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Durham and Darlington 2018/19


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

Last updated 17/12/2019
Requires improvement

A fire and rescue service that looks after its people should be able to provide an effective service to its community. It should offer a range of services to make its communities safer. This will include developing and maintaining a workforce that is professional, resilient, skilled, flexible and diverse. The service’s leaders should be positive role models, and this should be reflected in the behaviour of the workforce. Overall, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

The service could do more to win the trust of its workforce. This would help them be more confident giving feedback and accessing support. It would also help them believe in the fairness of the promotions process. The service should also address staff perceptions in relation to resilience contracts.

There are gaps in the service’s workforce plan. There should be a clear link between operational staffing and fire engine availability. The service should monitor the number of staff working extra shifts to cover vacancies, to make sure this remains an effective means of providing cover.

Staff view the training provision positively. In general, they are well trained and up to date for all risk-critical training areas. They benefit from the service’s recent investment in a state-of-the-art training centre, as well as good access to health and wellbeing support services.

The service has done well to create a health and safety reporting culture. But it needs to make sure it follows up on learning recommendations promptly.

The service’s work to increase diversity is good. For example, it has adapted its apprenticeship scheme to help recruit under-represented groups.

A newly introduced appraisals process should promote personal development and cultural improvement. Managers and staff would benefit from additional training in this.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?


County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service is good at promoting the right values and culture. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure that required actions arising from health and safety investigations happen on time and any identified learning is implemented.

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 several provisions in place to support the physical and mental wellbeing of staff. This includes support for non-related problems which can affect performance in the workplace.

Staff we spoke to were complimentary about the service’s occupational health services and access to support such as physiotherapy. The service also has good access to physical fitness facilities. Operational staff undertake regular
fitness assessments.

The service proactively promotes health and wellbeing, with activities including:

  • themed health promotions throughout the year;
  • mental health champions; and
  • Blue Light, a mental health support service for emergency responders, provided by Mind.

It has used videos featuring staff to try to break down the stigma of accessing mental health support.

The service has only recently implemented a trauma support service to support staff after traumatic incidents. This has been commonplace in other fire and rescue services for several years. Some staff had only limited awareness about the new service. The service should continue to promote staff understanding of the trauma support to embed it in the workplace. 

Health and safety

The service has a dedicated adviser to manage health and safety arrangements.
It trains staff in health and safety awareness and responsibilities. These range from induction training to formal qualifications, which are enhanced for more senior roles.

The service has a computer-based system to manage health and safety events such as near misses and accidents. Although the service aims to complete investigations within a set time, it doesn’t always meet these.

We reviewed an investigation that followed a firefighter injury at an operational incident. We found that the service hadn’t implemented some of the recommendations 12 months after the incident. The service should assure itself that recommendations that affect the health and wellbeing of operational staff and members of the public, following such an investigation, are carefully considered and the appropriate action taken where necessary.

The service has seen an increase in accident reporting. It assured us that this is because of increased staff awareness of the reporting process following recent training. Our survey results support this. Of the 245 respondents to our staff survey, 84.1 percent stated that they have been encouraged to report all accidents, near misses and dangerous occurrences in the last 12 months. Some 94.3 percent stated that they know how to report accidents, near misses and dangerous occurrences in the last 12 months.

Culture and values

The service’s staff have developed its values and behaviours which the service has promoted well. Overall, staff have a good awareness and understanding of them. The service’s values statement of ‘being the best’ resonates with staff. Most see it as a sign of ambition and feel it is motivational.

We recognise the work the service is doing to understand and continually develop its culture. It has worked with a local university to develop a cultural survey, which occurs every 18 months. It feeds recommendations from the cultural survey into an action plan. However, we found the service collects limited information on respondents which makes understanding the results and implementing targeted improvements more difficult.

Staff are divided in their opinion of the service’s culture. Some describe a culture that is positive and supportive; others describe a culture of low morale and mistrust in management. We found that some staff are not confident in raising concerns. We cover this in more detail later in the report.

Of the 245 respondents to our staff survey, 28.6 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed and 24.5 percent reported feeling discriminated against at work in the last 12 months. This is in line with the England average.

The service offers additional resilience contracts to operational staff to provide availability at times of low staffing, such as during industrial action. Some staff have strong views on this, perceiving that the service treats those who sign these contracts more favourably than those who don’t. The service is aware of this perception and has taken action to address concerns. However, it should continue to take steps to reassure staff that those who don’t sign a contract are not put at a disadvantage.

