areas and report on them. However, staff we interviewed weren’t always clear how these plans contributed to meeting the service’s strategic objectives.

The service is an important and valued partner of the LRF and uses its community risk register to inform its awareness of risk.

Maintaining risk information

All fire services are required to gather information about buildings that may pose a risk in the event of an emergency. This is a legislative duty that also helps keep firefighters safe. The service couldn’t assure us that all relevant buildings had appropriate risk plans. Quality assurance for this process is ineffective. Our review of these plans identified issues such as inconsistent risk rating, and in some cases, important information such as hazards and control measures didn’t align.

We were pleased to see that the service has a system in place that allows it to quickly communicate temporary safety-critical risk information, such as when a building’s sprinkler system is faulty. The service has a process in place to prepare and manage a response to a temporary risk. For example, it has plans for annual events, including festivals.

The service communicates general risk information well across the service. Staff have a good understanding of communication processes, including handovers between watches and emails and bulletins containing more formal risk information.


How effective is the FRS at preventing fires and other risks?


County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service is good at preventing fires and other risks. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure staff have received appropriate training on all the issues covered during a safe and well visit.
  • The service should evaluate all 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.

Prevention strategy

The service has a community safety strategy that details how it will focus its prevention activity, such as reducing fire deaths and injuries in the home and tackling deliberate fire setting. The strategy is clear and sets out priorities for prevention work, but we found that some staff didn’t have a good awareness of it. Similarly, staff couldn’t explain how the risk assessment in the service’s CRP was being used to develop or prioritise prevention activities.

The service concentrates much of its prevention work on its statutory responsibility to protect the public from the risks of fire. It also works with partners to support education in a range of non-statutory prevention work, such as road and water safety.

The service undertakes high numbers of safe and well visits.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the service completed 19,545 safe and well visits (also known in some services as home fire safety checks). This is 31 safe and well visits per 1,000 population, over three times the England rate of 10.4.

It has a clear process for identifying people at greatest risk of fire and making them a priority for its home safety visits. It has five priority levels, ranging from unscheduled visits to high-risk partner referrals. The service aims to make 80 percent of all safe and well visits to those in the highest risk levels.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the service completed 36.2 percent of these visits to households occupied by an elderly person and 6.1 percent to households occupied by a person registered with a disability. These are below the England rates of 54.1 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively.

As well as proactive targeting and partner referrals, the service has good relationships with local social housing providers. It has introduced a scheme where all new tenants receive a safe and well visit. So far, it has completed about 800 visits.

Our sampling of safe and well case files found many examples where staff didn’t give wellbeing advice. Staff told us they use professional judgment to decide whether it is relevant to the occupant. However, guidance for when to give wellbeing advice is vague. Some staff said that although they had completed online training, they didn’t feel it was enough and so they lack the confidence to ask wellbeing-related questions.

The service has commissioned two evaluations of its safe and well programme. A local university did one and a local authority scrutiny committee did the other.
The evaluations resulted in an action plan of potential improvement areas which the service is implementing.

We found strong local ownership of prevention activity throughout the organisation. The service has created information systems that allow crews to access data to focus their prevention activities effectively. One system gives trend information, such as where and when fires are likely to be deliberately set. Being able to see data on performance – such as the number of safe and well visits undertaken and the number of deliberate fires – means each station is aware of its priorities and can target resources effectively.

Promoting community safety

Operational managers regularly attend and take part in local partnership meetings that allow partners to share relevant data. This enables the service to work on joint initiatives, for example to reduce anti-social behaviour and deliberate fire setting.

The service works with a range of partners on the annual Safer Futures Live event. This reaches about 7,500 schoolchildren each year, giving safety advice related to fire, roads, water, electrics and the internet. Staff are passionate about the event and the service informed us that feedback from schools is always positive.

