State of Fire and Rescue 2019 – Part 2: Our inspections

Published on: 27 April 2023

Part 2: Our inspections

This report covers our first full cycle of 45 fire and rescue service (FRS) inspections in England. As part of our inspection programme, we assess and make graded judgments on the effectiveness and efficiency of each FRS, and on how well it looks after its people.

Our assessments are designed to enable the public to see each FRS’s performance, as well as how this compares with the performance of other services. In future, the public will also be able to see changes over time.


We assess how effectively each FRS operates. This includes how well the service understands its current and future risks, works to prevent fires and other risks, protects the public through the regulation of fire safety, responds to fires and other emergencies, and responds to national risks. We also consider how well the service works with others: both other FRSs and other emergency responders.


We assess whether the FRS is affordable and providing value for money. This includes how well the service understands and matches its resources to the risks and demands it faces, the extent to which it collaborates with others, and the sustainability of its financial plans.


We assess how well the FRS looks after its people. This includes the values and culture of the service, how it trains its staff and ensures that they have the necessary skills, how it promotes fairness and diversity for its workforce, and what it is doing to develop leadership.

The operating context

The challenges each individual service faces vary considerably across England and can be affected by many things. These include the service’s size and financial position, as well as local factors such as geography, road networks, levels of affluence and deprivation, industries and employment patterns, and – most importantly – the people who live, work and spend time there.

Three services have mostly full-time – known as ‘wholetime’ – firefighters. These are in metropolitan areas and have stations that are crewed on a continuous basis, allowing them to mobilise a fire engine immediately when a call is received. Most other services use both wholetime and ‘on-call’ firefighters. On-call firefighters are fully trained, part-time firefighters who may have other jobs but respond to calls when summoned. These firefighters mostly crew stations that have less demand and where having a full-time crew may not represent good value for money.

Each fire and rescue service is required by the Fire and Rescue National Framework for England to produce an integrated risk management plan. This plan should:

  • set out the main risks in the service’s area;
  • show how it will use prevention, protection and response activities to prevent fires and other incidents, and mitigate the effects of risks on its communities; and
  • outline how resources will be allocated.

Taken together, these and other factors can be considered the operating context of the service. We take account of this context and recognise that differing operating contexts create different needs for, and demands of, services. We have explained the operating context of each service within its service report.

Understanding our graded judgments

It is important to emphasise that FRSs aren’t in competition with each other. Inevitably, some people may want to compare gradings to form a league table. But considering the breadth and complexity of FRS performance, while taking account of each operating context, needs a more sophisticated approach.

Similarly, it is important to read beyond the headlines and consider why some services have been graded higher than others. We take into account a range of factors when giving a grade, and there is no direct link between larger budgets and higher grades. The nuances are in the individual service reports on our website.

In each service report, we have identified ‘areas for improvement’ and, in some cases, ‘causes of concern’. If we consider that an aspect of a service’s practice, policy or performance falls short of the expected standard, we will report this as an area for improvement. If we identify a more serious, critical or systemic shortcoming in a service’s practice, policy or performance, we will report it as a cause of concern.

A cause of concern will always be accompanied by one or more recommendations. The Fire and Rescue National Framework for England requires the fire and rescue authority receiving a recommendation to prepare, update and regularly publish an action plan detailing how it will take action. If we identify a cause of concern relating to effectiveness, we will always revisit the service after a set period to assess whether the service is taking action to address the risk to public safety.

We have outlined the grades of each service against each question in the following pages. This is the first time we have inspected services, so we don’t have a benchmark to measure against. When we inspect services a second time, we will be able to consider their progress and whether or not they are improving.

Summary of grades

On effectiveness, we didn’t grade any service as outstanding overall, nor inadequate. We graded 29 as good and 16 as requiring improvement. On efficiency, we graded 26 services as good, 18 as requiring improvement and 1 as inadequate. We didn’t grade any as outstanding. On people, we graded 18 services as good, 25 as requiring improvement and 2 as inadequate. We didn’t grade any as outstanding.

Our findings

Overall, we found that most services we inspected are keeping people safe and secure from fires and other emergencies, and are using their resources efficiently.

But some services need to improve how well they look after their people. We found pockets of outstanding practice in some services and areas where improvement is urgently needed in others. Services haven’t been independently inspected for over a decade, so it is perhaps not surprising that some areas need improving.

We have summarised our findings from every inspection, divided into our three inspection pillars of effectiveness, efficiency and people.

Service assessment data table


In this pillar, we ask five questions:

  1. How well does the FRS understand the risk of fire and other emergencies?
  2. How effective is the FRS at preventing fire and other risks?
  3. How effective is the FRS at protecting the public through the regulation of fire safety?
  4. How effective is the FRS at responding to fires and other emergencies?
  5. How effective is the FRS at responding to national risks?

Effectiveness: Our findings

How services respond to fires and emergencies is one of their principal strengths, but there is too much variation in response

Responding to fires and other emergencies is one of the sector’s principal strengths. Most FRSs have effective arrangements in place to respond to emergency incidents such as fires and road traffic incidents within their areas. They have highly skilled teams that are well equipped and able to tackle a wide range of incidents.

There are noticeable differences in how effectively services respond to incidents. The Home Office collects and publishes data on response times by measuring the time between the call being made and the first fire engine arriving at the scene. This provides consistent data across all 45 services. However, services measure their own response times in various ways.

