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West Midlands 2021/22

People

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

Last updated 20/01/2023
Good

Overall, West Midlands Fire Service is good at looking after its people.

West Midlands Fire Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment

We are pleased with the service’s progress since our last inspection in 2019. The service has taken appropriate action to improve the culture of the organisation. It still has some work to do to make sure that everyone behaves in accordance with its values. It takes the well-being and health and safety of its staff seriously and has a wide range of support in place for staff.

There is a strong culture of continuous improvement in the service. And it makes sure it has enough people with the right skills to provide its services. But we found that the service can’t keep up to date with officially assessing the competence of staff for risk-critical activities, such as incident command and breathing apparatus.

We are pleased to see that the service has improved the way that it communicates with staff and gets their feedback. It has improved the diversity of its workforce and it works to make sure its culture is inclusive. But there is still more to do to make sure all staff understand why the service should have a workforce that reflects the diversity of its communities.

The service has some good arrangements in place to manage performance and develop leaders. But we did find inconsistencies in the way it manages the temporary promotions process, which has led to some staff thinking this is unfair.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at promoting the right values and culture.

West Midlands Fire Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have positive and inclusive cultures, modelled by the behaviours of their senior leaders. Health and safety should be promoted effectively, and staff should have access to a range of well-being support that can be tailored to their individual needs.

Areas for improvement

The service should ensure its values and behaviours are demonstrated at all levels of the organisation.

Innovative practice

The service has put in place support for staff with symptoms of long COVID

The service has developed a partnership with Midlands Diving Chamber to provide staff with symptoms of long COVID with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Staff report that this has improved their symptoms. They say it helps with their health and well-being. Helping to keep them at work means they can continue to provide essential services.

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 taken action to improve the culture of the organisation

We are encouraged by the progress the service has made since our last inspection in 2019. It carried out a cultural review to find out what is important to staff and has adopted and adapted the new national Core Code of Ethics. It is now refreshing the cultural review. The service has well-defined values that are understood by staff. Behaviours that reflect those values are shown at most levels. Staff spoke positively about their immediate managers, particularly in terms of the support they received from them. And staff were positive about the most senior leaders in the service. But some staff told us that not all managers demonstrate behaviours in line with the service’s values. Some staff described a dictatorial style by some managers and said they weren’t acknowledged (in corridors), for example.

Senior leaders act as role models. They have established a leadership team charter, which is aligned to the values and behaviours framework. They visit each watch on each station on an annual basis to get feedback from staff. During the pandemic the chief fire officer put in place virtual all-staff briefings. These started as daily briefings moving to weekly. Now he holds a fortnightly virtual forum for managers and a monthly virtual all-staff forum. These have been well received by staff.

The service has put in place measures to create a positive working culture. Staff told us that they felt the service communicated well with them and kept them up to date. It also introduced ‘brave space talks’. These are forums for staff to discuss sensitive issues in an open and safe way. The service still has some work to do to make sure that all staff feel that they are empowered to challenge poor behaviours when they encounter them.

The service has good workforce well-being provisions in place

The service continues to have well understood and effective well-being policies in place that are available to staff. A significant range of well-being support is available to staff to promote both their physical and mental health.

For example, through its routine health screening the service identified issues with blood pressure, so it has put monitors in all stations. The service has engaged the Fire Fighters Charity to provide coaching webinars to all staff. These will cover advice for musculoskeletal issues, health and nutrition and mental health. The service has trained 100 staff in health leadership and has trained mental health advocates. It provides monthly mindfulness courses for all staff.

All staff reported they understand the well-being support available and how to access it, and most staff had confidence in it. Of those staff who responded to the survey, 93 percent (327 out of 352) said they could access services to support their mental well-being and 60 (211 out of 352) percent said that they had a conversation with their manager about well-being, and that it was useful.

During the pandemic, the service engaged an external cognitive behavioural therapist to run weekly virtual sessions helping staff to share how they were coping and to provide a safe space to talk.

We were impressed with the support the service has put in place for those staff with symptoms of long COVID. Staff who had benefitted from this support spoke very positively about it.

There is good support in place for staff who have been exposed to a traumatic incident. The service has introduced local arrangements as it recognises that staff often feel more comfortable talking to someone they know well. A psychotherapist provides supervision for all staff involved in carrying out post-incident debriefs. The service regularly evaluates these processes.

The service promotes the health and safety of staff

The service continues to have effective and well understood health and safety policies and procedures in place. These policies and procedures are readily available and effectively promoted to all staff.

Staff we spoke to could confidently describe the daily safety checks and routines they carried out. They could link these to health and safety policies and any issues identified were quickly dealt with.

