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Northumberland 2018/19


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

Last updated 20/06/2019
Requires improvement

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. Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service’s overall effectiveness requires improvement.

The service understands its risk and has an integrated risk management plan (IRMP), the Fire and Rescue Plan, which it updates annually and uses to determine priorities. All main areas have their own departmental plans and the service oversees them well. The service needs to improve how it:

  • gathers and analyses up-to-date risk information;
  • manages building risk information; and
  • communicates with the public.

The service’s prevention work requires improvement. It needs to improve targeting those most at risk, evaluating its effectiveness and promoting safety messages to
the public.

There are several problems in this area:

  • The service says it carries out safe and well visits, but actually it carries out home safety checks.
  • Its record keeping during home fire safety checks isn’t accurate.
  • Local prevention work isn’t aligned to local risk.
  • There is a lack of media campaigns to inform the public about the risk of fire.

The service’s protection activities also need improvement. It has a risk-based inspection programme, but the number of inspectors has been reduced. So it can’t conduct the number of inspections it needs to, or carry out additional activities to promote business safety.

Response to fires also requires improvement. Problems in this area include:

  • fire engines being unavailable;
  • increasing response times;
  • commanders lacking appropriate training;
  • an inability to communicate about community risk effectively with the public; and
  • a lack of operational learning.

The service’s response to national risk is good and it is the national lead on wildfires. It takes the lead locally in training other agencies in Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP).

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 firefighters have good access to relevant and up-to-date risk information. This should include 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

Northumberland FRS has an integrated risk management plan (IRMP), which runs until 2021.

When it created this plan, the service sought the views of the community and consulted the public over a six-week period. It used various ways to raise public awareness of this consultation: for example, media campaigns and contacting a range of interested parties. The chief fire officer spoke at several local authority meetings. Data that the service gave us showed that the online survey drew 54 responses. 

The service engages with the public via a variety of means, such as community events and through the promotion of business and community safety, as well as during incidents. The service should consider greater use of digital technology to engage with its communities, including those that are harder to reach.

The IRMP details how information from other sources, such as local and national data and partner agencies, helps the service understand the community risk profile. The service uses this data to define its future priorities.

The service recognises that it lacks the capacity and the expertise to fully analyse and evaluate risk data to target its resources more effectively. To mitigate this, in 2015, the service commissioned an independent review of its operational response model. This resulted in a detailed analysis of a range of response scenarios that the service has used, and it has since changed the way it responds to incidents. It has commissioned a further review to take place in 2019 to inform the service’s new IRMP. We note this planned review has a broader scope to help inform the service’s prevention and protection activities.

Having an effective risk management plan

The IRMP covers a number of areas, including how the service identifies risk, promotes community and business safety and responds to incidents, and the service’s financial circumstances. The plan also covers how the service deals with a major incident as part of a multi-agency response, and how to prepare for such events. The service’s priorities are defined within each section.

An annual update of the plan reviews progress made against stated priorities, and revises priorities for the year ahead. The service directs the activities outlined in its IRMP through departmental business plans. Principal areas such as response, prevention and protection each have their own plans. Every month, senior leaders scrutinise progress against these plans.

Each fire station also has its own plan to inform its local activities. However, the activities described in them don’t always correspond to local risk and we found some crews do not understand how to use the local plans. Therefore, local plans did not always translate into local action to reduce risk.

Maintaining risk information

Operational crews inspect buildings to identify hazards to firefighters and draw up plans that can be used to reduce risk during an incident. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 105 inspections. From 1 April to 31 December 2018, it had completed a further 65 inspections. The service is unlikely to meet its target of 140 inspections this financial year.

At the time of our inspection, we found that the service didn’t have a nominated person responsible for managing building risk information. Staff informed us that they hadn’t received training on how to conduct these inspections and were unable to systematically gather accurate risk information. We found that some staff lacked confidence in the new risk rating system. The service couldn’t assure us that there were risk plans for all appropriate buildings.

Crews can access information about operational risk, information for road traffic collisions and operational guidance notes via mobile data terminals (MDTs) on its fire engines. We found that crews were familiar and confident with using MDTs.

Supervisory managers hold daily briefings to pass on current information about risk. This includes temporary risks, such as road closures, local events or hydrant information. We found that staff were aware of the safety flashes used to communicate safety-critical information. Stations have made good use of noticeboards to highlight important information.


