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

There is a need for significant improvement in the organisational culture of Essex County FRS. The service has a legacy issue of failings at all levels, including inappropriate behaviour and bullying. These failings were highlighted in an independent review in 2015. The service has since moved under the governance of a police, fire and crime commissioner and has appointed a new chief fire officer, who in turn has appointed a new service leadership team.

The police, fire and crime commissioner is clear about the need to continue to improve culture. There is a strong commitment from the chief fire officer and her team to address these issues, and recently introduced initiatives are designed to help with this.

A good start has been made, with positive feedback from staff on visible improvements. However, the scale of the challenge is significant. Embedding strong positive values through every level of the organisation will take time, and there is a lot of work to do. Poor data around workforce diversity makes effective analysis difficult. It is also clear that some staff don’t fully understand the benefits of, and need for, diversity. We were disappointed to find examples of behaviour that don’t reflect the service’s values, and concerned to find reports of bullying and harassment made by staff not being addressed by some managers.

Some firefighters have secondary contracts of employment outside the service. The service only has records of very few of these, although there is a robust policy in place. It should make sure that these staff are well rested and safe to work.

There isn’t enough assurance to make sure that competence levels among staff are being maintained through training. The service is taking this seriously and is investing £1.4m in improving operational training.

Significant work has been done to improve the appraisal process and completion rates have dramatically improved. Staff told us that they welcomed the new approach of senior managers, but they said middle managers needed to be braver in tackling poor performance.

The service has good processes for looking after staff wellbeing. This includes supporting personal issues outside work. Staff who have used these services have praised them. However, others don’t know this support exists. The service is good at looking after its staff’s health and safety, and it learns from accidents and dangerous occurrences.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?


Cause of concern

There is a clear intent from senior officers to improve the culture of the service, and many staff reported improvements under the new chief fire officer. However, more needs to be done. We are concerned to have found evidence of behaviours that are not in line with service values, such as sexism and bullying. Despite being reported, at times these behaviours have not been challenged by managers.


By 31 March 2020, the service should produce an action plan that ensures:

  • it communicates service values to staff effectively, ensuring that they understand and can demonstrate acceptable behaviours at all times; and
  • managers at all levels demonstrate service values through their positive workplace behaviours and are capable of challenging inappropriate language and behaviour when identified.

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

Workforce wellbeing

Staff told us that Essex County FRS’s wellbeing processes have improved in recent years. They have access to physiotherapy services and an employee assistance programme. Those who have used these praised them, but not all staff are aware of them.

Some staff didn’t feel supported in managing large workloads. Views about the service’s occupational health service were mixed. Some managers would like more training in how to identify signs and symptoms of stress in their colleagues.

The service offers support after traumatic incidents although some staff don’t understand the process.

Health and safety

The service has an established health and safety culture. It learns from accidents – for example, it updated its driver training in response to a rise in near misses. This followed new fire engines being introduced.

Staff get health and safety messages via email bulletins. These are followed up by questionnaires to confirm that everyone understands them. The health and safety team has visited fire stations to raise awareness of issues. It also updates staff each month.

Of the 258 staff who responded to our survey, 94.2 percent knew how to report all accidents, near misses and dangerous occurrences.

We found a lack of oversight of staff working hours and a lack of reliable information about secondary employment. This is despite a robust policy being in place. The service needs to make sure that staff are well rested and safe to work, and that the working time regulations are followed.

Culture and values

Following an independent cultural review in 2015, the service’s senior leaders are clear about their intention to improve its culture. Staff have seen noticeable improvements. An example is the new chief officer, who many staff described as positive and approachable.

Staff created service values. While there has been a growing commitment to them, some staff don’t yet understand them.

Senior managers visiting workplaces have received mixed feedback from staff. Some told us that they rarely see, or have never met, their senior leaders. This is despite some working in the same building.

The service has commissioned an external company to carry out engagement with every member of staff so their views can be heard. This will inform a ‘cultural improvement plan’. And the chief fire officer has introduced a monthly recognition award and annual staff awards.

Despite these measures, we were concerned to find evidence that inappropriate behaviours remain. A number of staff told us they had been victims of unacceptable language and behaviour. This included sexism. And staff gave examples of being bullied and ostracised by some managers and peers.