Both staff and representative bodies have confidence in the health and safety approach taken by the service. Of the staff who responded to the survey, 84 percent (297 out of 352) agreed that their personal safety and welfare is taken seriously, 98 percent (345 out of 352) said that there are clear procedures for reporting accidents and 93 percent (329 out of 352) said they were encouraged to report accidents.

The service monitors staff who have secondary employment or dual contracts to make sure they comply with its policies and don’t work excessive hours. The workforce planning team specifically monitors staff who work voluntary additional shifts to make sure they have enough breaks and don’t work too many hours.

The service manages staff absence well

As part of our inspection, we reviewed some case files to consider how the service manages and supports staff through absence, including sickness, parental and special leave.

We found there are clear processes in place to manage absences for all staff. There is clear guidance for managers, who are confident in the process. Absences are managed well and in accordance with policy. There is a toolkit for managers on the service’s intranet page and managers have been trained in having crucial conversations with staff. The cases we reviewed were managed in accordance with the timescales set out in the policy. The service communicated well with staff who were absent from work. It considers making reasonable adjustments to help them return and considers redeployment for those who can’t return to their role for health reasons.

Overall, the service has seen a slight increase in firefighter absences in the year to 31 March 2021, compared to the previous year.

2

How well does the FRS get the right people with the right skills?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at getting the right people with the right skills.

West Midlands Fire Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have a workforce plan in place that is linked to their integrated risk management plans (IRMPs), sets out their current and future skills requirements and addresses capability gaps. They should supplement this with a culture of continuous improvement that includes appropriate learning and development throughout the service.

Areas for improvement

The service should assure itself that its records of competence for risk-critical skills are accurate and up to date.

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

The service understands the skills and capabilities of its workforce

The service has good workforce planning in place. It makes sure skills and capabilities align with what is needed to effectively deliver the CRMP. For example, at the time of our last inspection in 2019 we found that the service had a significant number of staff on temporary promotion. Since then, the service has carried out an exercise to reduce this number and substantiate people in positions. It still has some temporary promotions in place because it offers staff opportunities to develop in temporary project roles.

The service offers staff additional shifts to good effect to maintain crewing levels. And it moves resources around the service to respond to changing demand and risk. But we did find many vacancies for crew commanders. The service has recognised this and has taken action to address it, including transferring staff from other services.

Workforce and succession planning are subject to consistent scrutiny through regular meetings to discuss requirements. Each command area holds a performance meeting four times a year to review staff competence. This helps to make sure the service has enough trained staff available.

Most staff told us that they could access the training they need to be effective in their role. Station-based staff were positive about the support they received for their development. Staff we spoke to during the inspection could demonstrate their knowledge of skills, such as breathing apparatus and incident command.

The service has a good training model but needs to make sure it can assure the competence of staff

The service’s training model is good. Training is devolved to stations, saving operational staff time travelling to a central training venue. This keeps fire engines available and saves money.

Externally qualified and quality-assured subject matter advisers oversee the training delivered locally by station-based assessors who carry out a standardised assessment of staff competence. This is aligned to national operational guidance and is recorded. A peer assessment team also quality assures training.

Competence is monitored well at station level. Line managers routinely organise training events and observe staff. They regularly monitor competency records and book staff in for the standardised assessments. But this continuous workplace assessment process doesn’t count towards the standardised assessment that is included on staff records.

We found that there aren’t enough station-based assessors to keep up to date with the standardised assessments. This means that some staff are continuing to carry out risk-critical roles, such as breathing apparatus and incident command, when their records show their standardised assessment of competence is overdue.

We also found examples where staff had failed their standardised assessment and continued in their role. We were told that if a line manager had concerns over a person’s competence from the routine training, exercising and observation carried out at stations and at incidents, they would be taken off duty. But the service needs to be confident that it has sufficient assurance of all staff’s competence.

There is a system in place to monitor and record the acquisition, application and assessment of skills and competencies. This details what evidence staff need to gain and record, and how often they will be assessed. This information is held on a competency recording system. Station-based staff spoke positively about the system and used it to check the competence of staff. But we found that the service can’t get reports from the system on the overall competency of the workforce. The service has recognised that this is a problem and is introducing a new system.

The service continually learns and improves

A culture of continuous improvement is promoted throughout the service and staff are encouraged to learn and develop. Staff we spoke to told us that they were supported by their line managers in their development so they could access promotion opportunities.

Incident commanders meet on a weekly basis to share learning and carry out exercises. There is a significant amount of training and exercising organised within local command areas.

We are pleased to see that the service has a range of resources in place, many provided by its e-learning academy. As well as operational training there is leadership training, such as degree courses.

