State of Fire and Rescue 2019 – Part 1: Overview

Published on: 27 April 2023

Part 1: Overview

This is our first time inspecting fire and rescue services (FRSs) in England. We have seen much of which services can and should be proud: for example, their commitment to their profession and their communities; their life-saving prevention initiatives; and their highly skilled emergency response. But we have also seen some worrying themes: some services not doing enough in relation to building safety; barriers to becoming more effective and efficient; a notable lack of diversity; and, in a few services, a toxic, bullying culture.

The fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, which cost 72 lives, brought into sharp focus the work of FRSs. This includes their building and fire safety activity, and also how they responded. As chair to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick made several far-reaching recommendations in his Inquiry phase 1 report.[1] If implemented, these should profoundly change the sector and reduce the likelihood that tragedies such as this will ever happen again.

This is a sector with many strengths

Almost universally, the focus of the fire staff we met is on protecting the communities they serve. Their determination and dedication to protect life and property are second to none. Services provide a highly skilled response to a range of emergencies and have designed life-saving initiatives. Firefighting is dangerous, but the sector continues to improve its working practices to make responding to incidents as safe as it can be.

The sector is admired by the public, as our most recent public perception survey showed: only 2 percent of just over 10,000 respondents said they were dissatisfied with their local service.

Whether it be fires or other emergencies, services are generally highly skilled and able to respond to all kinds of challenges. A recent notable example is that, during the summer of 2019, 15 FRSs worked side by side to deal with the potentially dangerous risk of flooding at Toddbrook Reservoir, Whaley Bridge, in Derbyshire. This was co-ordinated by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) under national resilience arrangements. The commendable efforts by many over several days reduced the reservoir’s water level to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the dam, which would certainly have destroyed the local town.

The demand that FRSs face has changed over the past few years. The number of fire incidents attended by FRSs in England peaked in 2003/04 at 473,563. This number fell to as low as 154,461 in 2012/13, although it has since increased to 182,825 in 2018/19. In 2018/19, only around three in ten incidents attended by FRSs were fires (40 percent were fire false alarms and 28 percent were non-fire incidents). The long-term decrease in the number of fire incidents is due to many factors, including prevention work by services for which they deserve great credit.

As a result of responding to fewer incidents, services have used their capacity in a range of different ways to support their local communities. This includes expanding the breadth of their prevention work.

But improvement is needed

Given that the fire and rescue sector hasn’t been formally inspected for more than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that we have found areas that need to improve.

The sector needs reform. Some reform and innovation have been achieved, but improvements are sporadic. Across every service, there are barriers to becoming more effective and efficient. The extent to which each one affects each service varies. There is greater detail on all the barriers in this Part, but they include a lack of consensus as to what firefighters and FRSs ought to do; negotiating mechanisms for determining staff working conditions that don’t work as they ought to; unclear demarcation between political oversight and operational leadership; the considerable influence of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU); and services’ varied capacity and capability to bring about change. Taken together, these factors are preventing the sector from efficiently and effectively meeting the demands it now faces.

During our inspections, we saw some out-of-date working practices, including a prevalence of paper-based systems in many services. Digital and IT enhancements are taking place in a few services, but without much joint working or central strategy.

There is also a regrettable lack of diversity. Most worryingly, we saw some examples of toxic culture that have gone unchecked and should not be part of any 21st century public service.

Since 2004, localism has been encouraged at the expense of national standards. While it is reasonable to allow services to best respond to local risk, there is, in some cases, unjustifiable variation in the level of service the public receive. In June 2019, we recommended that the sector should take steps to address some of this variation. As part of this, the NFCC, through its community risk programme, has begun work to develop a consistent risk assessment methodology for services to use.

An unintended consequence of this localism has been the lack of national capacity and capability to bring about lasting sector change. The recently created NFCC and Fire Standards Board will help, but both bodies mainly rely on staff working on national activities in addition to their day jobs. In June 2019, we also recommended that the Home Office address this lack of national capacity and capability.

The long-term reduction in the demand to respond to fire incidents has seen services diversify their work. Most services are now deploying their staff into effective and productive roles to the benefit of the broader community when they are not training or responding to emergency calls. This is positive.

