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Northamptonshire 2018/19


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

Last updated 20/06/2019
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, Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

The service provides support for the mental and physical health of its staff. It checks the welfare of all staff involved in an incident, and is testing a new peer support system. People who have used these services like them, but not all staff understand what is available or how to access it. Some managers don’t feel confident discussing mental health with their team.

The service takes health and safety seriously. All staff have appropriate training, and all accidents are investigated. However, not all staff feel that their personal safety is taken seriously. The service provides skills training for its staff, but doesn’t properly keep track of it. Many staff don’t feel that they have had enough training to do their job.

The service has a positive culture, and most staff we spoke to feel proud to work for it. Its values are widely known and understood by its staff. Staff are positive about senior management, though less so about middle managers.

The reduction in staff numbers means some feel pressured to take on too much work, and don’t have enough time to do their job as well as they would like. The service needs a workforce plan to make sure it identifies and deals with staff shortages and skills gaps. It has recruited new staff to deal with its vacancies, but this has put pressure on the training team.

Line managers don’t have enough training in dealing with informal grievances, and staff don’t have confidence in this process. Formal grievances have been investigated appropriately.

The service is committed to increasing diversity, but needs to do more to find out why it doesn’t have more successful female and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) applicants.

The service uses the council’s process for annual staff reviews. This isn’t being followed consistently, and some staff feel that it is pointless.

The service needs to develop better ways of identifying staff to promote. At the moment not all staff believe this is done in a fair and open way.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?


Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that staff understand and have confidence in the purpose and integrity of health, safety and wellbeing policies, especially how to access wellbeing support.

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 suitable processes to provide support to its staff after a traumatic incident. A hot debrief is undertaken after every incident which includes a welfare check of all individuals involved. The service has recently tried out trauma risk management (TRiM), a peer support system designed to help people who have experienced a traumatic event. This was positively received by those involved in the trial and the service is developing this further.

The service has robust procedures in place to support the physical health of staff. These processes are well understood by all staff. Those who had suffered a physical injury were complimentary about the support they had received from the service, especially the physiotherapy.

The service has a wide range of facilities to support the wellbeing of its staff. This includes access to a counsellor to discuss work and home-based concerns. The service also gives its staff access to Kind Minds, a specialist organisation that provides mental health support. Staff can also access other support through occupational health and the MIND blue light charity. Staff can access this support without needing approval from their line manager. The service has also established a wellbeing team which provides emotional wellbeing checks and counselling.

Despite all this, staff didn’t feel supported. This is due to staff not understanding the provision available to them or how to access it. Because of this, individuals seek informal support from their team rather than engaging with the specialist wellbeing support provided by the service.

Also, supervisory managers haven’t been trained in how to engage with team members who could be suffering from mental health problems. Supervisory managers said that they weren’t confident in their ability to broach the subject of mental health with their team. For this reason, they would be unlikely to offer the support which is available. Control room staff felt better able to identify and support people who might be suffering from mental health difficulties. The control room had a wellbeing advocate within the team, and it was felt that this specialist knowledge gave managers more confidence to engage.

As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of their service; 87 staff members responded, equating to 17 percent of the workforce. Of these 87 respondents, 26 percent of respondents reported feeling bullied or harassed at work in the last 12 months and 31 percent of respondents reported feeling discriminated against at work in the last 12 months. There are limitations to the staff survey which should be considered alongside the findings. We explain these on the About the Data page.

Health and safety

The service promotes a positive culture of health and safety. All staff have suitable training relevant to their role. Operational staff have further practical training which is focused on manual handling. This is refreshed every three years. Of the 87 respondents to our staff survey, 97 percent of respondents said that they knew how to report accidents and near misses and 92 percent of respondents agreed that they are encouraged to do so. This is in line with the England average.

Accidents are thoroughly investigated, and the results are shared with relevant people to make sure the organisation learns from them. Investigations are appropriately divided into three different levels, depending on the seriousness of the accident. Level one investigations are undertaken by the relevant line manager. Levels two and three are undertaken by a suitably qualified officer assisted by the health and safety lead. The health and safety committee reviews a quarterly report of all accidents to make sure that appropriate monitoring and review is in place.