The service takes part in campaigns to promote safety messages using the National Fire Chiefs Council national campaigns calendar. Much of its campaign work is done on social media, although some practical education is provided, such as for road and water safety. The service encourages stations to run local community safety campaigns. This means prevention activities align to local risk, but there is a lack of central oversight to monitor and evaluate their effect.

Both specialist prevention and operational staff have a good knowledge of safeguarding practices. Staff we spoke to had completed their annual online training and were confident about identifying safeguarding concerns and making referrals.

In 2018, the service formed a dedicated arson reduction team, but we were surprised to find the team doesn’t have any specific objectives. The service frequently attends deliberate fires. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service attended 2,817 deliberate fires. This is an increase of 1,630 since the year ending 31 March 2013. Deliberate fires accounted for 74.5 percent of all fires that the service attended in the year ending 31 March 2018.

The service has worked with the charity Crimestoppers UK on a campaign to reduce deliberate fire setting. There were fewer deliberate fires during the campaign than in the same period the previous year. The campaign has now been broadened to cover the whole service area and two other fire and rescue services are jointly running it in the North East.

Road safety

The police and local authorities tend to lead road safety education activity, but the service works with them and other local partners to support this work. This includes taking part in national road safety campaigns and weeks of action, and it also provides the service with access to information on accidents and other data. However, the service’s arrangements are informal and lacking a clear strategy. The service’s education activity, such as giving road safety advice and accident demonstrations to groups including schools, doesn’t seem to be centrally co-ordinated. Crews have autonomy to carry out local initiatives, but the service doesn’t review or evaluate the effect of these activities.


How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure operational staff are trained to carry out fire safety audits competently.
  • The service should ensure it has an effective quality assurance process for its audit process.
  • The service should ensure that protection staff have the capacity and skill to use the full range of its available enforcement powers.
  • The service should ensure it works proactively with local businesses to support compliance with fire safety regulations.

All fire and rescue services should assess fire risks in buildings and, when 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 for enforcing the legislation.

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

Risk-based approach

The service uses a business safety strategy to guide its fire protection activities. Some staff we spoke to within the protection department weren’t aware of this document, or how it affected them.

The service’s risk-based inspection programme identifies high-risk buildings that it needs to audit. On review, we found that the information used to identify high-risk buildings is limited. Protection staff informed us that they aren’t confident that its risk-based inspection programme includes all the buildings that fall under the legislative requirements for inspection.

In the year to 31 March 2019, the service audited 53.3 percent of the 60 premises it identified as high risk. The service aims to audit each of these premises every one to three years.

The service has a team of six centrally based inspectors who audit the highest risk premises. Fire crews complete the low and medium-risk audits.

The overall number of audits in the year to March 2018 has increased by 72 (compared with the previous year’s 2,066 audits). This equates to 13.6 audits per 100 known premises and is notably higher than the England rate of 3.0.

Data provided by the service shows, of the 2,184 audits completed in the year to April 2019, 1,844 were low and medium-risk audits done by crews.

As well as the risk-based inspection programme, the service has a proactive approach to so-called themed audits. It defines its themed audits by incident data and national trends. Data and trends have led the service to inspect premises types including care homes and schools. It reviews its themed audit programme every year.

The service received 411 requests for building regulation consultations in the year to 31 March 2019. Of these, it completed 87.3 percent on time. This is an improvement on the previous year, when it completed 69.1 percent on time.

At the time of our inspection, the service only had two members of staff sufficiently qualified to the relevant standard to undertake the full range of inspection activity. The service recognises that this is an insufficient number to enable it to fulfil its risk-based inspection programme. Other staff members are working towards achieving the relevant qualifications, but until such time the department has reduced capacity. Staff told us that with a small inspection team there are concerns about resilience.

The limited amount of specialist protection skills within the service means that there are times when no specialist is working. If an urgent matter occurs, the service needs to recall staff to duty if an out-of-hours response is needed.

The service has been using operational staff to do fire safety audits since 2012. We found that it has only trained a small percentage of operational staff to undertake protection audits in line with the current national guidance (Level 4 certificate).The service informed us that a number of operational staff completed an internal two-day training course in 2012, and that it had provided some refresher training. However, some staff told us they hadn’t received any refresher training for several years and are not confident conducting audits.