However, in some services, staff are spending too long in stations. As well as responding to emergency calls, training and exercising, staff should, when they can, be carrying out a range of fire safety work, especially with vulnerable people. This should include referring people who need support to appropriate agencies, such as those concerned with health and housing, and responding to referrals from others. Crews should also be doing checks to make sure the service has current information on the buildings in the area that present heightened risks.

But many services have diversified much further. I accept that there may be local need for things such as body recovery for coroners, tree removal and promoting public fitness and wellbeing, among others. But it is essential that services give enough attention to meeting their core functions and priorities set out in their integrated risk management plans (IRMPs). In particular, services need to do more to make sure buildings are compliant with fire safety regulations.

I was also surprised to find considerable financial disparity between services. Some have been protected from budget reductions. But others have already had to make considerable savings and are being required to make more, which could have a detrimental effect on their service to the public.

Most services rely on on-call firefighters to supplement their wholetime workforces. I have great admiration for the thousands of men and women across the country who make up the on-call workforce. But I do have concerns about the viability of this model, now and in the future.

I will expand on all these points later in my assessment. But, before I do, it may be helpful to consider what has happened in the sector up to this point.

Change is constant

In the history of the fire and rescue sector, there have been moments of profound change. However, I cannot help but conclude that there have been missed opportunities.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 set in motion the foundations for organised firefighting in the United Kingdom, with private fire services formed, paid for by insurance charged against building owners.

Then the Second World War saw over 1,600 small fire services amalgamated into a single national service, intended to bring greater resilience and standardisation. This single service didn’t last long and, in 1947, responsibility passed to county councils (although there were far fewer services – 135 – than before the war). Reorganisation of local government in the 1970s saw services merge into a number near to what we have today.

The independent review by Sir George Bain in 2002 and the White Paper, Our Fire and Rescue Service, in 2003 prompted a shift in emphasis in the role of fire services from response to prevention. This was the catalyst for localism and a move away from national standards, institutions and arrangements. Fire and rescue authorities were required to produce IRMPs – locally agreed plans on which their local communities should be consulted. These plans are still an important element in how services establish and meet the needs of their communities.

We then saw a period of reducing demand. Home Office data shows that the total number of incidents (including fires, fire false alarms and non-fire incidents) attended by FRSs in England peaked in 2003/04 at over a million incidents. This fell to a low of 496,135 incidents in 2014/15, although there has been a general increase in the total number of incidents attended since: for example, 576,040 in 2018/19.

Figure 1: Incidents attended by fire and rescue services in England, 2010/11 to 2018/19

The number of fire false alarms attended decreased between 2010/2011 and 2015/2016, from about 270,000 to about 215,000. Between 2015/2016 and 2018/2019 it increased slightly, to about 230,000. Fires attended decreased from about 230,000 in 2010/2011 to about 155,000 in 2012/2013. After that the number remained stable, until it increased to about 185,000 in 2018/2019. The number of non-fire incidents attended remained stable between 2011/2012 and 2014/2015, at about 130,000. Between 2014/2015 and 2016/2017, the number increased to about 175,000. In 2018/2019 it reduced to about 160,000.

Source: Incidents attended by fire and rescue services in England: Home Office FIRE0102: 2018/2019. The data in this graph is consistent with records that reached the Incident Reporting System by 16 June 2019. Note: 2018/19 refers to the financial year, from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. Other years follow the same pattern.

As well as demand falling, it also changed. The number of non-fire incidents attended increased from 2014/15, mainly as a result of the rise in response to medical emergencies alongside ambulances. But with fewer fires and services responding differently to local need, services diversified their work.

In May 2013, a review of the efficiency of fire and rescue services by Sir Ken Knight found that services had done little to respond to their changing risk environments. He set out several areas where fire and rescue authorities could improve their efficiency, including increasing the proportion of on-call firefighters and strengthening collaboration, including with other emergency services.

The Knight review posed the question of whether firefighters’ conditions of service could act as a barrier to change that might otherwise result in a more effective and efficient service. Adrian Thomas, an independent human resources professional, was commissioned by the then government to carry out a review to answer this question.[2] His report was submitted to ministers in 2015 and published a year later. Despite making a series of recommendations, very few have been implemented. This was a missed opportunity – in particular, to reform firefighters’ working terms and conditions.