Culture and values

Northamptonshire FRS has a positive and friendly culture. Most staff feel very motivated and proud to work for the organisation. The service has developed a set of values which are separate to those of the county council and more relevant to the fire and rescue service. The senior team asked the workforce to identify what they wanted their values to be, as they believed that this would result in greater ownership of those values. The service’s values underpin, and are included within, all service documentation. During the inspection we found that the service’s values were widely known and understood.

Staff are supportive of the chief fire officer (CFO) and describe him as visible and approachable. The CFO was appointed in June 2016 and staff told us he has made a significant positive impact on the culture of the service.

However, staff are less positive or trusting of middle managers. Some watches are frustrated by how little they see their station manager, and view them as not visible or approachable. There is a perception within the service that communications are hindered at the middle manager level and that this has caused a break in communications between the frontline firefighters and the senior team. Our staff survey found that 70 percent of respondents did not feel confident that their ideas or suggestions will be listened to, and 56 percent of respondents did not feel able to challenge ideas without any detriment as to how they will be treated afterwards.

The reduction in staff numbers across the service has been felt by all staff. While staff are well motivated, they are aware of a lack of support services and feel pressured to take on more than they would have previously. Staff feel pride in the service they give to the public despite the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis. However, some staff explained that the demands placed on them were too much and that they were having to work excessive hours to get the job done. Others said that they had too many responsibilities and felt unable to manage them all well.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?


Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure its workforce plan takes full account of the necessary skills and capabilities to carry out the integrated risk management plan.

Cause of concern

Northamptonshire FRS needs to ensure that it has systems in place to effectively provide, record and monitor risk-critical training.


  • By September 2019 the service must ensure that it provides, assesses and accurately records suitable operational training and that all operational staff have the proper risk-critical skills.

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

Workforce planning

Northamptonshire FRS does not have a workforce plan. Without this it may not be able to recognise and respond to staffing shortages or skills gaps. It is currently reviewing its succession planning arrangements and a new plan is being drafted.

The service has successfully addressed staffing shortages within the control room. New staff have been recruited and are being trained to ensure that all four watches have a minimum of four staff available.

The service believes that its high number of unfilled firefighter vacancies is due to the recent financial instability at the county council. Around one in three on-call firefighter posts are currently vacant. The number of on-call firefighters has been reduced further as the service draws on them to fill wholetime vacancies. The service has recruited six cohorts of on-call firefighters in 2018–19. This means that many operational staff are still developing and in need of training. This puts pressure on the training team.

Learning and improvement

We found a number of fundamental flaws with the service’s training provision, including an absence of any oversight meaning that it cannot assure itself of the current skills its workforce has.

The service runs training programmes for its operational staff that are specific to their roles. These programmes are designed to enable staff to acquire new skills, and develop and maintain the ones they already have. Initial training is provided at a training centre. Operational staff are then required to demonstrate their competence by completing a development programme which is in line with national occupational standards. The completed development programmes are then verified by trained assessors and internal quality assurers. The standard of the development process is checked by an organisation outside the service.

The service uses a training database to record how the operational staff are maintaining their skills. Workplace assessments are undertaken to ensure that staff are maintaining the required skills and knowledge to safely undertake their role.

Watch managers are responsible for keeping the training database up to date when their teams have station-based training. But it was found that they weren’t doing this. Centralised training is recorded on the database by the training department. We found that this team doesn’t have enough resources to meet the demand for training courses. Because of this, courses are often cancelled, and records aren’t always updated on the training database.

Of the 87 respondents to our staff survey, only 52 percent of respondents felt that they had received sufficient training to do what is asked of them. This is well below the England rate of 72 percent.


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 also improve communications between senior managers and staff.
  • The service should ensure that all staff understand the benefits of a diverse workforce.

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 senior officers are collectively known as the fire executive group (FEG). The FEG visits each station and control room four times a year to get feedback from staff, and to give them updates. This is a relatively new initiative which began approximately 18 months ago. The FEG visits are largely well received by staff as they feel that they are able to speak freely and are listened to. However, staff told us that when they raised issues at a FEG visit, they weren’t always told about any outcome later. This undermined their confidence that the visits had any meaningful impact.