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

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself it allocates the right resources to prevention activities and that prevention activities align to risk.
  • The service should evaluate and assure its prevention work, so it understands the benefits better.
  • The service should improve its use of communications to provide information about fire prevention and to promote community safety.

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’s prevention strategy is outlined in its IRMP. The service has clearly defined prevention objectives, which a central team of specialist prevention officers and local fire crews carry out.

We found the central prevention team had limited capacity. Data the service gave us shows that the team has reduced in size from 37 staff in 2008 to 9 at the time of inspection.

The service doesn’t co-ordinate its prevention work consistently enough. We found that the departmental plan doesn’t ensure that the prevention work of local crews is effective, and crews did not always understand the plan. Local activities aren’t always aligned to the local risk profile, and the central team was often unaware of this activity.

One of the main areas of prevention work is conducting home fire safety checks. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out 7,839 visits, equating to 24.6 per 1,000 of the population. This is above the England rate of 10.4 per 1,000 population.

While the service has a system in place for carrying out these visits, we identified several issues that the service needs to manage more effectively.

For example, in 2017, the service changed the name of its home safety visits to safe and well visits. This was intended to reflect a broader ambition to improve people’s wellbeing through the visits. However, we found that some staff were confused by this new approach and didn’t understand its benefits. Staff were still conducting narrower home fire safety checks just focused on fire safety rather than on fire safety and wellbeing.

When crews carry out a safe and well visit, if they find someone needs more support, they can refer them to the prevention team, which then conducts an ‘enhanced’ safe and well visit. We found no difference between ordinary and ‘enhanced’ visits. This is not an effective use of resources.

We found that the level of risk recorded for an individual following a safe and well check wasn’t always correct. The assessment of risk isn’t routinely updated to reflect interventions, or the support the service has provided, such as installing smoke alarms and providing safety advice. In March 2017, for financial reasons, the service stopped making follow-up visits to high-risk individuals.

When we reviewed some safe and well case files, we found that several files for people considered ‘very high risk’ were incomplete. Important actions hadn’t been recorded, such as whether a safeguarding referral had been made. The service could not therefore be confident it was consistently taking action to protect vulnerable people.

We found the service doesn’t assure the quality of, or evaluate, all of its prevention activities. As a result, it doesn’t know if all of its prevention activities are effective.

Promoting community safety

The service takes part in some national campaigns to promote fire safety, but local media campaigns to inform the public about local fire or incident risk are limited. Staff told us they couldn’t access social media platforms directly, which limits their prevention work.

The service runs several youth engagement programmes, including The Prince’s Trust and Young Firefighters. Both promote fire and road safety messages with a focus on personal development and on increasing young people’s life skills. Staff spoke passionately about these programmes and their positive effects. The service also runs fire safety sessions in some schools, which staff spoke positively about. While this is welcome, the number of schools involved was limited. We believe the service could engage more consistently with schools across the service.

We found the service also runs a programme called ‘Extinguish’ to reduce deliberate fire setting. Partner agencies refer young people, up to the age of 18, and the service runs an educational programme on the dangers of deliberate fire setting. Data that the service provided shows that around 60 fire setters take part each year in the programme.

The service has recently trained its staff to identify vulnerability and how to safeguard vulnerable people. We found that the level of understanding of safeguarding varied among both crews and members of the central prevention team. The service is increasing the number of safeguarding referrals it makes to partners (e.g. to its local authority or police force) each year. However, it can’t show how many of these referrals are accepted as safeguarding cases, so it does not know how useful the additional referrals are.

Road safety

The service aims to improve the quality of its road safety education and is a partner in the county’s road safety group. We found that the local station plans contain only a generic road safety objective, which isn’t necessarily aligned to local risk.

We found that local road safety activities are often reactive, responding to a request from schools or community groups, as opposed to being proactive and corresponding to the wider community need set out in the service plans.


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

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it allocates enough resources to a prioritised and risk-based inspection programme.
  • The service should ensure it works proactively with local businesses to share information and expectations on 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 identifies buildings that need a fire safety audit through its risk-based inspection programme (RBIP). This defines both the level of risk and how often a building should be audited.

In the year ending 31 March 2018, the service carried out 3.8 fire safety audits per 100 known premises (which equates to 339 audits). This compares to the England rate of 3.0 over the same period. However, this is a 57 percent reduction in the number of fire safety audits when compared with the previous year, when 786 were carried out.