Responsibility for fire policy has moved between government departments over the past 20 years, including to the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Department for Communities and Local Government, and, most recently, to the Home Office in 2016. This change has meant little consistency in either focus or strategy.

In 2016, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, announced a fire reform programme. This included creating a new independent inspectorate; legislating to allow police and crime commissioners to take on local governance of their FRSs if there were a case for it, and to create a duty to collaborate with other emergency services; creating national professional standards; and focusing on diversifying the workforce. From this, the NFCC was also created, to bring together the operational leads from across the sector to speak with one voice.

Over time, a range of different governance arrangements have also been put in place. In the past couple of years, four police and crime commissioners and the mayors of London and Greater Manchester have become responsible for their FRSs locally.

I have already mentioned the sector-wide changes the Grenfell Tower fire will necessitate. The first report from the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry was published on 30 October 2019. We have carefully considered the findings and will include them in our approach to inspection where appropriate. We inspected the London Fire Brigade in July and August 2019 and published our report in December 2019.

While several of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s recommendations were directed solely to the London Fire Brigade, they affect every service. These include firefighter and incident commander training; use of risk information; working effectively with other emergency services; communication; and learning lessons from previous incidents.

Firefighters responded on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire with determination, dedication, courage and commitment. They faced a fire of unprecedented severity due to failures in building regulations over the last 20 years. They were also let down by failings in planning and preparation, incident command, communication and working with other emergency services.

It is alarming that, more than two years after the fire, more than 300 buildings still have the same cladding as Grenfell Tower. Remedial work to remove similar cladding systems, including rainscreens with polyethylene cores, should be done by the building owners as quickly as possible. No other fire service should have to tackle a blaze of such severity because of these unsafe materials.

The fire also led to a review by Dame Judith Hackitt on building regulations and fire safety. She said that the current system – of which fire and rescue services are only a small part – is not fit for purpose and that a culture change is needed to make sure buildings are safe, both now and in the future. Her recommendations should lead to fundamental changes in the building regulatory system, of which fire and rescue services are a part.

Finally, Lord Kerslake reviewed the response of the emergency services to the Manchester Arena attack (PDF document) in 2017, in which 22 people were murdered. While several recommendations related to responders in Greater Manchester and the north west, the review also provided crucial lessons for the sector in relation to its preparedness for, and response to, such attacks.

I will now explore some of my principal themes in greater detail.

Significant reform is needed to modernise the sector

The role of the fire sector needs greater clarity

There is a lack of consensus over what the role of a firefighter is, and what a fire and rescue service is responsible for.

The principal functions listed in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 are clear: fire safety; firefighting; rescuing people in road traffic collisions; and responding to emergencies. As well as this, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 requires services to enforce the provisions of the Order including auditing the fire risk assessment of certain premises. And the Fire and Rescue Services (Emergencies) (England) Order 2007 gives services mandatory functions in relation to responding to certain incidents such as chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear emergencies. But the reduction in the number of fires attended over the past decade has seen services expand their roles into broader areas – in particular, health and wellbeing.

Ministers have made it clear that they expect collaboration to be at the heart of how services operate. As the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England says, services should work with their local partners to carry out a range of public safety work to protect their local communities, when it is in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness to do so. But – and this is crucial – this must not be at the expense of services’ core functions in relation to fire prevention, protection, response and resilience. Many services are making considerable contributions to improve and promote safety locally. In others, this balance isn’t right.

Government needs to set out clearly its expectations of fire and rescue services and resolve the controversy over the true nature of the firefighter’s role. Each service may need to consider doing less of some things and more of others, especially considering the changes Dame Judith Hackitt proposed in 2018 to help services make sure premises comply with fire safety regulations.

National terms and conditions need reviewing

Discussions between the sector, employers and, more recently, central government over the role and pay of a firefighter have been going on for several years. Everyone, not least fire and rescue service employees, would benefit from these being satisfactorily resolved. An independent pay review body may have brought a swifter conclusion than current arrangements. In 2016, Theresa May MP, the then Home Secretary, challenged fire and rescue authorities to reform the National Joint Council (the body overseeing pay negotiations), but I have seen nothing since to suggest that any reform has been achieved.