Some staff we spoke to were positive about senior leaders, saying they enact the service’s values and are now more visible. They welcomed senior leader visits to stations and leadership forums for managers. They also value the fact that leaders communicate to all staff via bulletins and through a monthly vlog.

Representative bodies we interviewed feel they have good relationships with the service and its senior management.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?


County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service 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 ensure the effectiveness of its workforce planning to enable it to meet operational and organisational needs.

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 has a three-year strategic workforce plan. The plan details workforce planning considerations such as retirement profiles. However, the link to staffing numbers, and ultimately fire engine availability, isn’t clear. For example, a daily challenge for the service is to maintain fire engine availability. On each day we sampled, several fire engines were unavailable, mainly because on-call staff were unavailable. There is nothing in the workforce plan specifically about how the service intends to increase the number of on-call firefighters. The action plan only has a general action for retaining on-call staff.

The service’s workforce plan and our interviews with managers didn’t show us how the plan would meet the needs of the service’s operational model. Similar to many other services across the country, the service has difficulties recruiting and retaining on-call firefighters. The workforce plan should specify how the service will address this problem.

In 2015, the service decided to maintain several vacancies for operational posts. This was to allow flexibility in the future workforce model. Some staff now work on second contracts, working additional shifts when required. Data from the service shows that on average in the year to April 2019, it covered 194 shifts per month in this way. The service is using this system more than originally anticipated and the administration involved is significant. Despite this, the service doesn’t always maintain optimum staffing numbers. The service should make sure it doesn’t overuse this system and that it manages vacancy numbers.

On reviewing fire engine availability, there were periods when its fire engines, as well as a specialist vehicle, weren’t always available. There was also an occasion when the officer rota wasn’t fully staffed. The service should ensure its workforce planning meets the requirements of its operational response model. Some staff we spoke to felt operational staffing lacks resilience.

The service has a three-year apprenticeship scheme where successful apprentices become operational firefighters. The service is currently employing its third group of apprentices. Over the next few years, about 30 apprentices may qualify as firefighters.

The service has taken several on-call firefighters into the wholetime system to increase wholetime numbers. This is an efficient way of employing wholetime staff, particularly when only small numbers are needed. However, the service should continue to consider the effect on on-call fire engine availability.

The service recruited wholetime trainees in 2017 and is recruiting further wholetime trainees this year. These trainees, alongside apprentices transferring to operational roles, should result in fewer staff working extra shifts to cover vacancies.

Certain areas of the service have teams with specialist knowledge and training where workforce planning should be an important consideration. At the time of our inspection, the service only had two fully qualified fire safety inspectors available from a team of six. Workforce planning for this team hasn’t been effective.

Learning and improvement

The service has invested heavily in training and development, most notably in its state-of-the-art training centre. Staff we spoke to were very complimentary about the facility and standard of central training they receive.

Of the 245 respondents to our staff survey, 81.2 percent were satisfied with their level of learning and development in the service in the last 12 months.

During our inspection, we sampled records for risk-critical operational training, such as breathing apparatus and incident command. All the records we sampled showed that staff had received training within the required timeframes.

All staff have good access to the service’s online training system. Staff must complete training modules at a set frequency relevant to their role. We found high levels of completion for training areas including safeguarding, and equality, diversity and inclusion.

The service manages training for control staff well. An annual plan directs training in important areas, such as fire survival guidance that is issued every six months. The training plan is updated every year. We reviewed a sample of training records and found them to be up to date.

The service is good at co-ordinating its station-based training. Operational crews have a monthly plan that details the essential training areas that they must cover in the month ahead.

Staff told us that they are confident operationally because of the training they received, but less confident in other areas such as prevention and protection. We heard mixed views about the training for safe and well visits and wellbeing advice. Some staff said they hadn’t had any recent training in building inspections and that they weren’t confident in this area. We note that the service has made a significant investment to formalise the level of training in fire protection in future.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that staff are confident using its feedback mechanisms.
  • The service should assure itself that it has effective grievance procedures which staff are confident in using.
  • The service should improve understanding of positive action among staff.

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 has a variety of methods to gather feedback, although some staff lack trust in the process.

The service communicates information to staff in several ways, including through briefings, bulletins and computer screensavers. The senior leadership team holds a monthly online briefing. Staff we interviewed saw this as positive and can pose questions beforehand.

The service undertakes staff cultural surveys and communicates the findings. It has an action plan to make improvements, responding to comments received through surveys. We reviewed the action plan and several actions had been completed.