There are also differences in the commitment each service makes to its community. This includes how quickly the service aims to respond to a call and how many fire engines and firefighters will attend. Services are most commonly responding with either four or five firefighters on a standard fire engine. But we also saw examples of smaller fire engines responding with two or three firefighters, which can be appropriate for smaller incidents.

There are no nationally established response standards based on the risk of an incident or the likelihood of surviving it. This is even the case for the most common incident types such as a two-vehicle road traffic collision or a house fire. Most services have given public commitments to a response standard, namely that the first engine will get to the scene in so many minutes. But some services don’t even do this and give no time commitment.

All FRSs must produce an integrated risk management plan (IRMP). This plan is the foundation for how each service works. It should explain to the public how its prevention, protection and response activity will reduce the risk from fire and other emergencies.

Some services haven’t used their IRMP process to explain well enough to the public the risk assessments that should underpin these different response standards. This means it is unclear to the public what emergency response they can expect to receive from their fire service when they dial 999. Some services also don’t have a good enough understanding of the logic behind their response standards.

Figure 2 illustrates the differences across services in their average response times to primary fires. It shows that, when comparing similar services’ attendance times to primary fires, they can vary by up to 3 minutes and 52 seconds (the difference between the fastest and slowest times for services within predominately rural areas).

Figure 2: Average response times (minutes and seconds) to primary fires by fire and rescue service and type of area, 2017/2018

Across 45 services, average response times to primary fires range from 6 minutes 35 seconds in Cleveland Fire Brigade to 12 minutes 31 seconds in Cornwall FRS. Generally, predominately urban services have the shortest average response times to primary fires, followed by significantly rural services. Predominately rural services tend to have the longest average response times to primary fires.

Source: Average response time to primary fires: Home Office FIRE1001: 2017/2018

Note: Isle of Wight and West Sussex FRSs didn’t provide a breakdown of average response times, so the graph shows total average response time to primary fires. Full information about how call time, crew turnout time and drive time are calculated available at: response-times-fires-england-1718-hosb0119.pdf Full information about the DEFRA categories available at:

The number of fire engines available differs hugely across services

Services should know how many fire engines they need to have available at any one time to meet the risks they believe they face.

There is a considerable challenge in making sure that engines crewed by on-call firefighters are available. As shown by figure 3, the level of availability across services varies hugely.

There are several reasons for this. Engines may be unavailable because of staffing shortages, crews being on training courses or exercises, or engines needing repair. It is clear that there are significant operational differences across services in how ready they are to respond to incidents.

Services that have a lot of wholetime firefighters (for example, services in metropolitan areas) should have high availability because crews are based on stations ready to respond. Services that have many stations that depend on on-call staff often have lower availability. Buckinghamshire FRS’s low availability is because it often uses on-call staff to fill gaps on wholetime engines. As a result, a high percentage of on-call crewed engines are unavailable.

Figure 3: Overall fire engine availability percentage by fire and rescue service, 2018/19

Across 39 services, fire engine availability ranges from 48 percent in Buckinghamshire FRS to 100 percent in Isles of Scilly FRS.

Source: Overall fire engine availability percentage for the year ending 31 March 2019: HMICFRS data collection.

Royal Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire FRSs did not provide data. Tyne and Wear FRS did not provide data in the correct format.

The viability of the on-call crewing model is of concern

On-call firefighters are part-time firefighters whose primary employment normally isn’t with the service. All but three services – Greater Manchester, London Fire Brigade and West Midlands – have stations that are crewed by on-call firefighters to provide fire cover. We recognise the valuable contribution on-call firefighters make. Without them, the public may face longer response times from wholetime crews based further away.

However, there are not enough on-call firefighters in most services. While recruitment is continuous (and the recent joint Home Office/sector campaign aims to attract more), there are still gaps. A requirement to be so many minutes (usually five) away from a fire station to respond promptly makes attracting and retaining these staff ever more difficult. In 2019, only 30 percent (9,563) of full-time equivalent firefighters were on-call.

With a few exceptions, services are finding it difficult to recruit and retain on-call firefighters. This is particularly difficult in remote rural locations. In many cases, on-call engines are unavailable to respond to emergency calls for long periods of the day because they don’t have enough trained staff. In the year to 31 March 2019, the overall fire engine availability at on-call stations in one service was as low as 13.6 percent.[1]

While some services have started making these posts more flexible and therefore more attractive, most continue to recruit on-call staff to rigid working requirements. Services need to be innovative at reaching out to the widest possible pool, to make sure they have enough staff to keep this model viable.

On-call firefighters usually attend one drill night per week, at which they receive training and other information. To become a fully competent firefighter is therefore a challenge in such limited time. They often have to commit other time to complete further training.

Services need to be creative and supportive in how they train these firefighters. This will help them be sure that, when a fire engine arrives at an incident, there is no difference between the skills and abilities of the firefighters on that engine. We have seen some examples of services trying something different, including more tailored communications to on-call staff, flexible ways of working, and engagement with local businesses to attract their staff to volunteer.

