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

The service needs to do more to improve its values and culture. Staff feel the service’s values are too aligned to the county council rather than the fire service. As a result, these do not influence the behaviour or work of fire staff. We also have concerns with the service’s culture. Some staff told us they felt unable to raise concerns and give feedback, and that the behaviour of some managers was poor. We also heard examples of bullying and harassment. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of staff to get their views of their service. The survey showed that, of the 93 respondents (27 percent of the workforce), more than a quarter felt that they had been bullied or harassed 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.

Training needs to improve. The service lacks a strategy to make sure all operational commanders have had the right training. Control staff don’t have a structured training plan or a way to record their training, and there aren’t any plans to standardise local training.

The area that the service covers is one of the least ethnically diverse in England. But the service could still do more to encourage diversity and its understanding of it within the workforce.

Staff views about the value of the appraisal system are mixed, mainly because firefighters have group appraisals. The service should offer all staff individual appraisals and tailored feedback.

Promotion possibilities are limited, and the service lacks a formal talent management process. The service should rely less on people in temporary promotions.

More positively, the service’s awareness of the importance of mental health wellbeing is growing. It has blue light champions and offers a range of occupational and mental health services, although not all staff seemed aware of them. It updates its health and safety statement of intent annually.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure its values and behaviours are understood and demonstrated at all levels of the organisation.

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 provides good wellbeing support for its staff. We found that there was a growing awareness across the service of mental health and wellbeing. The service has trained blue light champions who raise awareness of mental health in the workplace. Most staff we spoke to were aware of the support that this role could offer, how to recognise any mental health concerns, and how they could refer someone for support.

The service has established procedures for debriefing critical incidents to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the staff involved. More broadly, we found staff know how to access support if they need it and staff who had sought support were complimentary about the benefits.

The service uses an occupational health service provided by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, via Northumberland County Council, to provide occupational health support. We found there to be a range of occupational health and wellbeing services available. Some staff said they felt it was difficult to access this support and that they wanted to be able to self-refer, without having to go through their line manager or HR. The service should do more to promote its occupational health support, so that staff are fully aware of all the services on offer and how to access them. 

Health and safety

The service has a health and safety (H&S) statement of intent. This is updated every year and signed by the chief fire officer.

We noted a disparity between the aspirations of central H&S and what is being done locally. We found that, while staff had some knowledge of their responsibilities about H&S, they had gaps in their knowledge about guidance and training, and about the support available to staff. We note that the service is reviewing its H&S governance, including its policy.

We consider the service’s system for reporting and recording near misses and accidents robust.

Culture and values

The service is currently working to the county council’s people strategy. It is developing its own fire-specific people strategy, which it hopes to launch later this year, which will cover engagement, development, culture and leadership, and set action points and targets.

We found that most staff we interviewed as part of our inspection are proud to work for the service. Despite this, there are some underlying problems which the service needs to address. For example, we found a widespread misunderstanding of the service’s values and mission statement at all levels of the organisation. Most people were aware of the service’s values poster, which is displayed on noticeboards, but they weren’t aware of any specifics or, more broadly, how the values have helped to shape their work or behaviour. Staff told us they felt the values are more aligned to the county council than the fire service and weren’t relevant to their work. Staff didn’t feel that the service had a set of organisational or behaviour values that they could identify with.

We found concerns among staff about the behaviour of some senior managers. Some staff viewed management as autocratic and overly assertive. Others described a culture of not being able to approach managers. They felt their views were not heard and that they were undervalued.

As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of the service. Of the 93 respondents, 27 percent felt they had been bullied or harassed at work over the past 12 months. The service told us it is in the process of commissioning a cultural survey which should support the service to identify and then address staff concerns.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure its workforce plan includes how it intends to reduce the number of staff in temporary positions.
  • The service should assure itself that it trains all staff properly for their roles.
  • The service should make sure there is a training plan for all staff and there is a consistent method of recording when staff 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 does some workforce planning, albeit not to the level we have seen in other services. This can partly be explained by its smaller size and its recent focus on reducing staff numbers.

Since 2010, the service has had to make large reductions in its workforce. It has had to make difficult decisions to reduce its staffing numbers from 423 FTE staff to 306 FTE in the year ending 31 March 2018. Posts have been removed from all parts of the organisation including operational, support and management roles.

With the recent focus being on reducing staffing numbers, until recently, workforce planning has focused on introducing new organisational structures and creating a more multi-skilled workforce so that a single member of staff can fulfil multiple roles as required. The service recognises that it needs a more structured approach in future and has recently adopted the county council’s workforce planning methodology.

Maintaining a fully trained and resilient on-call workforce is a constant challenge for the service. We found that, at some stations, staffing levels are good and there is a waiting list to join. But, at others, there were notable staff shortages, which means that, at times, engines aren’t available to respond to incidents.