In his review, Adrian Thomas made several recommendations relating to conditions of service for fire and rescue service staff, covering the working environment, terms and conditions, industrial relations, duty systems and management. Three years since publication, few of those recommendations have been implemented. Action should be taken, ideally by local government as the employers, to implement these recommendations and bring about much-needed modernisation in the sector. But, if progress doesn’t materialise, central government should mandate it.

With services becoming increasingly localised, it is highly questionable whether the ‘grey book’ (the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services Scheme of Conditions of Service), which provides the basis for national conditions of service, should be universally applied. It creates national provisions that unnecessarily hinder services from using their resources as they consider necessary to meet local need. I support the view that consideration should be given to whether the ‘grey book’ is still workable. I make a recommendation to that effect in this report.

Trade union influence is not always in the best interests of the public

I of course recognise the importance of strong trade union representation. The role of unions is to protect and improve members’ rights. In the fire sector, the unions have a proud history of doing so.

However, the influence of the FBU is considerable in some services. I believe it goes too far and is sometimes contrary to the public interest. This is not acceptable: the FBU should not unduly dictate how fire services are provided to the public.

For example, there has been much dispute about whether fire staff should provide medical assistance to support local ambulance services. Home Office data shows that the number of medical incidents attended by FRSs in England peaked in 2016/17 at 45,748 (both as first responder and co-responder). After national trials ended, this number fell to 19,898 in 2018/19. If fire staff are medically trained, have the equipment and are available to respond, it is in the interests of their community that they should.

In our public perception survey, when shown a list of non-statutory duties, more than three-quarters of respondents thought that responding to medical incidents (for example, assisting the ambulance service) was an important duty for FRSs to prioritise.

I was also greatly concerned by what we found in Greater Manchester. Staff who had formed a team to respond to marauding terrorist firearms attacks in the city had withdrawn their labour as a result of an ongoing pay dispute between the FBU and the service. As a result, this capability is now being provided by firefighters from Merseyside. A city the size of, and with the risk profile of, Greater Manchester should not have to rely on firefighters from a neighbouring city to provide this function.

Chief fire officers need operational independence

There are at least eight different governance arrangements in place across England, as well as variations of the same arrangement. Some fire and rescue authorities are a single person – a mayor or a police, fire and crime commissioner – while others are made up of over a hundred members as part of a county council. Each member, regardless of the model, holds a locally elected post.

Variation doesn’t necessarily matter. But the public need to know who is responsible for their service locally and what decisions are taken, which isn’t always the case. What is important is whether governance arrangements work. This is something we will consider further in the coming years.

Chief fire officers are employees of their fire and rescue authorities. Unlike chief constables in policing who have operational independence, chief fire officers do not. This can lead to tension between chief fire officers and their authorities. Some chief fire officers have been prevented by their authorities from implementing changes to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their services, with some authorities making decisions that could be considered operational.

Chief fire officers should have operational independence to run their services effectively and efficiently to meet the priorities and commitments in their integrated risk management plans. In this report, I am recommending that the Home Office should issue clear guidance on the demarcation between governance and operational decision making to clarify and protect the role of chief fire officer.

The effect of fire and rescue authorities on the work of chief fire officers is something we will consider further in our next round of inspections, including whether it should form part of a thematic review into the sector’s leadership.

Operational response is strong, but many services need to improve their protection work

The sector’s strength lies in its response

The response of services when called is certainly one of their greatest strengths. We have seen highly trained, well-equipped, generally well-led firefighters respond to a range of incidents.

But what constitutes a job well done? There has been little evaluation of whether an incident was resolved effectively and efficiently, with learning disseminated across the sector. FRSs need a better understanding of what constitutes an effective and efficient response.

In our second cycle of inspections, we will further consider the level of fire engine availability in services. We were surprised that, in some services, the number of engines available at any given time was lower than the number the service said it needed to meet its foreseeable risk and protect the public. Some services are regularly having to relocate engines to fill gaps where other engines are unavailable. These services are carrying too much risk in this area, which is unacceptable for the public.

Services are not doing enough to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations

FRSs provide education and support to businesses and, if necessary, use enforcement powers to make premises compliant with fire safety legislation. However, how services discharge this duty has commonly fallen below the standard we had expected.