The service’s future approach to training for crews is positive and it has made a significant investment in this area. At the time of our inspection, 32 additional staff were in training to attain the relevant qualification to conduct fire safety audits.

The service has a quality assurance process of sampling one audit per watch for each district each month. For the specialist team, the fire protection lead samples the work of other inspectors. We reviewed a sample of these quality assurance reports and found they lacked detail about overall performance and any learning identified. The service should ensure it has a robust quality assurance system especially as operational staff conduct most audit activity, with some conducting full audits despite only having completed limited training.

The service receives feedback from customer satisfaction surveys after audits that identify a problem. Although only few surveys are returned, every responder reported they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the level of service they had received.


The service works with local businesses to make sure they comply with fire safety regulations. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service issued 353 informal notifications and four prohibition notices. It didn’t issue any alteration notices or enforcement notices, or bring any prosecutions.

The service has informed us that it would rather not undertake formal enforcement unless it had to. The service should make sure it strikes the right balance between working with, and supporting, businesses and using its enforcement powers, so businesses comply with legislation.

The service has issued 13 prohibition notices and undertaken 2 prosecutions over the last 3 years. This limited level of enforcement activity and new team members means the service has very few inspectors who have direct experience in prosecution or investigating and preparing for a prosecution.

The service should make sure staff are trained and confident to undertake formal enforcement actions if required. The service has recently appointed a new legal adviser who has provided legal awareness training for fire safety inspectors.

We found that the service has done some joint enforcement work with partner organisations – including the police, environmental health and immigration teams – to visit premises of mutual interest.

Working with others

The service is trying to reduce the burden of attending false alarms. In the year to 31 March 2019, it attended 816 automatic fire alarm calls to non-domestic premises due to apparatus. This is an increase on the previous year when it attended 753.

Since a policy review, the service introduced charging from April 2019 to recover its costs from businesses for attending repeated false alarms. At the time of our inspection, the service had invoiced four premises. It hasn’t yet been possible to formally assess whether this new approach is reducing attendance at false alarms.

The service uses social media and its website to promote business safety. Its direct engagement with local businesses, such as attending business seminars or hosting workshops on fire safety compliance, is limited and it has chosen not to engage with any prime authority schemes. The service is working to increase activity in this area, which it says has been limited by capacity.

Staff from the protection department meet regularly with other regulatory authorities, such as environmental health and trading standards, to share information and discuss matters of mutual interest. This can result in them working together, for example, on joint inspections where regulatory powers fall across two agencies.


How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?


County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service 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 it has an effective policy to determine how it aligns its resources to risk during periods of low fire engine availability.
  • The service should ensure it has an effective system of debriefing to enable staff to learn from operational incidents and to improve future response and command.
  • The service should assure itself that it has procedures in place to record important operational decisions made at incidents and that these procedures are well understood by staff.

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

Managing assets and resources

The service has a response strategy but couldn’t show us how it has based it on a thorough understanding of risk. It struggles to maintain fire engine availability, notably during the daytime. During times of reduced fire engine availability, the service had no clear policy of how it aligns its remaining resources to the perceived risks. Despite this, the service has a quicker average response time to primary fires than other predominantly rural services. 

The service has 26 fire engines across 15 fire stations. The service has an optimum availability of 26 fire engines during the day and 24 at night. On each day we sampled, significantly fewer engines were available. Our samples of daytime cover consistently showed that between 8 and 15 fire engines were unavailable, largely due to the unavailability of on-call staff.

On most days, there are staff who take on second contracts to cover staffing shortfalls and maintain fire engine availability. Data from the service shows that in 2018/19 it covered 2,336 wholetime shifts in this way. It also covered 196 shifts using on-call staff. Despite this, there were still times when the service didn’t maintain optimum availability.

