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Suffolk 2018/19


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

Last updated 17/12/2019

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, Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is good at looking after its people.

Suffolk FRS is good at promoting its values and culture. It offers a variety of wellbeing support to staff. But its current arrangements to support staff following a traumatic incident aren’t effective. The service is addressing this.

The service shares health and safety information effectively with staff.

It is working to reinforce its values and make them common practice among the workforce.

The service doesn’t carry out fitness testing in line with national recommendations, but it has started to introduce annual fitness testing for operational staff.

Suffolk FRS is good at getting the right people with the right skills. The service understands its workforce profile. It recruits and trains to avoid skill gaps. And it is working to recruit more on-call firefighters.

The service has an effective risk-critical training programme. Training is consistent for both wholetime and on-call staff. The updated training recording system is more accurate, reliable and easy to use.

The service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity. It effectively seeks feedback from staff, and acts on it.

It needs to improve the effectiveness of its grievance procedure and has begun to do so. It is also working to overcome barriers to recruiting people from under-represented groups.

Suffolk FRS requires improvement at managing performance and developing leaders. It needs to improve its promotion processes, to ensure they are consistent and fair.

It has introduced a new appraisal system for station-based staff. And it is working to increase the number of staff who have clear and specific personal objectives.

Currently, the service doesn’t have a talent management programme, but does offer a variety of leadership training.

Questions for People


How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?


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

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure that it has effective arrangements in place to support staff following a traumatic incident.
  • The service should ensure 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 offers a variety of wellbeing support to staff. This support includes occupational health, physiotherapy and counselling services, which are offered externally.

The service has signed MIND’s Blue Light Time to Change pledge. Mental health first aiders from across Suffolk County Council are available to offer support to staff. The service is also continuing to train more fire service staff to carry out this role. The service hopes that these actions will further raise awareness of mental health in the workplace, so that staff will feel more comfortable about asking for support if and when they need it.

Staff told us that the service’s current process of offering support following a traumatic incident is slow. They also said that it doesn’t give an appropriate level of support. The service has acknowledged this, and has a plan to introduce a trauma risk management process in the near future. The service should make sure that it progresses this plan.

Currently, the service carries out fitness testing for operational staff during medicals that take place every three years. This isn’t in line with national guidance, which recommends annual testing. Suffolk FRS is now trialling a new annual approach, with a view to introducing it across the service.

Staff told us that they don’t feel there is enough support in place to help them to improve their fitness and prepare for the new tests.

The service should make sure that it introduces annual fitness tests for all operational staff, and that it gives staff enough support to enable them to maintain the necessary level of fitness.

Health and safety

The service has a clear health and safety policy, which is an extension of Suffolk County Council’s policy. The service’s policy includes a statement of commitment from the chief fire officer. The policy clearly defines the responsibilities of staff at all levels to promote health and safety.

The service has a recording and investigation process for all accidents and near misses that is well established. As part of our inspection, we carried out a survey of FRS staff to get their views of their service (please see Annex A for more details). Of the 191 respondents to our staff survey, 97.4 percent know how to report accidents, near misses and dangerous occurrences. And 92.7 percent stated that they were encouraged to report all accidents, near misses or dangerous occurrences.

During our inspection, there was evidence of a detailed investigation following an accident that occurred during training. The investigation report includes a series of recommendations that balance the risk of such training against the benefits that training provides.

The service gives staff health and safety information using a variety of methods including safety-critical bulletins, the staff mobile phone app, and regular health and safety performance reports. During our inspection, there was evidence of these. And staff were aware of the matters that the service had highlighted in its most recent communications.

Culture and values

As part of Suffolk County Council, the service works to the same values as the rest of the council, namely:

  • Achieve – we are the best we can be;
  • Support – we work as one team;
  • Pride – we take pride in and are proud of what we do;
  • Inspire – we model the ASPIRE values;
  • Respect – we give and earn respect; and
  • Empower – we empower, encourage and motivate people.

To try to make these values more relevant to fire service staff, the service’s staff engagement group has developed ASPIRE 4 FIRE.

During our inspection, ASPIRE 4 FIRE was evident across the service, including on red noticeboards at all fire service sites. The senior team has also visited all stations and departments.

The visits by the senior team have been well received by most staff. They spoke very highly of how effectively the chief fire officer acts as a role model of the service’s values and vision.

Staff suggested that not all senior and middle managers are as visible as the chief fire officer, and that this may be because of their workloads. They also stated that not all managers show the service’s values as well as the chief fire officer. The service is aware of this issue; it is introducing training for all managers, as a way of building on the work it has done to make staff aware of the values. The training will give all managers the knowledge and skills to express an inclusive leadership approach, in line with service values.