Each month, the service generates a list of all the buildings that have to be audited. These are then assigned to inspectors and highest-risk buildings are always inspected first. The service has 30 buildings it classifies as being of the highest risk, which it requires to be re-inspected every three years. The service acknowledges that it can’t meet all the audits required by its RBIP. The service told us that during 2018 it failed to audit 367 premises. These were audits that should have been completed as part of its monthly tasking but were not completed primarily due to staffing shortages.

The number of trained protection staff has reduced from ten inspecting officers in 2010 to five in 2018, although for much of 2018 there were only four. While demand has reduced by 12 percent since 2010 (these include both proactive audits and reactive work in relation to responding to building consultations and complaints), the number of staff has been reduced by 50 percent.

The service is aware of the need to increase its capacity and is currently training a number of wholetime managers so they can conduct fire safety audits. This should increase the service’s ability to complete audits.

The service has trained operational crews in ‘operational health checks’. These are checks of low-risk buildings. If the crews note a concern, this is then passed to an inspecting officer to investigate further.

Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service received 128 building regulation consultations and responded to 93 percent of these in the required timeframe.

Positively, the service has 24/7 cover where a qualified fire safety officer is available to respond to any fire safety concern and take the required action. This may include prohibiting a building’s use if deemed unsafe.


The service works with local businesses to make sure they comply with fire safety regulations. We found that the service has the appropriate skills in place to take enforcement action when necessary.

In the year ending 31 March 2018, the service issued 99 informal notices and one prohibition notice. It did not issue any alterations notices or enforcement notices, or pursue any prosecutions.

Despite the low amount of enforcement activity, the service is ensuring its staff have the confidence and expertise to carry out enforcement work if considered appropriate. Inspectors receive annual training to maintain their competence in prosecuting. The service has also developed closer working relationships with the county council’s legal team.

The service is part of a regional working group with other fire and rescue services to seek a consistent approach to enforcement activity. We found evidence of some joint enforcement work with partners such as Border Force.

Working with others

The service is attempting to reduce the burden of attending false alarms. In June 2018, it introduced a new policy to recover its costs from businesses for attending repeated false alarms. The service intends to evaluate this policy after 12 months.

Trading standards, environmental health, food standards and building control bodies are co-located at the fire service’s headquarters. This creates the opportunity for the routine exchange of relevant information. For example, these partners are working together to resolve a range of problems at a hotel that are of mutual concern. This partnership working helps make sure that any potential interventions are effectively co-ordinated.

The service has limited capacity to proactively engage with the business community to promote safety and compliance, which is disappointing.


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

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure staff know how to command fire service assets at incidents effectively and safely.
  • During incidents, the service should ensure it gives relevant information to the public to help keep them safe.
  • The service should ensure an effective system of debriefing to enable staff to learn from operational incidents to improve future response and command.

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

One of the biggest challenges for the service is managing an operational response across a large, sparsely populated county.

The service’s operational response model was independently reviewed in 2015. As at 31 March 2018, the service had 15 fire stations and 22 operational fire engines.

In the 12 months to 30 September, the service attended 3,404 incidents. Based on data provided by the service, seven of 15 fire stations attended fewer than 50 incidents each in the year ending 31 March 2018.

In the year ending 31 March 2018, the average response time to a primary fire was 11 minutes and 54 seconds; this is an increase from 10 minutes and 46 seconds the previous year. The service has one of the slowest response times to primary fires compared with other predominantly rural services.

At some on-call fire stations we found the service regularly suffers from staff shortages resulting in fire engines being unavailable to respond to incidents. To mitigate this, the duty manager will move staff between stations to achieve the best level of fire cover. Priority is given to stations it considers most important due to their location or risk profile. From April to December 2018, the average monthly availability of fire engines ranged from 83 percent to 90 percent.


The service is in the process of adopting national operational guidance. When this requires the introduction of new policies, we found that there was a clear action plan to develop relevant training packages.

The service has a shared fire control system with Tyne and Wear FRS. This has improved some areas of joint working and helps to ensure that resources are effectively deployed. However, we noted that at night the service’s fire control may be staffed by two people who are also responsible for managing out-of-hours calls to the local authority. The service should ensure this arrangement is resilient and has the capacity to respond to a protracted major incident.