Services have taken steps to achieve greater operational consistency

Most services have adopted, or are adopting, national operational guidance. This guidance helps services use a common approach to commanding incidents, recognising hazards and putting control measures in place. The sector has developed this national guidance based on up-to-date technical expertise. It explains how the sector can work together to deal with incidents. However, the extent to which services have implemented this guidance varies. We believe services need to address this to help them work together better.

There are good examples of the use of operational discretion at incidents in most – but not all – services. This covers incidents where firefighters step outside operational procedures to save lives where existing procedures would be a barrier to doing so, or where no appropriate procedures exist. As part of our inspection process, we asked staff in every service to complete a survey. According to the survey, 62 percent of firefighters (crew manager and above) agreed they were confident that, if the incident required it, their service would support them if they used unauthorised tactics, or used tactics in a novel way.[2]

Services can work together to respond to major incidents

To work effectively when responding to major emergencies, fire services must make sure they have arrangements in place to work with others. As well as other fire services, this includes other emergency services and organisations such as utility companies and local authorities. These partnerships exist across the country through arrangements known as local resilience forums.

Almost all local resilience forum partners hold their fire services in high regard. Services are often active members and positively contribute to make sure they are prepared for major emergencies. In some cases, the fire service chairs these local resilience forums.

We found that most services are good at responding to help other fire services outside their own fire authority borders. They do this on a regular basis through mutual aid agreements with neighbouring services, as well as by responding to large-scale emergencies as part of national resilience arrangements. Several fire services have been given equipment – such as high-volume pumps – to provide a specialist response in times of extreme need. They must deploy them anywhere across the UK as needed.

Some services exchange lessons they have learned from responding to emergencies with other services on a national basis. We saw some informative examples that services have learned from and changed their response arrangements as a result.

But we also found that services aren’t doing enough joint exercises with neighbouring services to make sure their equipment and ways of working are aligned. This would help them provide a more effective response when they need to work together. According to our staff survey, only 27 percent of firefighters and specialist staff agreed that they train and exercise regularly with neighbouring services (19 percent didn’t know). Only 57 percent agreed that their service is fully interoperable with their neighbouring services (16 percent didn’t know).[3]

Blue light responders have agreed Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles to make sure they can work seamlessly together when responding to emergencies. We found that, in most services, middle and senior managers are familiar with and confident in applying these principles. But, in too many cases, supervisory managers who command smaller-scale incidents don’t understand them so well.

When fire services respond outside their own areas, it is essential that they receive relevant risk information so they know what they are dealing with. This helps make sure their response is as effective as possible. It also means firefighters know the risks they are likely to face, which helps keep them and others safe. In most services, we found cross-border risk information was either missing or not being kept up to date. Services need to address this.

Where services haven’t trained their crews to respond to terrorist incidents, we found considerable knowledge gaps. Services need to address these, because firefighters sometimes won’t know what they are responding to until they arrive at the scene of the incident.

Central government has funded some services to provide a specialist response to marauding terrorist incidents. Except for one service, we found that these specialist arrangements are in place and staff sufficiently trained. Services also have trained liaison officers who are vetted and equipped to work closely with police and military partners during incidents of this type.

Services aren’t doing enough to enforce fire safety

We are concerned that many services don’t do enough to make sure premises comply with fire safety regulations. These regulations are designed to protect the public. In some services, they don’t consider this a high enough priority in their IRMPs and they allocate their resources elsewhere.

FRSs are responsible for enforcing fire safety legislation in premises where it applies. This covers non-domestic premises, as well as the communal parts of multi-occupant premises such as flats and tower blocks.

As illustrated by figure 4, the total number of fire safety audits completed by FRSs has declined by around 40 percent since 2010/11.

Figure 4: Total fire safety audits carried out by fire and rescue services in England, 2010/2011 to 2018/2019

The number of fire safety audits carried out by fire and rescue services reduced from about 85,000 in 2010/2011 to about 50,000 in 2018/19.

Source: Total number of fire safety audits carried out by fire and rescue services: Home Office FIRE1202: 2018/2019

Note: 2018/19 refers to the financial year, from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. Other years follow the same pattern.

To make sure premises comply with fire safety legislation, services should have a risk-based inspection programme targeted at those premises that present the highest risk. However, there is no national approach as to what constitutes a high-risk premises. As a result, services define this differently. Some do it by using sophisticated risk assessment tools. Others use historical definitions or simple local trend analysis. We recommended to the sector in June 2019 that it should seek greater consistency in this area.

Figure 5 shows the percentage of premises that services consider high risk against how frequently they audit them. It shows the variation in the percentage of premises in each service area that are defined as high risk, ranging from more than 50 percent to less than 1 percent. Often, the services that have a high percentage of high-risk premises audit them less often than those with a lower percentage.

Figure 5: Percentage of high-risk premises audited in a year against percentage of known premises that are high risk

There is variance in the percentage of known high-risk premises compared to how frequently services audit those premises. Often, services with a large percentage of known high-risk premises audit them less frequently than services with a lower percentage.

Sources: Number of known premises: Home Office FIRE1202: 2018/2019. Number of known high-risk premises: HMICFRS data collection: as at 31 March 2019. Number of high-risk premises audited: HMICFRS data collection: 2018/2019.

Notes: Cleveland, East Sussex, Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire FRSs have been excluded for not providing a complete set of data. Percentages are shown on the graph, but it is important to consider the raw numbers that are behind these percentages.