This has been due to a few factors.

Primarily, while services have maintained the levels of operational staff available to respond to incidents, protection teams have been reduced.

Every service should have a risk-based inspection programme. But some are failing to meet their own set targets with the resources they have allocated.

We have also seen considerable variation between services as to what constitutes high-risk premises and how frequently such premises should be inspected. Services have their own locally derived definition of a high-risk premises. Whereas one service might inspect each high-risk premises annually, another may not for up to five years. This stark variation could have adverse implications for public safety.

Following Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety, there is also an opportunity for services to have a greater role in the building control process. When consulted, most services respond promptly, but some don’t. For many, responding to the consultation is the end of the process. Services should have a role later in the process to make sure the building complies with fire safety regulations. I recognise that this may require additional resources. It is something for Government to consider.

The degree of variation between services is undesirable

Over the past 15 years, the direction from central government to the fire sector has been towards localism.

Earlier this year, we recommended greater consistency in four aspects of the service to the public. This was to address the significant variation across services which, in my opinion, is undesirable in some respects. While services consider a number of factors when determining their response standards, we have been surprised how much difference there is between comparable services.

I am not advocating a return to national response standards. Services do need to be sensitive and responsive to local risk, which will necessitate some degree of variation. But there are areas where national consistency is sensible and efficient, such as professional standards, training, how services identify and determine risk, and identifying and measuring emergency response standards.

There is limited capacity nationally to support and promote sector-wide change. There is no equivalent to the centrally funded College of Policing. The NFCC is a small but growing organisation, but it mostly relies on staff volunteering to lead projects on top of their day jobs. The recently created Fire Standards Board has the same problem.

Services are under no legal duty to comply with standards produced by the Fire Standards Board. While the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England requires services to do so, this requirement is less than an obligation to comply. Also, some services are still some way from implementing National Operational Guidance. This guidance is intended to standardise how services respond to operational incidents, which is vital when it comes to cross-border working and responding to major incidents with others. Services should intensify their efforts to implement these national arrangements. Otherwise, Parliament should make them do it.

The future of the on-call model needs attention

The on-call model needs attention to make it work now and in the future.

In most services, on-call firefighters are essential to make sure the service has enough firefighters to crew engines to meet its foreseeable risk. Only three services – all in metropolitan areas – don’t have stations crewed by on-call firefighters.

I admire the commitment of these firefighters, whose dedication to their local communities is commendable. I also appreciate the need for them. They provide cover in areas and at stations where demand is generally too low to sustain a full-time crew. But almost every service we inspected that employs on-call firefighters faces problems.

Most have a shortage of crews available at their on-call stations. This low availability – mainly during office hours – makes it a risk for most services to include on-call crewed engines as part of their minimum crewing arrangements.

The on-call model depends on having enough appropriately trained firefighters within a few minutes of the fire station when the call comes in. There needs to be a continued, concerted effort from services and Government to attract enough firefighters to crew engines when they are needed. This includes providing greater flexibility in working arrangements and considering other incentives, such as financial.

Making sure these firefighters also have the right training is another challenge for services. Services usually only run one paid drill night a week at which – unless called to respond to an emergency – on-call firefighters receive training. While we recognise the difficulties involved, services need to find more innovative ways to develop and maintain the skills of these firefighters. The public need to know that, regardless of whether a wholetime or on-call crew responds to an incident, the response will be of the same standard.

Staff need to be treated better

There is a toxic culture in too many services

I have already spoken at length about the need to resolve the pay award and clarify the role of a firefighter. The ongoing threat of industrial action doesn’t help anyone, least of all the public.

Of our three inspection pillars (effectiveness, efficiency and people), I have been surprised at how low some of our people grades have been. The fire sector refers to itself as humanitarian, yet firefighters in some services don’t treat their colleagues with enough humanity.

We have come across some outstanding examples of culture in some services. The best cultures are inclusive and diverse, with committed staff working to common goals.

But the culture in some services is toxic. We have come across cases of active bullying and harassment. Disturbingly, some people we spoke to seemed to find the poor treatment of staff by other colleagues amusing. We have received allegations of unlawful discrimination and we know that diversity among firefighters is woeful. Some services don’t have a defined set of values that people are expected to follow, and that people can use to challenge unacceptable behaviour.