During our inspection we found some staff lack trust in the service’s feedback processes. Some staff are sceptical about the survey. We heard the view that questions are phrased so you can’t give a true answer, or the answer you want to give. The service needs to ensure its staff understand how the survey is developed to prevent this misunderstanding. 

The service told us that due to staff feedback it purposely only asks for very limited personal data for the survey, so respondents are confident their anonymity is preserved. The service would be able to implement better targeted actions if it collected more specific data on respondents.

During our inspection, we identified some staff don’t feel confident raising concerns. Some believe that if they challenge ideas, managers may perceive them as negative and hold this against them which will damage future career opportunities. Of the 245 respondents to our staff survey, 60 percent felt that they were unable to challenge ideas without any detriment to how they would be treated afterwards, and 56 percent didn’t feel confident that their ideas or suggestions were listened to in the last 12 months.

The service is aware that some staff have these views and measure these through their staff survey. The service’s survey is more positive in these areas and indicates an improvement between surveys. We look forward to seeing the service’s further work to address these staff views.

The service has received very few grievances over recent years. We found that some staff across many staff groups mistrust the grievance system. Their feeling is that it could inhibit future development or career opportunities. The service knows it needs to address this and members of the human resources team visit stations to talk to staff to help break the stigma around raising concerns.

Representative bodies we spoke to feel included in the service’s communications and said they can raise ideas and concerns through access to managers, meetings and policies. We heard examples of how senior leaders had considered and adopted some of the suggestions made.


The service’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy outlines how the service intends to improve the diversity of its workforce. The service has an EDI group which a senior leader chairs. The service informed us that a member of the fire authority also attends to provide scrutiny. The group spoke positively about EDI within the service which recently appointed champions for each of the nine protected characteristics. The service has some staff groups and is planning to introduce others to provide support and networking opportunities.

We were pleased to see the service is examining ways to make its workforce more diverse. As at 31 March 2018, 2.4 percent of firefighters were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 2.2 percent. While the number of BAME firefighters the service has is low, it is one of only two English fire and rescue services whose percentage of firefighters from a BAME background is above the percentage of the local population. The number of female firefighters within the service is 5.8 percent.

The service has taken positive steps to address potential barriers to recruitment for under-represented groups. It has developed an apprenticeship programme with the aim to allow apprentices working in non-operational roles to progress to become firefighters. The scheme allows apprentices to learn at a slower pace while building up strength, endurance and fitness to achieve the recognised standards for firefighters. As a result, more women progress through to interview stage. In the last two years, the service has recruited three cohorts of apprentices. There have been 14 female apprentices appointed out of 30.

Currently the programme has a succession rate of 82 percent for females progressing to become operational firefighters.

Staff we spoke to understand the value of having a diverse workforce, but some did not understand this positive action to improve diversity. Some staff think that there are different recruitment standards for apprentices. Others feel it has tipped the balance from positive action to positive discrimination. The service should ensure staff understand the value of positive action and tackle misconceptions that have emerged.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

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

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 recently introduced a new appraisal system, which it intends to use to promote personal development and cultural improvement. The new system has an online format that is more focused on behaviours than the previous one, which was more of a traditional skills review. This is a positive step for the service. However, the service hasn’t trained all managers on how to conduct effective appraisals. It also hasn’t briefed them so that they understand what the new system is trying to achieve. The service should consider further training to maximise the effectiveness of its new appraisals system.

Staff views of the new appraisals process are mixed. Some staff feel it is an improvement. Others expressed views that the form is now too long; that managers often lack the time to do an appraisal properly; and the focus is on ‘getting it done’ rather than a meaningful conversation about performance.

Positively, the service now has the means to review completion levels, which wasn’t available through the previous system. Appraisals and progress against objectives have now been embedded in other development areas such as the promotion process.

Developing leaders

The service has a process to identify, develop and support staff with high potential to be senior leaders in the future. It does have development routes and courses that develop staff at each level. This includes management courses relevant to an individual’s role in the organisation.

The service has a ‘fast track’ scheme that is open to operational and corporate staff who want to progress to middle management. Before our inspection, it had just launched its latest programme. Uptake was low and the service is reviewing its processes.

We found strong views across operational staff that the promotion process isn’t fair. This is mainly because staff perceive that the service is more favourable towards people who sign resilience contracts. Of the 245 respondents to our staff survey, only 51 percent felt that they were given the same opportunities to develop as other staff in the service in the last 12 months.

The service should ensure it has a policy that details all aspects of the promotion process to ensure fairness, consistency and openness. This would help build trust and confidence in the process. For example, the service hasn’t updated its promotion policy since 2011, even though its promotion process has changed several times since then.