There is also an inconsistent approach to the number of fire safety audits services carry out. In the year to March 2019, the rate of fire safety audits carried out per 100 known premises covered by the legislation ranged from a low of 0.5 to a high of 12.9. The England rate was 2.6 per 100 known premises.

Alongside this, the number of audits services record as being satisfactory varied widely from 23 percent at the lowest to 96 percent at the highest. The average across all English services was 67 percent.

We are concerned that, taken together, this data indicates that many services’ risk-based inspection programmes don’t have enough resources. It also suggests that they are targeting the wrong premises, where fire safety measures are already in place and are satisfactory. In some services, the quality assurance process of audits isn’t good enough, which may also contribute to this high discrepancy.

When services have needed to reduce budgets over recent years, protection has often been the first cut. As a result, the number of specially trained competent staff dedicated to fire safety has reduced. In the 27 services that provided comparable data, the number of appropriately trained staff who were allocated to protection work had reduced from 655 in 2011 to 450 in 2019. Another problem the sector faces is the number of qualified protection staff who move to more lucrative posts in the private sector. With qualifications taking at least 18 months to complete, services don’t have a quick fix to fill staffing shortfalls.

In the short term, one way to overcome these problems is to make protection a cross-service endeavour. Some services have equipped their operational crews to do low-risk protection visits to free their specialist staff to focus on the higher-risk visits. However, this isn’t commonplace. Although some services have re-introduced fire safety to the role of their frontline firefighters, most are no longer training or directing firefighters to do even simple fire safety audits. We believe this is a missed opportunity.

Most services are good at responding to requests for building regulation consultations, such as those of local authority building controls for planning applications. In the year to 31 March 2019, most services responded to most building regulation consultations within the required timeframe.

The lack of fire safety enforcement is a concern

Over the past few years, government policy is that public services should support businesses to comply with legislation rather than take enforcement action through the courts. The sector has adopted the Regulators’ Code, issued by the Better Regulation Delivery Office, with services giving advice to business owners on what steps they need to take to be compliant with fire safety regulation.

But, in trying to be more proportionate and accountable to those businesses they regulate, services aren’t always striking the right balance. There are times when compliance work is no longer appropriate – for example, when a business has had numerous opportunities to take the required steps but has failed to act properly. In these circumstances, enforcement and prosecution may be better. Across all services in England, the number of successful prosecutions increased from 64 in 2010/11 to 99 in 2015/16, but it has since declined to 45 in 2018/19. Four services haven’t brought a successful prosecution for over eight years. We expected that more enforcement work would be taking place.

False alarms continue to be the biggest demand services face

In 2018/19, across England 40.1 percent (231,067) of all incidents attended by FRSs were fire false alarms. The percentage differs across services. Over the same period, the percentage of all incidents attended that were fire false alarms ranged from 23.7 in Lincolnshire to 50.1 in West Sussex.[4]

There are several reasons for these fire false alarm calls: nearly two-thirds (65 percent, 150,967) were due to apparatus such as a smoke alarm or sprinkler being triggered; just under a third (32 percent, 72,940) were made with good intent, but later discovered to be false alarms; 3 percent (7,160) were malicious reports.

Services should have adopted the NFCC’s best practice guidance for dealing with these false alarms. But we found that not all had. In line with this guidance, most services do challenge calls to some degree. This means that control operators try to find out whether there is an actual fire before sending a fire engine. On occasions, a small number of services send a smaller vehicle, often with one or two firefighters, rather than sending a fully equipped fire engine to check whether there is a fire.

Services are doing less prevention work and don’t always target it effectively

Preventing incidents occurring in the first place is the best and most cost-effective outcome for the public. Fire and rescue services have a legal duty under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to promote fire safety. But there is no set national approach and there is considerable variation across services. The Fire and Rescue National Framework for England, which services must have regard to, requires them to target their prevention work at:

  • people or households who are at greatest risk from fire in the home;
  • people most likely to engage in arson or deliberate fire setting; and
  • non-domestic premises where the life safety fire risk is greatest.

Despite this, the number of home fire safety checks (including safe and well visits) carried out by FRSs has reduced by a quarter since 2011. As shown in figure 6, the number of home fire safety checks carried out by FRSs has reduced by 25.3 percent between 2010/11 and 2018/19. More positively, the number of checks carried out on elderly and disabled people has increased. But there is considerable variation between services and some need to target their prevention work better.

Figure 6: Total number of home fire safety checks carried out by The number of home fire and rescue services in England, 2010/11 to 2018/19

The number of home fire safety checks carried out by fire and rescue services reduced from about 775,000 in 2010/11 to about 580,000 in 2018/19.

Source: Total number of home fire safety checks carried out by FRSs: Home Office FIRE1201: 2018/2019

Notes: 2018/19 refers to the financial year, from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. Other years follow the same pattern. Home fire safety checks are also known in some services as safe and well checks.

There was variation in the rate of home fire safety checks that services complete from fewer than 2 per 1,000 population to over 40 per 1,000 population in 2018/19. The England rate is 10 per 1,000 population.

Some services’ approach to prevention was unclear. We expect a service’s IRMP to explain its priorities and the rationale behind them. Too often, this wasn’t the case.