In the staff survey we conducted, 24 percent[3] reported feeling bullied or harassed at work in the past 12 months. The level of perceived bullying or harassment varied between services. In one service, as many as 46 percent of respondents reported feeling bullied or harassed at work in the past 12 months. The sector should do more to understand the reasons for this.

The sector would benefit from a code of ethics. That way, everyone will know how they should be treated and how they should treat others, and staff at all levels will be empowered to challenge any behaviour contrary to the code.

The response of services to the recently implemented NFCC’s people strategy should start to address the people problems we came across.

Better performance and talent management is needed

All effective organisations need robust performance and talent management processes. Too many services are poor at this, with low completion rates for performance appraisals. The perception from staff across several services is that these appraisals are only relevant to those seeking promotion. This shouldn’t be the case. Many on-call firefighters were simply included as part of a group appraisal, so they weren’t given individual feedback on their performance, or on how they could improve and develop.

Likewise, we found a lack of talent management processes almost universally across services. In too many cases, possible future leaders are not being identified or developed.

As in any sector, there continues to be a considerable churn of leaders. For various reasons, chief fire officers are usually replaced by their deputies. The deputy may well be the best person for the job, but services may be missing an opportunity to bring in different talent – either from a different service or new sector – to challenge established ways of thinking. All too often we have found senior management teams being an echo chamber for people who sound and think the same.

The NFCC and others should rapidly put in place mechanisms to better manage, support and develop staff.

Some watches develop their own culture, sometimes to the detriment of the service

I am concerned about the effect of watches on a service’s culture.

I recognise that watches are a traditional element of the fire service. I also know they have benefits, forging a close group of people who look after one another, recognising each other’s strengths and weaknesses to provide the best response.

However, in some services, watches have created their own subcultures, which are contrary to service values and have proved impenetrable for new staff. In others, where teams have worked together for many years, working practices haven’t modernised. The sector should carefully consider the future of watches and the advantages of alternative working arrangements.

Diversity must be addressed

The lack of diversity across the sector is striking.

As at 31 March 2019, out of a workforce of just under 44,200 employees, 16.7 percent are female and 5.0 percent are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. Of those who are firefighters, 6.4 percent are female and 4.3 percent from a BAME background. Indeed, there are fewer firefighters from a BAME background now than there were in 2011.

More needs to be done to attract, recruit and, most importantly, retain women and BAME people into the sector. To provide the best possible response to the public, services need to be able to choose from the widest talent pool possible. That pool is currently restricted, with many people feeling excluded.

While some services are now making efforts to widen their appeal, this is having limited tangible effect and more needs to be done. It is true that the percentage of female firefighters is increasing. But, until 2018/19, this was largely because more men were retiring, rather than because more women were being appointed.

Any barriers preventing women and BAME people from seeking a career in the fire service must be tackled for the sector to be a truly inclusive employer. The sector should make sure its recruitment processes are appropriate, reasonable and not a potential barrier to greater diversity.

This includes revisiting fitness tests. Firefighting is physically demanding, and so high levels of fitness are needed for some roles. Services need to make sure their fitness tests reflect the actual demands those responding to emergencies will face.

More and more wellbeing provision is being made available

Services are rapidly expanding the range of wellbeing support available to their staff, in particular for mental health problems. The psychological effects of major incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire on firefighters and control staff cannot and should not be underestimated.

The range of support now in place is commendable and services should be congratulated for this. It includes support to help staff return to the workplace after an injury or severely traumatic event, and helping prevent injuries or ill health.

Some services are financially strapped; others are inefficient

It is commonly held that the sector is short of money. This is not the case everywhere. But services such as Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Northumberland are operating in a very tight financial environment. This is having a detrimental effect on the services they provide to their communities.

That being said, the Government should review the financial model against which services operate, not least because it has created a degree of financial disparity between services and is based on an outdated system. Fire funding is complex. Fire and rescue authorities receive funding from three sources: central government, locally retained business rates and council tax. The proportion received from each source differs between services and some are more reliant on one source than others.