Some support staff reported poor treatment at the hands of operational staff. This included harassment. And we found significant divisions between wholetime staff and on-call staff. Some on-call staff told us they felt that wholetime colleagues looked down on them. Of the 258 responses to the staff survey, 26.0 percent said they had felt harassed or bullied at work in the past 12 months.

We were most concerned at the lack of action from a range of managers to address these issues when concerns were raised. The service has a lot of work to do to challenge these behaviours, to create an inclusive culture.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained for their role. It needs to ensure all staff keep their skills up to date and have a consistent method of recording when they have received training.

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 predicts retirements and movement of operational staff quarterly. This helps predict shortages in operational cover.

Detailed six-monthly workforce planning reports are given to the service leadership team. This helps it plan recruitment, training and promotions. But there is a lack of effective workforce planning in some critical areas. For example, there are vacancies in the technical fire safety department. This means that the service is failing to meet its targets.

A central staffing team assesses the skills at stations – for example, the number of fire engine drivers. This helps to plan who should attend which courses, and from which stations. The service offers enough courses to meet predicted demand. This means that staff can maintain their core skills, and progress, to help meet the service’s needs.

The service offers good staff training from its training centre and focuses on risk-critical skills. It carries out theoretical testing and practical assessment. And it gives initial and refresher courses for wearing breathing apparatus and for commanding incidents. There are clear assessment criteria linked to national standards. If risk-critical skills expire, staff don’t take part in operational duties until their training is up to date.

As mentioned earlier, the service has prioritised cultural change. But many managers are aware that they need training in essential ‘softer skills’. These include performance management, industrial relations, and handling discipline and grievances. The service should consider making this training compulsory. This would make sure that managers at all levels are able to lead staff through this time of change.

Until recently, the service had a high number of staff in temporary posts. As at 31 December 2018, there were 123 staff on temporary promotion compared with 196 as at 31 March 2017. This has recently been addressed with the ‘talent pool’ promotion process. Data provided by the service shows it appointed 52 staff into substantive roles. Data from the service shows 46 more staff have entered the ‘pool’ and are being trained for future roles.

Learning and improvement

The service has a good central recording system for training, such as breathing apparatus and incident command. This highlights when staff need to complete refresher courses. These centrally taught core skills are well maintained and supported by the training team. Operational staff told us that centrally delivered training was of a high standard.

But we found a different picture of locally provided training at stations. This is supported by e-learning packages and is led by the service’s TASK system. This records that staff have attended a training session. But the service is aware that the system doesn’t offer good evidence of competence.

There were many inefficiencies with the system, including when trying to audit skills and competencies. Some e-learning packages were described by staff as being of poor quality. The service is aware of the problems with TASK and is making improvements.

As well as issues with recording training, staff told us they were unhappy with the standard of training at stations. This training is mostly provided by line managers who aren’t qualified to train or assess. There is no co-ordinated training programme for fire control staff. And flexible-duty officers were concerned that there is no oversight of their TASK records.

Only 61 percent of the 258 staff who responded to our survey said they felt they had enough training to enable them to do their job. The service is aware that it needs to do more to make sure that the workforce has the right skills and capabilities. It is investing in new training staff. These staff will work a rota pattern. This will include evenings and weekends to help them better support on-call training.

The service has training schedules for stations to follow, which include arranging training exercises with neighbouring stations. It completes many training exercises with other agencies and FRSs. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service undertook 10 joint exercises/training with other FRSs, 49 multi-agency exercises/training and one national resilience exercise/training. These help the service work better with others.

Operational crews haven’t had enough training to enable them to carry out protection activities. And there aren’t records of the limited training done so far.

But officers who carry out safe and well checks have an annual training plan and monthly updates. They are trained to a high standard.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that it has effective grievance procedures which include clearly documented actions and outcomes.
  • The service should make sure issues identified though its staff survey are appropriately addressed and that actions taken are communicated to staff in a timely way.
  • 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 whole of the service.

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 range of employee engagement and feedback tools. It has made changes as a result of this feedback. But it isn’t always good at telling staff about these changes. The senior leadership team told us of its continued commitment to visiting all staff and locations. But we found mixed opinions about whether the senior leaders are visible to staff.