In the year to 31 March 2019, overall fire engine availability was 83.4 percent.

The service has deemed 13 of the 15 fire stations across the county essential for maintaining fire cover. Since managing operational resources is a continuing challenge, we were surprised to find that the service doesn’t have a degradation policy. This would give a consistent, risk-based approach to maintaining fire cover at times of staff and fire engine unavailability. While the service moves fire engines to designated stations to try to maintain an initial response standard, it couldn’t explain how this approach was based on an understanding of risk.

The service has identified several high-risk buildings that would need many fire engines to attend a fire. However, the service couldn’t explain its operational planning assumptions, such as how it would maintain the right level of fire cover if it had to deal with an incident needing at least ten fire engines.

Wholetime and on-call operational staff are trained to the same level which is positive. Some stations have enhanced training aligned to local risks, such as working at height or water rescue. Our sample showed staff were up to date for all areas of risk-critical training and staff were complimentary about the operational training they receive. The service’s modern training centre has a range of facilities to develop and test operational competencies.


The service has completed a gap analysis for adopting national operational guidance (NOG). It is aware that it has not fully adopted all elements of the incident command guidance and still needs to implement a number of areas. The service told us that lack of capacity is the reason for its slow adoption of NOG.

The service has a set of response standards that it monitors and reports on. These include attendance at road traffic collisions, and at house and building fires. It narrowly misses its response standard for house fires but meets the standards it sets for building fires and road traffic collisions.

The service hasn’t clearly communicated its response standards to the public. They aren’t detailed in its IRMP or easily found on its website. The standards reported via the service’s website don’t include call handling times, which give a more accurate response standard. The service should look to publicise better its commitment to the local community.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the service’s average response time to primary fires was 8 minutes and 39 seconds. This is quicker than the average response time of 10 minutes and 32 seconds for other predominantly rural services.

We visited several fire stations during our inspection. We found that firefighters can quickly and confidently access risk information using fire engine mobile data terminals. This includes information relating to premises risk, chemicals, water supplies and vehicle data for use at road traffic collisions.

The service doesn’t effectively record incident decisions at small and medium-sized incidents. Incident logs provide an accurate record of the critical decisions made by the commander at the scene of operations. Without the use of a decision log it is difficult to ascertain a clear rationale for what actions were taken and why. Although supervisors have notebooks, we found that they aren’t using them to record decisions. The service did inform us that staff record decisions at larger incidents when a command vehicle is present.


The service has a process in place to make sure it assesses all incident commanders in accordance with national guidance. All the records we sampled showed that all staff are currently up to date with incident command training.

Staff we interviewed showed good knowledge of most of the important areas of command. But supervisor-level commanders were often unaware of, or had only limited technical knowledge of, the command decision-making process.

Control staff have the discretion to change the number and type of resource they send to an incident based on the information they receive. For example, they can mobilise additional fire engines when their professional judgment suggests this is needed.

Keeping the public informed

The service proactively communicates incident information on its social media channels. Officers have had training and are confident in dealing with the media at incidents.

Staff were confident at recognising and dealing with safeguarding concerns, both at operational incidents and during day-to-day activities. They were able to explain how they would refer people to other organisations, such as social services, if needed.

The staff we spoke to in fire control were confident taking emergency calls and interacting with the public in times of need. They were also confident offering survival advice should somebody be trapped in a building by fire.

Fire control staff have an easy-to-access language translation tool that helps them if they receive a call from a non-English speaker. Staff we interviewed had received training and were confident using the tool. 

Evaluating operational performance

The service doesn’t have robust arrangements in place for operational assurance and doesn’t always identify and implement learning to promote continuous improvement.

We found a mixed picture when we reviewed the service’s debrief processes. Hot debriefs that follow smaller incidents take place, with many staff having a good knowledge of the process. The service communicates any learning in its bulletins
or the intranet. But the service should assure itself that staff read and understand this information.

Formal debriefs after larger incidents don’t include an effective way to identify and implement learning.