We saw some outstanding practice during our inspections where people and households are targeted for fire safety advice because of their increased risk from fire. Similarly, we have seen the benefits of services working closely with partners, such as the police, to tackle arson and deliberate fire setting. In some instances, this has led to the successful prosecution of offenders.

There is no set way for services to identify vulnerability and target their prevention visits. Some use a range of health, consumer and historical fire data, and proactively visit targeted households. Others rely almost exclusively on referrals from partners and so only do reactive work. While having strong working links with local partners is positive, this needs to go both ways, which isn’t always the case.

The trust that the public have in FRSs allows fire staff to access people’s homes. Most services are good at identifying people who may be vulnerable for reasons other than fire, such as exploitation or abuse. They are also good at referring those individuals to appropriate agencies for help and support.

Over the past few years, every service has expanded the range of prevention activities it provides. All services identify and take action to reduce fire risks in the home by making sure properties have working smoke alarms. Some go further and cover things such as health and lifestyle (for example, smoking and drinking). But, in some services, some staff don’t feel equipped to discuss the wider spectrum of issues. Services need to make sure their staff are confident and trained to cover prevention topics the service wishes them to.

Most services also do non-statutory prevention work, such as water and road safety education. This is positive and illustrates how services can adapt their focus to respond to local needs. But this work shouldn’t be at the expense of carrying out their primary functions.

Greater evaluation of prevention activities is needed

Over the past decade, the type and breadth of prevention work have significantly increased. But not enough evaluation has been done to consider the effect or benefit of this work. As a result, services don’t know what works, nor can services learn from what others are doing. This makes it harder for services to make evidence-based decisions on what future work they should do to meet local risk, as well as the volume of that work and who they should target.

There is an inconsistent approach to identifying risk

With no current national guidance, the content and quality of IRMPs vary. This variation is undesirable in the context of risk that the public faces. In June 2019, we recommended that services should be more consistent in how they identify and determine risk as part of the IRMP process. We are not advocating a return to national standards of fire cover. But having so many ways of assessing risk is, in our view, detrimental.

In some services, the IRMP is integral to how they work, with day-to-day work clearly aligned to their main risks and priorities. But in many services, prevention, protection and response work takes place in isolation, with little rationale for what the service is doing.

Despite risks evolving, most services have based the location of their fire stations on historical data. We recognise that services often don’t receive much public and political support when they propose to close fire stations or alter cover levels, but some have. One service recently opened a fire station near a major motorway in response to the growing number of accidents nearby. Another has reviewed all its response vehicles to assess whether they are still needed, increasing or reducing the number and type depending on the nature of risk and the extent of demand each station deals with. Services should make sure their resources are designed to meet their changing local risk, and review this regularly.

The use of risk information needs improvement

Services rely on up-to-date risk information to protect people and property before, during and after fires and other emergencies. While there is no consistent way of doing this, most use a range of data to build their risk profiles. But few have combined the relevant information they hold into one central data system from which they can co-ordinate and prioritise prevention, protection and response activity.

This approach duplicates effort. It increases the likelihood of services not sharing relevant risk information, or it not being available when most needed. Services need to make sure that the risk information they hold on higher-risk people and properties is immediately available, regardless of where it is held within the organisation. At the very least, services should merge their own different databases to provide a single view of risk.

Firefighters also need accurate risk information when responding to incidents. Information is usually provided on mobile data terminals in engines, and in some cases as paper files. We were concerned to find that, in some services, the risk information firefighters have is out of date, superseded or missing. This needs to be urgently improved so that firefighters are given all the risk information the service holds. This will help keep them and others safe, and enable the most effective response.

Services hold and have access to a range of data. They need to make the most of the opportunities this brings.

Services could do more to engage with their local communities

Services must consult with their communities, their workforces and representative bodies throughout the development of their IRMPs and at all review stages. How services do this, and their success in doing so, varies. Some are proactive, attending community events, visiting local forums and making innovative use of social media. Others do very little.

In 2019, we carried out a public perception survey of over 10,000 members of the public across England. It showed the following:

  • Most respondents are interested in knowing what their local FRS is doing in their area (78 percent).
  • Compared with a similar previous survey we did, fewer respondents feel informed about what their local FRS is doing (52 percent in 2018, compared with 57 percent in 2019).
  • The main reason respondents don’t feel informed is because they haven’t seen any information about their service (79 percent of those who don’t feel informed stated this).
  • Only a small proportion of respondents have been asked about their views on FRSs in the past 12 months (8 percent).
  • Respondents were asked about their knowledge of the staffing arrangements for stations in their local FRS. The respondents had low awareness of this (42 percent gave an incorrect answer and a further 28 percent said they didn’t know).


In this pillar, we ask two questions:

  1. How well does the FRS use its resources to manage risk?
  2. How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks, now and in the future?

Efficiency: Our findings

Resources aren’t always aligned to risk

FRSs need to understand the foreseeable risks they face and use their resources to mitigate them. Nearly all the FRSs we inspected understand their risks, which they outline in their integrated risk management plan (IRMP).

Through their IRMPs, services commit to their local communities to provide the level of service they consider necessary to keep them safe. We were surprised to find that some services couldn’t explain why they need the number of fire engines they have committed to in their IRMPs, nor the rationale behind why they have set the response standards they have. In June 2019, we recommended that services should adopt a consistent approach to how they measure response standards and define risk.