The service has manager briefings and had a recent exercise called ‘Everyone Matters’. As part of this, so far over 200 employees have talked to independent reviewers about how they feel the service could improve.

There is an annual staff survey. This is managed by a third-party company that generates an action plan for addressing staff concerns. But many staff are reluctant to take part because they don’t trust its anonymity. This is a result of a culture of mistrust. The results weren’t communicated well to staff either.

The service meets regularly with unions. Not all of them are willing to attend together. So, managers have to hold two meetings each time. Union representatives gave us examples of times when their feedback had been listened to and changes made. But there were also examples of delays to putting policies in place due to a failure to reach agreement with unions.

The service is asking for feedback from its on-call staff. This is being done through focus groups. It will help it to work out how to improve the on-call experience, recruitment and availability.

There were examples of poor communication around structural changes within teams. Staff told us they heard about changes to their working conditions unofficially. They felt this was disappointing.

During our review of grievances, record keeping was poor, the management system was hard to audit and some files were missing or incomplete. There was little evidence of learning from grievances. Managerial staff would benefit from training in resolving disputes and grievance. And the service needs to assure itself that actions and outcomes are dealt with effectively.


The workforce doesn’t reflect its wider community. As at 31 March 2018, 1.8 percent of its firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 6.7 percent. A total of 53.4 percent of the workforce ethnicity is not stated. This makes analysis difficult. This is by far the highest percentage of any English FRS. The England rate is 9.6 percent.

As at 31 March 2018, only 3.3 percent of Essex’s firefighters were female. The service has tried to address this by targeting its recruitment at women and people from BAME communities. It uses targeted social media and advertising campaigns. The aim is to increase applications from under-represented groups.

As a result, the service states that 10 percent of its recent wholetime recruits were female. The service has also recently established a women’s forum. This is sponsored and supported by the chief officer.

Despite this work, some staff don’t fully understand the benefits of, and need for, diversity. They were negative about initiatives to address this. There was evidence of poor behaviour towards people who had raised concerns about inequality. There were several examples of managers failing to tackle inappropriate behaviour such as gender discrimination. Some managers have failed to support staff with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. Of the 258 responses to the staff survey, 24.4 percent said they had felt discriminated against at work in the past 12 months.

The service has recently appointed 50 volunteer ‘dignity at work’ champions to help support staff in the workplace. This has been well received by staff. But there is a lot of work to do.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?


Essex County Fire and Rescue Service is good at managing performance and developing leaders. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

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.

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 has an appraisal process for all members of staff. It has clear reporting and monitoring lines, and is supportive of staff and management. After a recent review, the service has improved the process. Completion rates have dramatically increased as a result.

In March 2018, 2.3 percent of wholetime firefighters had completed appraisals. By March 2019, this had risen to 75 percent. The process includes having effective conversations with line managers at least twice each year.

Despite completion rates improving, staff have mixed views about the effectiveness of the appraisal process. Some welcome it and feel that it is easier to complete appraisals than before. Others feel it is only relevant to those seeking promotion and see it as a ‘tick box’ exercise.

Some staff weren’t clear whether there is a link to service objectives. They said that they would benefit from training in how to complete appraisals effectively. The service should make sure that its new process is giving all staff the opportunity to have genuine and meaningful conversations about performance.

Some staff told us they felt there is a lack of effective performance management. They told us leaders, particularly middle managers, need to be braver in tackling poor performance of staff. They welcomed the new style of leadership from the senior leadership team but were keen to see significant organisational change and improvements.

Of the 258 staff who took part in our survey, only 52.7 percent felt satisfied with their current level of learning and development.

Developing leaders

The service’s annual review policy doesn’t have a defined process for identifying high achievers. Its promotion process establishes when people are ready for promotion. But there isn’t a clear process for finding potential senior leaders early on.

The people strategy shows an intention to create a development programme. This would offer fast-track development for suitable candidates, but it isn’t mentioned in the promotions or appraisal guidance.

Access to the promotion process was fair and transparent. Those who are successful enter the service’s development pool. They are offered development and temporary promotion opportunities. But there were mixed views on how fair the process was for securing a permanent or temporary role. There were examples of managers interfering with the process. These included some people being selected over others, despite being less qualified for the role. Of the 258 staff who responded to our survey, 51.6 percent felt they are not given the same opportunities to develop as others.