The workforce’s awareness of the values is high. But staff understanding and acceptance of them isn’t yet routine across the service. The service has acknowledged that the launch of ASPIRE 4 FIRE is the first step, and that it needs to do more to reinforce the values and make them more accepted.

Of the 191 respondents to our staff survey, 16.2 percent reported feeling bullied or harassed, and 20.9 percent reported feeling discriminated against at work in the last 12 months. During our inspection, there was evidence that the service deals effectively with reported cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination.


How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?


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 good understanding of its workforce profile, and of current and future skills requirements. Every quarter, it reviews retirement profiles and any potential skills gaps. This review enables it to address any gaps in advance.

During our inspection, the service was doing succession planning at a local level. Local managers consider the skills that are needed at stations. They can then schedule risk-critical courses (such as driving and other specialist courses) in advance. That way, suitably trained staff can take up positions that become vacant as a result of retirements or promotions. Such planning also takes account of lead in times for some of these courses. 

The service makes effective use of its on-call crewing reserve staff to improve resilience. These staff keep a full range of skills and competencies including breathing apparatus, driving, and incident command. This ensures that they can supplement availability in the event of low numbers. They can also offer specific skills that are needed to keep a fire engine available to respond to incidents.

The service faces similar challenges to many other fire and rescue services in the recruitment and retention of on-call firefighters. As at 31 March 2018, 63.2 percent of FTE firefighters were on-call firefighters. The service is carrying out an ongoing recruitment campaign for on-call staff. It makes use of national on-call recruitment campaign resources and social media campaigns. An on-call liaison officer works with local stations to support local recruitment.

Learning and improvement

The service has an effective risk-critical training programme for both on-call and wholetime staff. It produces a three-year rolling training plan that covers all risk-critical and core competencies.

Wholetime staff attach themselves to an operational training group. Every year, they attend a training centre for three or four days to complete risk critical training. On-call staff attend a training centre for their breathing apparatus training. Staff from the training centre give them all other elements of risk critical training at stations. This reduces the amount of time that on-call staff have to spend away from their primary employment. It also makes best use of the time available for training. And it makes sure that the service offers training to a consistent standard. The service carries out other core competence training locally, in line with the training planner. A similar system is in place for officers who attend risk-critical operational training days.

Following the accident investigation mentioned earlier in this report, the service has amended its fire behaviour training. As an interim measure, the service is giving practical demonstrations of the conditions that crews may experience when dealing with fires in buildings, without having to put them into a risk area. The service is procuring a new gas-powered breathing apparatus training facility. It aims to have this in place by 2021, to enable it to continue its cycle of giving practical fire behaviour training every two years.

Recently, the service updated its reduced crewing policy for on-call fire engines. According to the updated policy, the on-call fire engines can now attend all incident types with a crew of three (rather than the traditional crew of four or five). The service has issued relevant guidance to staff. The service would benefit from carrying out relevant training to assure itself that staff are confident and competent working within the guidance, as an initial crew of three.

The service has invested in improvements to its electronic training records system. This is a database for recording and monitoring competencies. A traffic light system allows supervisory officers to identify any gaps in competence. We sampled the core competencies of firefighters from across the service. Generally, they were up to date. There was also evidence that line managers sample and quality assure the records. This also happens during station audits. Staff and managers told us that the improvements have made the system more accurate, reliable and easy to use.

During our inspection, there was evidence of staff receiving a variety of other training. This included training about safeguarding, and equality, diversity and inclusion. Staff in specialist roles (such as fire safety and fire control) were also well trained.

Of the 191 respondents to our staff survey, 84.8 percent agreed that they have received sufficient training to enable them to do the things they are asked to do.


How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?


Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that it has effective grievance procedures for all staff.
  • The service should improve the understanding of positive action and the benefits of having a diverse workforce, amongst 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 seeks feedback from staff in a variety of ways. They include staff surveys and offering an open seat at the senior managers’ fire strategy group. The open seat allows a member of staff to become a guest member of the senior team for the meeting. The staff member attends not only as an observer, but also as a contributor, allowing them to give feedback and to challenge. Following the meeting, the guest member gives feedback about their experience, which the service circulates to all staff.

The service has several groups that offer other opportunities for staff, including under-represented groups, to give feedback to the service. They also facilitate staff involvement in change and improvement. These include the staff engagement group, the equality, diversity and inclusion group and the Suffolk Women in Fire Together (SWIFT) network.

During our inspection, the service acted on feedback from the staff survey. For example, the staff working groups were developing a new personal development review process; the service values were being updated; and the staff smartphone app was launched to improve communication.

The service also works formally and informally with representative bodies. In recent months, planned formal engagement hasn’t always taken place. Some staff expressed concerns about this to us. We look forward to seeing a return to the planned schedule of meetings.