At the time of our inspection, some services had far fewer engines available than they said they needed in their IRMPs. So, either their IRMPs overestimated the resources they needed to meet their foreseeable risks, or they had too few engines and firefighters available, which may have put their communities at risk. How services identify and plan for their risks is something we will focus on when we next inspect services.

Workforce plans could be more ambitious and better linked to risk

The quality of workforce plans varied hugely across services and some services’ plans lacked ambition. Nearly a third of services couldn’t show how their financial and workforce plans addressed the risks they had identified in their IRMPs. More often than not, services were looking to keep as close as possible to the same number of firefighters year on year, regardless of whether their risk was changing. We saw examples of:

  • a service allocating its resources based on largely historical decisions to meet response standards set over a decade ago;
  • a service providing the same level of emergency response across its service area regardless of the community risk; and
  • services where availability of fire engines significantly and consistently outstrips demand.

Many services are under-resourcing prevention and protection

Two-thirds of services were either under-resourcing their protection and prevention teams or couldn’t give a clear rationale for disproportionally low levels of activity in these areas. Data we collected from services supports this and shows that the number of appropriately trained staff who are allocated to protection work has fallen. The protection team in one service halved from having 64 appropriately trained staff who were allocated to protection work in 2011 to 32 in 2019.

Some services were simply doing the levels of protection and prevention work they could afford, while others that could afford to do more weren’t making it a priority. We saw protection teams that didn’t have enough resources to carry out the service’s risk-based inspection programme.

Some services are trying to address the under-resourcing of prevention and protection work by involving staff from across the service. For example, in Derbyshire FRS, both wholetime and on-call firefighters carry out safe and well visits. The service has committed an extra £300,000 to enable on-call firefighters to help complete these visits. Wholetime watch managers have been trained to a level 3 certificate in fire safety, allowing them to carry out some protection work. Some staff told us they felt empowered to use their discretion and focus on local priorities, be that prevention, protection or operational demands. Operational crews have also carried out 3,700 hazard spots. These are low-level protection visits that reduce the demand on trained protection staff.

Most services have made savings, but more could be done

The scale of savings services have been required to make has varied considerably. However, nearly all the services we inspected had managed to make savings over the past five years. Some services had only needed to make very modest savings, so hadn’t felt the effects of austerity in the same way as others.

The governance model under which a fire and rescue service operates can affect its financial position. County council-run services allocate their budgets based on their local priorities. So, while some FRSs have had their budgets protected by their county councils, others have faced significant cuts to allow the council to fund other things, including adult and children’s social care. This has resulted in considerable financial disparity across services.

We were concerned to find Northumberland and Northamptonshire FRSs operating in a very difficult financial environment, while Buckinghamshire FRS couldn’t afford the number of firefighters it said it needed. At the time of inspection, both Northamptonshire and Northumberland FRSs were governed by their county council or unitary authority (although governance of Northamptonshire FRS has since transferred to the police, fire and crime commissioner).

Northumberland FRS has already achieved significant savings (£4.5m) since 2016 but is being required by the county council to make more, despite already having a lean operating model. At the time of our inspection, it didn’t have an approved plan for how these further savings would be made without compromising the service it provided to the public.

The financial difficulties of Northamptonshire County Council are well documented. While under the control of the council, the fire service had been required to make savings of £4.5m. It only managed to achieve this by making substantial staff reductions, which subsequently affected its operational performance. It often had fewer engines available than it said it needed, and its prevention and protection teams were too small to meet the service’s own targets.

Reserves have grown significantly over recent years, but their intended use may not be sensible or sustainable

Fire and rescue authorities (other than county council-led fire and rescue authorities) can keep part of their funding as financial reserves. Most fire and rescue services have reserves or have access to county council reserves.

Reserves should be used to manage financial risk, fund major future costs (such as change programmes) and cover unforeseen pressures. They can also be earmarked for a specific purpose, such as investment in technology or estate. It is surprising that the level of reserves held by most services continues to rise year on year, despite calls from some that the sector is underfunded. Overall, across the 28 (out of 45 fire and rescue authorities in total) combined fire and rescue authorities, reserves equalled 42 percent of their annual budgets in March 2018.

Some services have decided to use their reserves to plug budget gaps. This means they delay making efficiencies, such as revising staffing structures, changing ways of working or investing in technology to improve efficiency and productivity. In some cases, this is not a sustainable use of reserves. By delaying making efficiencies, these services are failing in their duty to give the public value for money.

Figure 7 shows that the levels of reserves, and what they are intended to be used for, vary considerably from service to service.

Figure 7: Reserves and provisions by fire and rescue service as at 1 April 2018 (£ million)

Across 43 services, reserves and provisions range from £0 reserves and provisions in Surrey and Northamptonshire FRSs to about £56 million in London Fire Brigade.

Source: Annual financial data returns to CIPFA

Notes: Isles of Scilly and West Sussex FRSs did not provide data. Northamptonshire and Surrey FRSs reported having no reserves. Suffolk FRS did not provide provisions data.

Financial reserves held by the 28 (out of 45) combined fire and rescue authorities increased by 80 percent to £545.1m between March 2011 and March 2018 (see figure 8). Financial data for the other fire and rescue services is not as clear because fire functions are part of a larger organisation (for example, county councils or combined mayoral authorities).