The service has recently introduced a new system for responding to smaller low-risk incidents such as bin fires. It can now deploy a fire engine with a reduced crew of three firefighters. The service stated this has improved the availability of appliances for this type of call, but we noted a degree of confusion among both fire control staff and crews about what incidents a fire engine with a smaller crew could attend. The service should make sure its staff understand how this system works.


We found that there was inconsistency in the way the service trains its commanders at all levels across the organisation. For example, we found:

  • knowledge gaps in technical areas among supervisors. These gaps concerned changes in practices that had been made to national operational guidance in 2015;
  • middle-tier commanders being used to command incidents when they had not attended a role-specific command-training course; and
  • strategic-level commanders who hadn’t completed fire-specific strategic command courses.

The service should make sure commanders have the necessary training and are competent to safely and effectively command operational incidents. 

Keeping the public informed

The service doesn’t routinely provide information to the public. Its website contains general safety information, but no details regarding ongoing or previous incidents.

The service has limited social media channels to give the public real-time information about incidents such as road closures, smoke plumes or safety hazards. This limits its ability to warn or inform people who may be affected by an ongoing incident.

We found staff hadn’t received recent training in providing essential information to the public. For example, fire control staff haven’t received safety-critical training, such as providing survival advice to callers trapped by fire during incidents, in a number of years. The service doesn’t provide media training to operational officers at any level across the organisation.

Evaluating operational performance

The service has recently introduced a new system to gather feedback from operational incidents. Understanding of the new process varied. We found that over a period of six months there hadn’t been a single feedback form returned from hot debriefs that follow operational incidents. Also, the use of formal debriefs, conducted after larger incidents, wasn’t widespread.

The service has introduced an active monitoring system to assess the performance of incident commanders. This enables a more senior colleague to monitor an incident in live time and provide feedback to the commanding officer about their performance.

The service produces ‘safety flashes’ to communicate any risk-critical learning and we found that crews were aware of this process. However, we found that crews weren’t aware of the service’s operational bulletin, which is used to communicate any wider learning from operational debriefs.

We found that the service reviews major incidents that occur across the country to identify any potential learning. An action plan is then produced to embed this learning and monitor its implementation.


How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?


Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure that supervisory managers know how to apply Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles.
  • The service should ensure its firefighters have good access to relevant and up-to-date risk information. This should include cross-border risk information.

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 has a dedicated team that manages civil contingency arrangements for both the service and the council. The fire service takes a lead role in managing and supporting major multi-agency events that occur within the county. The service’s headquarters is used as the multi-agency command room.

The service is an active partner of the local resilience forum and has plans in place that link to the community risk register. These include responding to incidents such as wildfires, major flooding and a site subject to control of major accident hazards regulations. We found these plans were well understood and tested through an exercise programme. We saw evidence of debrief reports following major events or exercises. However, it wasn’t clear how the service had implemented the learning from these.

The service takes the lead in training other agencies in Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP). This supports closer work through a greater understanding of each other’s roles at a large multi-agency incident. However, we found that the service’s supervisory managers didn’t show a good enough understanding of JESIP principles to be able to apply them at a multi-agency incident.

Due to the geography of the county, wildfires are a potential risk. The service is the national lead on wildfire incidents. It has 55 wildfire plans in place, which it has created with its partner agencies. We found this system to be well managed.

Working with other services

The service has formal arrangements with other fire and rescue services to access specialist support when necessary. For example, the service doesn’t have its own aerial ladder platform (ALP), so it has an agreement with a neighbouring service to use its ALP when the need arises. The service should make sure these arrangements are regularly exercised.

The service has a plan to exercise annually with its neighbouring services and we found some evidence of this taking place. However, the service cannot readily and consistently access risk information in premises in all neighbouring services. This has the potential to compromise firefighters’ safety should they be required to respond to an incident. The service should take steps to address this.

Working with other agencies

We found evidence of the service exercising with partners such as mountain rescue, the police and the ambulance service to test the multi-agency response to incidents.

The service’s close integration within the local authority means that it assumes a variety of roles when major events occur. This was evident in the service’s response during adverse weather in 2018 when it supported the community’s broader needs. Its actions ranged from snow ploughing to providing vital access to rural areas and using its 4×4 vehicles to deliver medicines and prescriptions to remote communities. We see this as a good example of the wider role that a fire and rescue service can play in supporting its communities.