The service is now part of a regional partnership for recruiting and training wholetime firefighters and is intending to use this new arrangement for the first time later this year. We will monitor how a regional process of this kind achieves the outcome of creating a more diverse workforce.

We are concerned to see that a high number of staff are temporarily promoted. As of 31 December 2018, 25 staff were on temporary promotion; this is 7 percent of its workforce headcount. Notably, the longest temporary promotion, as of 31 December 2018, was nearly seven years. The service should seek to reduce these figures in future. Temporary promotions aren’t good for organisational stability and can leave staff feeling insecure in their role.

Learning and improvement

The service co-ordinates and provides safety-critical training at its central training centre. We found that the service has invested in its operational training provision and has recently installed new breathing apparatus training facilities.

We observed some good practice at fire stations, with structured training plans to prioritise and direct future training, but this wasn’t consistent. Some watches couldn’t demonstrate they had a robust plan for future training. At wholetime fire stations, we found the need to deploy fire engines and staff to provide fire cover at other stations often interrupts planned training.

Staff within fire control don’t have a training plan. Training is carried out locally, usually co-ordinated by the watch manager. We found gaps in key areas of training, such as fire survival. We also found that fire control staff haven’t been able to record their training for the past 12 months.

Corporate staff have an annual training plan aligned to the council’s wider workforce development plan. This includes a series of mandatory e-learning modules that they complete annually. However, the service does not keep accurate training records for operational commanders, including their level of competence.

The service has started conducting departmental debriefs to identify areas of good practice and areas of learning within departments. We saw an example of a debrief which had an action plan to address the points raised. We look forward to seeing what improvements this initiative brings.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure issues identified through its staff survey are appropriately addressed and that actions taken are communicated to staff in a timely way.
  • The service should assure itself that staff are confident using its feedback mechanisms.
  • To identify and tackle barriers to equality of opportunity, and achieve a more representative workforce, the service should make sure diversity and inclusion are well understood and become embedded in 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 uses annual staff surveys to gain staff feedback. In 2017, it also carried out a survey to ask for feedback from on-call staff on specific issues.

We found mixed views among the staff about the surveys. Some voiced concerns that their responses to a survey generated from a link sent to their personal email addresses wouldn’t be treated confidentially. Others felt that the survey wouldn’t result in any action.

The service had taken action as a direct result of issues raised in the on-call survey, although some of these could have been resolved more quickly.

We found that, while corporate staff felt confident about speaking to their line manager or even to a senior manager about an issue, some operational staff felt less confident to raise concerns. We noted a perception among staff that raising a concern might damage their career prospects, or their chances of moving from an on-call to a full-time role in future.

Some staff expressed similar concerns about the grievance procedure. In the year ending 31 March 2018, there had been low levels of formal grievances submitted. We do not know the reasons for this, although managers told us that issues were often dealt with informally without the need to raise a formal grievance.


The service has a good understanding of its community demographics. Areas of Northumberland are among the least ethnically diverse in England. The service has carried out a review of the county’s demographics, including its working-age population. While the service is currently downsizing, it is identifying how it can improve the diversity of its workforce when it next recruits.

As at 31 March 2018, only 0.7 percent of all its firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 1.6 percent. Also, only 6.5 percent of all firefighters were female.

The service has previously followed the council’s equality and diversity strategy, but it now aims to produce its own fire-specific equality and diversity strategy. It has also recently established an equality, diversity and inclusion staff group chaired by the council’s lead member for engagement and inclusion.


How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place a system to actively manage staff careers, to diversify the pool of future and current 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

We found mixed views among staff about the purpose and credibility of the service’s appraisal system. Some staff were unclear about their personal goals and continuing professional development objectives.

The service has an appraisal system which requires staff to have an annual appraisal with a six-month review. We found that this didn’t always happen, and that firefighters on station have a ‘group’ appraisal instead. Staff informed us that this was a generic briefing given by a supervisor to a group of people, and largely focused around broader station objectives. Staff stated they did not get individual feedback, objectives for the year ahead or recognition for work they had done.

In contrast, we found that corporate staff had individual appraisals and were largely positive about them. We heard examples of how they could get feedback about performance and make development requests. However, feedback from both corporate and operational staff was that appraisals felt like a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and line managers often lacked the time to do them properly.

Developing leaders

The service now has a lean middle and strategic management structure. There are eight managers from group manager level up to, and including, the chief fire officer. There are no corporate staff above group manager level within the service.

The service’s management structure is stable as the people with group manager or equivalent roles have held these roles for several years. Opportunities for promotion are therefore limited, not least as a result of the high number of temporary promotions, some for several years, and progression depends on senior officers retiring or leaving the service.

We found that the service lacks a formal process for developing high-potential staff. It has recently introduced a new, more comprehensive development programme for aspiring managers. Those identified as having potential can join the programme to move to a higher role. Data that the service gave us showed that 18 people are being developed for supervisory roles, and 8 for station manager roles. A process for fire control staff and group managers is due to be launched soon.