A sample of records from formal debriefs showed an inconsistent approach to identifying and recording information. The areas the service identifies as needing improvement don’t always align with the stated learning outcomes. Nor are we confident that the service is identifying and implementing learning to promote continuous improvement. Each debrief we sampled showed that identified learning hadn’t been implemented, or that it hadn’t been implemented on time. For example, 12 months after a large incident that involved a firefighter injury, the service hadn’t taken all the relevant actions.

Officers monitor incidents to support and review incident commanders’ performance. They do this using a mobile app, which staff view positively. Incident commanders get feedback and a central team monitors any trends.

The service monitors learning in the fire sector through the national operational learning forum. It also shares information with other services through this forum. Learning from other emergency services is reviewed through the joint operational learning process which is well managed.


How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?


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).

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


The service is prepared to deal with a range of potential incidents and scenarios. It is an important partner of the LRF, chairing the strategic board as well as several other groups. It is an active partner on all sub-groups. It also provides meeting venues and training facilities when needed. Partners spoke positively about the role that the fire service has in the group.

Overall, operational staff have a good practical understanding of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP). These principles enable emergency services to work together at incidents. Fire control staff have had training in JESIP. They know how to call on specialist advice and resources from national resilience arrangements.

The service has arrangements with its neighbouring fire and rescue services to supplement its resources at large and major incidents. It trains staff to prepare for these types of incident. However, the service should makes sure these arrangements are formalised.

It needs to develop a better approach to identifying its highest risk buildings. For example, there are two top-tier COMAH sites in the county, but the service has chosen not to give these premises the highest risk rating. The service tests its COMAH plans annually usually as a table-top exercise rather than a scenario on site.

The service has identified four buildings which it has categorised as highest risk. It has produced plans that identify the greatest risks on those sites. This will inform decision making in the event of an emergency incident. However, awareness of these plans among some operational staff was limited and the service couldn’t provide evidence of when it has last tested these plans.

Working with other services

The service has been working with other fire and rescue services in the region to share premises risk information. It recently added operational risk plans for neighbouring counties to its fire engine data terminals. However, not all crews are aware of this.

The service conducts exercises with neighbouring fire and rescue services to make sure they can work effectively with each other. We found that its approach has been ad hoc, although we note that it has improved this over the last 12 months.

As part of our inspection, we surveyed fire and rescue service staff to get their views of their service (please see Annex A for more details). Of the 182 firefighters or specialist support staff to respond, 54.6 percent stated that the service has regularly trained or done exercises with neighbouring fire and rescue services in the last 12 months. In the year to 31 March 2019, the service completed six training sessions and exercises with neighbouring fire and rescue services.

To enable the service to prepare for national response incidents, it undertakes regular national resilience training sessions and exercises. In the year to 31 March 2019, the service completed 64 of these.

The service has deployed resources to support national incidents. In summer 2018, the service sent fire engines to support the large-scale wild fires at Winter Hill, Lancashire, which was declared a major incident. It has also used resources from other fire and rescues services to support local incidents.

Working with other agencies

The service is an important LRF partner and works well with other responders. The LRF has a programme of six exercises a year to test scenarios from the community risk register. Exercises in the last 12 months included testing plans for a terrorist attack, a major transport crash, and a high-rise fire.

The service uses its training centre for several multi-agency training events and exercises. This includes police firearms training and the ambulance service being involved in a large simulated transport incident. In the year to 31 March 2019, the service completed 31 multi-agency training sessions and exercises.

As well as emergency responders, the service works well with other agencies. For example, joint working with the Environment Agency revealed a lack of compatibility between fire service and Environment Agency pumps. The service developed a fix that has changed the national ways of working between the two organisations.

The service is funded by the Home Office for marauding terrorist attack capability. However, early in the inspection process we found the service couldn’t always guarantee full capability and hadn’t updated its policy and mobilisation procedures after a change in staffing models at one of its fire stations. The service has now taken steps to address this.