Services are also working to little medium-term financial certainty, with their financial settlements only set for the coming year. While they can make prudent assumptions as to what funding they may receive, this lack of certainty doesn’t help longer-term planning.

But most services aren’t struggling financially. Financial reserves held by the 28 (out of 45) combined fire and rescue authorities increased by 80 percent to £545.1m between 31 March 2011 and 31 March 2018.

Services need to do more to make sure their workforces are productive. For example, the 2:2:4[4]shift system is not always the most effective and efficient.

Overall, services have reduced their workforces by 21 percent between 2011 and 2019. The number of incidents attended has also fallen over this period, but services need to maintain enough firefighters to make sure they can respond to incidents when they occur. However, further efficiencies can be made across services: some waste money. Certainly, more innovation is needed, not least to overcome the prevalence of inefficient paper-based systems.

Many services are active partners in collaborations with other emergency services, and this is to their credit. However, some collaborations don’t go far enough. There are opportunities to do more, not least in seeking greater economies of scale and engaging in joint procurement. Services also need to evaluate their collaborations better, especially to consider whether they were money well spent and whether they achieved their anticipated benefits.

The sector is missing opportunities to use data and technology effectively

Understanding risk is fundamental to how FRSs operate. This includes understanding when and where demand may be at the highest to make sure enough resources are available, as well as identifying vulnerable members of the community at whom to target fire safety work.

How services use data varies hugely, with no overall national strategy to bring consistency and promote innovation. Work is now under way by the NFCC to enhance how the sector uses data: its collection, use and expansion have the potential to improve the ways services work. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

That said, we have seen some innovative examples of how services are using virtual reality to train staff, as well as educate the public on the dangers of fire and other risks, including reckless driving.

Some of this work has been developed with local universities.

Significant savings could be achieved through combining services

As I said earlier, the number of services has changed considerably over the years. We currently have 45 in England (44 once Hampshire and Isle of Wight combine in 2021).

Services have been making worthwhile savings. There has been some innovation to achieve efficiencies. But, in my view, one of the most significant opportunities for future savings may be an overall reduction in the number of separate services: 45 is probably too many. For example, I question why one police force can cover the Thames Valley area but needs three separate fire services: three chiefs, three headquarters, three sets of support infrastructure and so on (albeit one single control room).


Setting expectations to create modern fire and rescue services fit for the future

1. By June 2020, the Home Office, in consultation with the fire and rescue sector, should review and with precision determine the roles of: (a) fire and rescue services; and (b) those who work in them.

As with any public service, the fire and rescue sector needs to evolve to reflect changes to how people live and work, as well as capitalise on the opportunities provided by ever-improving technology.

The role of fire and rescue services was last defined in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. Changing demand has since seen services provide different things to their communities, and no two services are now alike. Mostly, this broader work meets local priorities in IRMPs. However, in some services, the functions their firefighters routinely perform are in our view outside the service’s principal role. This includes some commercial activity. In some cases, this is diverting resources away from where they should be focused.

There has been much discussion about the proper roles of FRSs and those who work in them. The Home Office needs to determine – in consultation with the fire sector – whether the functions specified in the 2004 Act are still current. If not, it should set out clearly its expectations of FRSs and what the responsibilities of a firefighter now encompass. This needs to resolve the controversy over the firefighter’s role.


Potential reform of employment arrangements

2. By June 2020, the Home Office, the Local Government Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council and trade unions should consider whether the current pay negotiation machinery requires fundamental reform. If so, this should include the need for an independent pay review body and the future of the ‘grey book’.

The employment arrangements of the fire sector are longstanding and, in our view, too often hindering services from modernising to best meet the needs of the public.

It is for the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (the NJC) to determine firefighter pay. This is a national body covering the United Kingdom.

In England, discussions between the sector, local government and, more recently, central government over pay – including about the role of a firefighter – have been going on for several years. Despite pressure for reform of the NJC, nothing has materialised. An independent pay review body may have brought a swifter conclusion than current arrangements. The Home Office, the Local Government Association, the NFCC and trade unions should consider whether these arrangements are effective.