Figure 8: Trends in combined fire and rescue authority reserve levels, March 2011 to March 2018 (£ million)

Total resource reserves increased between 2010/2011 to 2016/2017, from about £303 million to about £566 million. They then reduced to about £545 million in 2017/2018. Capital reserves increased from about £12.5 million in 2010/2011 to about £61.2 million in 2017/2018.

Source: All figures taken from audited fire and rescue authority (FRA) statements of accounts

Notes: Figures may not sum due to rounding. The 2018 figures do not include Greater Manchester FRA due to the transfer of fire responsibilities to the metro mayor. For comparability, we have removed Greater Manchester FRA from previous years. Dorset and Wiltshire & Swindon FRAs merged on 1 April 2016 to form Dorset & Wiltshire FRA. Resource reserves held by Dorset & Wiltshire FRA as at March 2018 are compared to those held by Dorset and Wiltshire & Swindon FRAs as at March 2011.

There are barriers to workforce reform

For FRSs to be efficient in serving the public, they need to be able to adapt and do things differently. Services have acknowledged through their IRMPs that the risk to the public is constantly changing, so the service they provide needs to adapt accordingly.

We are concerned that some services face substantial barriers to implementing change. This may mean that they are being prevented from improving both their efficiency and the service that they provide to the public. One barrier is trade unions. Often, national bargaining is needed to bring about local change. Some services are more successful than others in implementing change, in part due to the relationships they have built with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

We inspected services against a backdrop of ongoing negotiations between the sector and local, and more recently central, government over pay and the role of a firefighter. As a result, some services to the public, such as supporting the ambulance service in responding to medical emergencies, have reduced or stopped in many FRSs.

During the course of our inspection, a local industrial relations dispute also led to Greater Manchester FRS losing its tactical capability to work alongside police and ambulance responders in the event of terrorist attacks. Despite attempts by the service to resolve this locally, firefighters with the appropriate training and equipment now have to come from Merseyside FRS. We are concerned about the implications of this arrangement for public safety. A delay in any emergency service responding to such an incident could very well cost lives.

Many services are being prevented from implementing more efficient shift patterns and crewing models, or widening the responsibilities of firefighters to include prevention and protection work. With far fewer fires to attend to and a squeeze on public finances, unions need to work with services to consider the greater contribution firefighters can make in protecting their local communities.

Services are willing to collaborate with others

Nearly all the services we inspected have a positive attitude towards collaboration with other emergency services, and all meet their statutory duty to consider it. However, we are concerned that more than half the services we inspected weren’t consistently or effectively evaluating, reviewing or monitoring collaboration activities to assess whether they were beneficial and cost-effective.

Collaboration between emergency services has the potential to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Sharing buildings can reduce property costs for all agencies involved, giving the public better value for money. It can also help emergency personnel get to know each other, work together better and improve both performance and the service they give the public. We saw several different types of collaboration, including sharing estates, equipment and control rooms, joint procurement and work on behalf of the police and the health services.

Buckinghamshire FRS is leading a partnership with South Central Ambulance Service and Thames Valley Police that will see all three services moving into one purpose-built ‘blue light hub’. The move to the hub will see all three services leaving five different sites to work under one roof, thereby reducing running costs. We also saw Thames Valley Fire Control bringing command and control for three Thames Valley fire services under one roof in Royal Berkshire, which saves £1m a year for the three services (Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Royal Berkshire FRSs).

However, too many services are entering into expensive collaboration projects without processes in place to make sure they are achieving value for money or making them operate more efficiently. We found examples of projects underperforming, and no formal process in place to learn why they had failed to achieve the benefits the service had anticipated.

Services need better financial data

FRS leaders need to understand their true costs to be able to manage budgets, use resources efficiently and effectively, and explore opportunities to reduce costs. Too often, we found that services lacked access to accurate data. Sometimes, FRSs that were part of the county council weren’t given information on how the council calculated and allocated charges for their support services, making it difficult for them to find out whether they were getting value for money.

However, there are also occasions when services could do more to understand the cost of their activities – for example, by evaluating the cost-effectiveness of large collaboration projects. FRSs also need to work together as a sector to improve the data they provide to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). We have been working with CIPFA and the sector throughout 2019 to get better data. There have been new guidelines asking for consistent responses and validation checks by CIPFA, which should lead to improvements.

Services need to keep their continuity plans up to date

FRSs need robust continuity arrangements. Otherwise, they risk service failure during an unexpected incident. We were pleased to find such arrangements in nearly all the services we inspected. However, around half the services we inspected weren’t regularly testing or updating their plans.

In one service, we found that the main continuity plan had passed its review date, annual tests weren’t always happening, and there was no formal training given to those with continuity responsibilities. The service wasn’t always learning from interruptions to mitigate the impact of this happening in other, similar, areas of the organisation.

Another service had continuity plans to make sure it could provide critical services during times of disruption but, other than fire control evacuation, these haven’t been tested or exercised. We found that some of the plans were out of date and some crucial staff couldn’t locate plans for their area of work. Services should make sure there is a testing programme for their continuity plans, particularly in high-risk areas of the service such as control.