There is an organisational intelligence team that collates and shares learning. We were told national learning and learning from incidents and other organisations is shared effectively throughout the service.

There is a good process to continually review the effectiveness of the service’s policies and procedures. After every incident, all staff who attended can rate how effective the associated policies were in helping them to provide the best results. This means that the service is continually learning and improving. This system is also in place for all other policies. For example, when the service was reviewing its policy on managing vacancies, it received over 80 responses from staff.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and promote diversity?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity.

West Midlands Fire Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Creating a more representative workforce will provide huge benefits for fire and rescue services. This includes greater access to talent and different ways of thinking, and improved understanding of and engagement with their local communities. Each service should make sure equality, diversity and inclusion are firmly understood and demonstrated throughout the organisation. This includes successfully taking steps to remove inequality and making progress to improve fairness, diversity and inclusion at all levels of the service. It should proactively seek and respond to feedback from staff and make sure any action taken is meaningful.

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 good systems in place to seek and act on feedback and challenge from staff

The service has developed several ways to engage with staff on issues and decisions that affect them. This includes methods to build all-staff awareness of fairness and diversity, as well as targeted engagement to identify matters that affect different staff groups.

The service has five stakeholder groups who represent the protected characteristics. These groups seek feedback from staff and hold the service to account. Senior managers regularly visit stations to get feedback from staff. And the service uses the social networking service, Yammer, for staff to ask questions and to keep them informed.

Most staff were positive about the level of communication and engagement. The chief fire officer holds monthly engagement forums, one for all staff and another for middle managers. These are well-attended and are recorded so staff who couldn’t attend can view them later.

The service carried out a significant amount of engagement with staff when it was developing the CRMP. It used polls to evaluate the effectiveness of the engagement. And the intranet site has a ‘provide feedback’ option so staff can comment on projects.

Representative bodies and staff associations reported that the service engages with them well and staff are positive about what the service does, although some still don’t feel confident to challenge. Just over half of the staff who responded to the survey (209 out of 352) said they didn’t feel confident in the systems for providing feedback to all levels.

The service takes action to tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination

Staff have a good understanding of what bullying, harassment and discrimination are and their negative effect on colleagues and the organisation.

Most staff are confident in the service’s approach to tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination, grievances and disciplinary matters. There are appropriate policies and procedures in place. The service has trained managers and it has a whistleblowing policy. It has dismissed staff whose behaviours have contravened its values.

Staff we spoke to said they could raise matters of concern with their line manager, and they were confident that concerns would be dealt with appropriately. They said they could get support from the service’s diversity, inclusion, cohesion and engagement team.

Representative bodies and staff associations agreed that the service has appropriate processes in place and takes appropriate action to eliminate discrimination.

Despite this, of those staff who responded to the survey, 17 percent (60 out of 352) told us they had felt bullied or harassed and 26 percent (91 out of 352) had felt discriminated against over the past 12 months.

The service has taken action to address disproportionality in recruitment and retention

There is an open, fair and transparent recruitment process for staff or those wishing to work for the fire and rescue service. The service has an effective system to understand and remove the risk of disproportionality in recruitment processes. For example, the service tracks the progress of applicants from the point that they express an interest in a position. It interviews staff who leave the service to understand if the reasons for leaving are related to equality and inclusion issues. The service has a good understanding of the make-up of the workforce, with nearly all staff declaring their ethnicity.

The service has put considerable effort into developing its recruitment processes so that they are fair and understood by potential applicants. It recently revised its policy for managing vacancies and consulted widely with staff on this. The recruitment policies are comprehensive and cover opportunities in all roles. The service has recruited applicants from diverse backgrounds into middle and senior management roles.

But some staff told us that they didn’t think the promotion process was fair. And some female staff we spoke to didn’t want to apply for promotion because they felt if they were successful, this would be seen by other people as being because of their gender.

The service has made improvements in increasing staff diversity at all levels of the organisation. In the year ending 31 March 2021, almost a quarter of the workforce were women, which is the highest of all services in England. And 13.7 percent self-declared as being from an ethnic minority background compared to the rate for England of 5.3 percent. In the year ending 31 March 2021 of the 108 staff that joined the service, 33 were from an ethnic minority background.

The proportion of women in firefighting roles on 31 March 2021 was 12.1 percent compared to the rate for England of 7.5 percent. And the proportion of firefighters from an ethnic minority background was 12.6 percent. This is an improvement on 5 years previously when 8.1 percent of firefighters were from an ethnic minority background and 5.4 percent were women.

The service has acted positively to improve diversity. The deputy chief fire officer is seen by staff as a positive role model in the service and externally. The staff networking groups support the recruitment process, for example by giving talks in colleges and universities. They told us that the service has worked hard to promote diversity but there is still more to do to ensure the workforce understands why it should reflect its communities.