The NJC oversees conditions of service for firefighters (included in what is known as the ‘grey book’). Despite calls for reform, this book hasn’t been reviewed for years. While it provides standard terms and conditions for firefighters, it has also established a rigid, national set of arrangements. Some services have been able to put arrangements in place to meet local circumstances; others haven’t and consider the ‘grey book’ a barrier. It should be reviewed to consider whether it is still fit for purpose and if it establishes, maintains or intensifies intended or unintended barriers.


Operational independence for chief fire officers

3. By September 2020, the Home Office should consider the case for legislating to give chief fire officers operational independence. In the meantime, it should issue clear guidance, possibly through an amendment to the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England, on the demarcation between those responsible for governance and operational decision making by the chief fire officer.

Chief fire officers are employees of their fire and rescue authorities. While fire and rescue authorities come in different shapes and sizes, they are political entities charged with overseeing their fire and rescue services.

Unlike chief constables, who have operational independence, chief fire officers do not. This has led to tension between some chief fire officers and their authorities, when authorities have prevented them from making decisions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their services.

Chief fire officers are best placed to determine the operational workings of their services. They should be given substantially greater freedom to run their services as they see fit so that they are able to meet the priorities in their IRMPs.

Fire and rescue authorities have an important role in setting priorities, and holding chief fire officers to account to make sure services work effectively and efficiently, appropriately meeting the priorities set. But this should not extend to giving operational direction.


A code of ethics for fire and rescue services

4. By December 2020, the National Fire Chiefs Council, with the Local Government Association, should produce a code of ethics for fire and rescue services. The code should be adopted by every service in England and considered as part of each employee’s progression and annual performance appraisal.

While some services have a positive culture, with staff working to accepted behaviours, the culture in others is poor. This needs to be urgently addressed. Most – but not all – services have an established set of values, although it varies how embedded they are.

In our view, FRSs would benefit from a national code of ethics which specifies and establishes the exemplary standards of behaviour for all staff. This code should be at the heart of everything services do and make it clear to staff what behaviour is acceptable in their everyday work. This will allow poor behaviour to be challenged regardless of people’s positions and roles. It will also give new recruits clear expectations of, and confidence in, what behaviour is acceptable.

To make sure they become part of everyday working life, services should include these values as part of staff performance appraisals and consider them if people seek promotion.

Looking ahead

We will shortly embark on our next cycle of inspections. We will inspect every service again on the same questions to build a comprehensive set of benchmarks.

This will be supported by new arrangements to monitor what progress services are making against the recommendations we have made. During this cycle, we may also choose to carry out a thematic inspection on an issue or issues of cross-sector relevance and importance.

We will also devise and consult on a methodology to inspect fire and rescue authorities, if we have concerns that the governance may be negatively affecting the effectiveness and efficiency of a service.


I have set out in this assessment my view on the state of fire and rescue in England. I have identified many areas of strength and good practice, of which the sector should be proud. But I have also identified several areas where profound reform is needed and made several recommendations. For these reforms to materialise, leaders in central government, local government, fire and rescue authorities of all shapes and sizes, trade unions and the operational leads of fire services need to make bold, long-term decisions.

To bring about change in fire and rescue is complex. It is essentially an arm of local government. National government oversees it, but fire and rescue authorities are the employers and responsible for the terms and conditions of fire staff. It is, in the first instance, for national government to set its expectations of the sector, including being more specific about what it wants the fire and rescue service to do. But it is then for local government to work with fire and rescue services to bring about change. If this doesn’t materialise, it is for national government to mandate reform.

Without reform, the sector will continue to be beset by barriers that prevent progress, perpetuating outdated ways of working and ineffective and inefficient practices. Ultimately, it is the service to the public that suffers.

But there are opportunities to be seized. English FRSs are seen around the world as being some of the best. If the reforms I have suggested in my assessment are carried out fully, they will secure major improvements for the sector and cement it as world-leading in the years to come.


[1] Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 report. Report of the Public Inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, October 2019, Vols. 1–4. Available at: https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.

[2] Independent review of conditions of service for fire and rescue staff in England, Adrian Thomas, Home Office, 3 November 2016. Available at:

[3] Our staff survey was carried out on August 2018 to August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.

[4] The 2:2:4 working arrangement consists of two day shifts, two night shifts and four days off.

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State of Fire and Rescue: The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England 2019