The service makes use of Suffolk County Council’s procedure to resolve staff grievances. While the procedure is relevant to all staff, its application is slightly different for uniformed staff, to take account of different conditions of service. The service encourages staff to resolve workforce concerns locally and informally, and to challenge unacceptable behaviour among peers.

The number of grievances being raised is very low between the year ending 31 March 2015 and year ending 31 March 2019. During our inspection, staff raised concerns about the grievance procedure. The majority of staff we spoke to said that they didn’t feel the procedure was worthwhile. The perception is that grievances are never upheld.

In April 2019, the service began a review of its grievance procedure. It should use this review to assure itself that it has effective grievance procedures in place for all staff. It needs to identify and implement ways to improve staff confidence in the grievance process. And it should make sure that it has oversight of both formal and informal grievances. This will allow the service to be assured that it applies outcomes consistently and fairly, and that it learns from any trends that occur.


The service is working hard to attract and recruit a more representative workforce. It has replaced educational qualifications with a test of ability at the point of entry, which is seen to be less discriminatory. It has changed its interview panels so that they are more inclusive. All interview panels now have a better gender balance, and they include firefighters and support staff. Panel members no longer wear rank markings. The service is also working with an external company to introduce an alternative to the traditional ‘personal qualities and attributes’ approach, which it has identified as being less favourable to some under-represented groups.

During its last wholetime recruitment campaign in 2018, the service ran several taster days. These highlighted all aspects of the modern firefighter’s role and didn’t only focus on the response element. While the taster days were open to all, the service focused on under-represented groups in its advertising.

This work hasn’t yet translated into a large increase in recruitment from under-represented groups. As at 31 March 2018, 2.0 percent of firefighters were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. This compares with a BAME residential population of 4.8 percent. Over the same period, 6.1 percent of firefighters were female.

Recently, Suffolk FRS has carried out equality, diversity and inclusion training across the service. Staff were very positive about this training, but the benefits of it are yet to be fully realised. There is a lack of understanding among staff about the benefits of having a diverse workforce and the use of positive action.

As at 31 March 2018, a high percentage of firefighters (24.9 percent) didn’t state their ethnicity. The service would benefit from working with staff to understand why such a large proportion of firefighters chose not to state their ethnicity. This will allow the service to better understand its workforce profile and to meet its public-sector equality duty.

The chief fire officer has been appointed as the lead for equality, diversity and inclusion within Suffolk County Council as a result of the work that has been done within Suffolk FRS.


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, transparent and fair.
  • 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 uses two different appraisal processes. Support staff and managers (from station commander to brigade commander level) use Suffolk County Council’s performance development review (PDR) process. Until recently, operational staff (from firefighter to watch commander level) used a training needs assessment process. The service is now introducing a new ASPIRE PDR process for these staff. The staff engagement group developed this process.

A low percentage of staff had a completed appraisal (PDR) as at 31 March 2018.

Data as at 31 March 2019 has shown an improvement in appraisal completion rates for support staff. However, wholetime, on-call and fire control staff still have a low appraisal completion rate.

According to our staff survey, 79.6 percent of the 191 respondents were satisfied with their current level of learning and development. But only 58.6 percent felt that they were given the same opportunities to develop as other staff in the service.

The service should make sure that it uses its appraisal processes consistently, to increase the number of staff who receive them. This will make sure that all staff have clear, personal and specific objectives.

During our inspection, there was evidence of effective performance management within fire control. This includes call monitoring and call auditing. The call auditing process allows staff to review their own performance, and then receive constructive feedback from supervisors. In addition, the service carried out monthly reviews of call handling times for each operator. Performance is reviewed on a one-to-one basis against call handling targets.

Developing leaders

The service doesn’t have a process in place to identify and develop high potential staff so that they can become senior leaders of the future.

The service has accredited development programmes for operational roles, from firefighter to area commander levels. And there is a range of development opportunities for all staff. They include intent-based and inclusive leadership training, and Windsor Leadership Trust and Army leadership programmes. A suite of online learning is also available through the county council’s ‘21st century manager’ package.

The service is making good use of the apprenticeship scheme to offer leadership development to staff at different levels.

During our inspection, we carried out a review of promotion processes. Districts and departments had autonomy to run their own promotion processes. There was no evidence of any organisational oversight or quality assurance. The service should make sure that it keeps accurate records of decisions made during these processes. This will ensure that the service can show its processes are fair and consistent. It will also allow for quality assurance to take place.

Staff told us that they felt that the promotion process changed frequently, and that different managers applied the process differently. As a result, staff don’t think that the promotion process is fair, transparent or consistent.