The service actively promotes equality, diversity and inclusion

The service has improved its approach to EDI and is making sure it can offer the right services to its communities and support staff with protected characteristics.

The service’s objective is to be a fully inclusive employer. It uses its staff networking groups to good effect to understand the needs of people who are underrepresented in the workplace so that it can work to meet them. The deputy chief fire officer meets regularly with the groups, and they monitor the impact of what the service is doing in relation to EDI. They also recommend improvements and challenge the service where appropriate.

Staff who have protected characteristics talked very positively about the support they had received from the service. And most of the staff we spoke to described a positive and inclusive culture. We saw that each station has a dignity room that can be used for welfare or faith purposes.

Over an 18-month period, all staff have been involved in discussions about positive action. The service’s extensive work in this area includes providing a programme of seminars with help from stakeholder groups and discussions through ‘brave space talks’, voluntary forums for staff to ask questions in a safe environment.

The service has an effective process to assess equality impact. It carries out an initial impact assessment of all changes that take place, as well as new or changed policies and procedures. It then decides if a full equality impact assessment is needed. These quality-assured assessments consider the impact of policies and practices on people with protected characteristics. For example, when the service introduced smoke hoods to help to evacuate people from fires in high-rise buildings, it identified that there was an impact on some religions and people with disabilities. So, it actively engaged with those groups to explain the importance of wearing smoke hoods safely.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Good

West Midlands Fire Service is good at managing performance and developing leaders.

West Midlands Fire Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have robust and meaningful performance management arrangements in place for their staff. All staff should be supported to meet their potential, and there should be a focus on developing staff and improving diversity into leadership roles.

Areas for improvement

The service should review staff in temporary promotion positions to ensure these do not extend beyond the timescales set out in its policy.

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

The service manages the performance of most staff well

There is a good performance management system in place which allows the service to effectively develop and assess individual staff. For example, the service uses its competency recording system to record performance discussions and evidence to support individuals’ development.

Most of the station-based staff we spoke to told us they had regular conversations with their manager about performance and found these helpful. They described these as a continuous process with ongoing development discussions linked to organisational learning. But some headquarters-based staff said they don’t have performance reviews. We were told that the service doesn’t monitor overall completion rates for performance reviews, so it doesn’t know if all staff are having them. It is implementing a new system to make this easier to monitor.

In our staff survey 9 percent of respondents (33 out of 352) said that they had never had a discussion with their manager about their performance. This may be reflective of the fact that the performance conversations are a continuous ongoing process rather than a single annual event. But 74 percent of those that did (235 out of 319), said they found the conversation useful.

Promotion and progression processes for substantive roles are managed fairly

The service has put considerable effort into developing its promotion and progression processes so that they are fair and understood by staff. It has recently revised its promotion and progression policies to make sure they are comprehensive and cover opportunities in all roles. Managers involved in interview processes receive training. And staff from human resources quality-assure the processes.

The service has effective succession planning processes in place that allow it to manage the career pathways of its staff, including roles requiring specialist skills. A good example of this is the new development pathway it has created to speed up the time it takes protection staff to become qualified. Staff are multi-skilled in all aspects of protection work. The service also gives staff the opportunity to complete their fire safety qualification before joining the protection team. In this way it can make sure it always has enough qualified staff. The number of qualified staff has increased from 9 to 50 over the last 5 years.

Selection processes for appointments to substantive positions are managed consistently. We reviewed some promotion files and found that all had been carried out in accordance with policy. We were pleased to see that the service asks all those involved in a process to provide feedback.

The service uses temporary promotions for projects to provide development opportunities for staff. But we found that the process for appointing to temporary promotions was inconsistent and there was evidence they were in place for longer than appropriate. This was seen as unfair, particularly as the selection process wasn’t open to all staff.

The service has some processes in place to develop leadership and high‑potential staff

The service has some succession planning processes in place that allow it to manage high-potential staff into leadership roles.

When the service carried out its cultural review it identified that it needed to improve the way it managed performance and developed leaders. Previously, there were limited opportunities for control and non-operational staff to progress in the service. The service is now changing the way people can progress by introducing more opportunities for staff to move into different roles at the same level to gain wider experience. These opportunities will be open to all staff. We look forward to seeing how this helps the service to develop talent.

The service has several leadership programmes in place. Forty staff are currently undergoing a management degree programme accredited through Coventry University. It also has a managing for excellence programme and a personal effectiveness programme, both designed to develop leadership skills and behaviours and align to the National Fire Chiefs Council leadership framework.