The service participated in the 2017 county council staff survey. Once the results of the survey had been shared by the county council, the service developed an action plan to improve those areas which didn’t score well. The areas the service views as a priority include communication and managing change. However, we found that many of these actions haven’t yet been completed and staff haven’t been regularly updated on their progress. Some staff interpret this to mean that the FEG don’t take the survey seriously.

The service engages well with organisations that represent staff. These organisations felt that they are kept well informed by the service and are consulted on significant changes, such as the recent adjustment to shift patterns.

The service has appropriate procedures and policies for managing grievances. Where possible the service seeks to deal with these informally. Informal grievances are investigated and resolved by a line manager. However, line managers receive very little training about how to manage an informal grievance and need high levels of support from the county council’s HR officer. This has undermined confidence from staff that the process is being followed correctly and that the results are fair and consistent.

Formal grievances are investigated and resolved by the designated Brigade investigating officer. We found that the service’s process had been followed in all the files we reviewed. All parties involved in the grievance had been offered suitable representation and welfare support, as well as the right to appeal. The grievances had been resolved in a timely manner, in line with service policy. Where a resolution had taken longer than the accepted timescales, the service had contacted the complainant to explain why.


The service’s Equality and Diversity Strategy 2017–20 is aligned to the National Fire Chiefs Council People Strategy and links directly to the CPP. This document explains the service’s commitment to diversity. The service has reintroduced a dedicated role to focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. As part of the work in this area, the service has established a diversity action group, a female firefighters forum and eight dyslexia champions. These groups feel well supported by the FEG.

As at 31 March 2018, 2.1 percent of firefighters were from a BAME background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 8.5 percent. Also, 8.0 percent of firefighters were female. The service has recently commissioned recruitment videos featuring a diverse mix of on-call firefighters to attract a wider range of applicants. The video was supported by a wider recruitment campaign. Because of this positive action, the service saw a greater number of female and BAME applicants. This resulted in the successful appointment of five female firefighters (40 percent of the total intake). There were no successful BAME candidates and the service hasn’t yet evaluated its processes to find out why.

Disappointingly, some staff didn’t understand the benefits of positive action or a diverse workforce. Some staff wrongly believed that standards had been lowered to enable more female applicants to be successful.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.
  • The service should improve awareness and understanding of the selection and promotion process among all staff.

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 currently uses a county council system called the Personal Appraisal and Development Programme (PADP). The service’s policy is that all staff should have a PADP meeting with their line manager once a year. These meetings are intended to be used to set clear objectives and to identify how the team member can be supported to achieve their full potential.

It was found that not all operational staff have had a PADP, as the policy says they should. Some staff said that they hadn’t received a regular annual appraisal. Others stated that they had received a PADP but didn’t have clear objectives set. As at 31 March 2018, 93 percent of fire control had a completed PADP, as did 87 percent of wholetime firefighters, 77 percent of support staff and 66 percent of on-call firefighters.

Some non-operational staff didn’t value this process. They told us that there was no funding for additional training and therefore setting personal development objectives was pointless. Also, the county council had stopped pay progression so there was little incentive. The service has recognised that the PADP process may not be well understood and lacks quality assurance. The process is currently being reviewed. Of those who completed our staff survey, 50.6 percent were not satisfied with their current level of learning and development.

Developing leaders

The service doesn’t currently have a process to identify and develop staff with high potential to become the senior leaders of the future outside of its traditional development pathways. However, the service is working with Northamptonshire Police to develop a ‘coaching culture’. It is also considering the development of a new talent management process. The intention is that staff members interested in progressing their careers can attend an organised coaching session with qualified coaches.This will help them prepare for the promotion process.

We found that there is no set process for promotion. The service is currently running trials of several different methods, and intends to review the policy in due course. The current policy is dated April 2009 and was due for review April 2011. However, this review still hasn’t been done. This has resulted in an inconsistent promotion process. Continual changes to the process have undermined the staff’s confidence that it is fair and open. The service needs to establish a set procedure and ensure that it is followed.