Services need to make sure their workforces are productive

An efficient service will make sure its workforce’s time is productive, making use of a flexible workforce and flexible working patterns. Nearly half the services we inspected use flexible workforce patterns and have altered their crewing models to become more efficient. Some services have also reduced the number of firefighters needed to crew a fire engine.

However, there is significant variation in the cost per head of population for each firefighter (see figure 9). It is difficult to explain, let alone justify, why in the year ending 31 March 2019, three services spent more than £30 per head of population on a firefighter and another spent just under £17.

Figure 9: Firefighter cost per head of population, 2018/19

Across 43 services, firefighter cost per head of population ranges from £16.75 in Gloucestershire FRS to £32.69 in Humberside FRS.

Source: Annual financial data returns to CIPFA for 2018/2019 and ONS mid-2017 population estimates

Note: All figures should be considered alongside the proportion of firefighters who are wholetime and on-call/retained within a service. Isles of Scilly and West Sussex FRSs didn’t provide data.

Durham and Darlington FRS has moved some of the work carried out by central teams to operational crews, with the aim of making better use of firefighter capacity. This has resulted in a notable increase in productivity levels. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service carried out around three times the England rate per 1,000 population for home fire safety checks and more than four times the England rate for fire safety audits per 100 known premises.

The service has a performance regime that guides work in priority areas. For example, station-based staff have targets for work such as home fire safety checks, safe and well visits, and fire safety inspections. They also have targets for incident numbers, relevant to their station areas, to guide prevention activities. District managers actively review and report against these targets. This information is then passed to a meeting of senior managers, and sometimes the fire authority, to provide scrutiny on performance levels.

Cleveland Fire Brigade has carried out a productivity review of its response firefighters. It analysed the total working hours available to firefighters and deducted the essential elements of the role, such as training and responding to incidents, to identify time left over for prevention and protection work. The service set annual targets for stations and its performance management was robust.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for every service. We found examples of services introducing new shift patterns without evaluating their efficiency or effectiveness, and relying on overtime to make sure there were enough staff on duty. One service had carried out a pilot scheme across several of its stations, which showed that wholetime staff had the capacity to carry out prevention work, but the service wasn’t taking enough advantage of this. All services should be considering how to use their wholetime workforce to achieve their targets.

While there are pockets of innovation, services and the sector as a whole need to use technology better

All the FRSs we inspected have the operational equipment they believe they need to keep the public safe. However, the use of technology varies considerably. Some services are investing in technology to improve their effectiveness and efficiency. We found examples of services that procured mobile data terminal software jointly with other services, allowing the swift transfer of risk information across the services. Others had developed digital applications that streamline and create efficiencies: for example, managing premises risk information and the home fire safety check processes.

However, some services have been slow to exploit opportunities for more productive ways of working presented by technology. Nearly half the services we inspected were using broken, dated or unreliable IT systems and had inefficient paper-based systems. Many computer systems that services rely on are slow and don’t work together. This was a common source of frustration among staff we spoke to.

It is clear that the current lack of investment in IT in some services is making them less productive. The systems being used to record information are, too often, producing poor-quality data, which in turn affects how well a service can effectively manage its performance and productivity.

While work is now under way through the NFCC to develop a cross-sector IT strategy, this is still in its early stages and there is much work to do before there is a vision that services can work to.

Services are exploiting opportunities to generate an income

Nearly all the FRSs we inspected have been able to support their budgets by generating an income from external sources. For example, they can charge neighbouring services for maintaining their vehicles; responding to incidents on their behalf; providing training to the public, county council and private businesses; leasing estates; and monitoring CCTV. They can use this income to improve their financial sustainability.

The amount of income that FRSs bring in varies a great deal. For example, Northumberland FRS reported an income from other FRSs of £2.7m, while West Midlands Fire Service reported an income from ‘other sources’ (for example, charges for shared training centres and vehicle maintenance centres) of £4.8m in the year to 31 March 2018. While all services reported receiving at least some income from other sources, a small number reported receiving no income from other FRSs.

We were concerned that some services risked prioritising opportunities to generate an income over their main duties. For example, there were services with short-staffed prevention and protection teams assigning staff to provide training on a cost-recovery basis. Although it is admirable for services to look for ways to improve their financial sustainability, their priority should always be to make sure they have enough resources to carry out their core functions.

Services are now planning for the future

Most services understand the financial climate they are operating in and consider a range of financial planning scenarios. These include changes in government funding, future pay awards and the uncertainty surrounding employers’ obligations after the recalculation of the cost of public sector pensions.

But the financial planning in some services is limited in scope. Despite being able to identify the size of potential shortfalls, they haven’t carried out suitable contingency planning for worst-case assumptions. There is also very little evidence of real financial and resource planning past 2020. While we recognise the short-term nature of the fire funding settlement, services should seek to gain a better understanding of the likely financial difficulties they may face in the coming years.


In this pillar, we ask four questions:

  1. How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?
  2. How well trained and skilled are FRS staff?
  3. How well does the FRS ensure fairness and diversity?
  4. How well does the FRS develop leadership and capability?

People: Our findings

The values and culture in some services must be improved

Most services have much work to do to promote their values and culture at all levels of their organisations.

Almost without exception, FRS staff across England are proud of the work they do. They are strongly committed to keeping the public safe from fires and other emergencies.

More than half of services still don’t manage to foster enough of a culture that truly welcomes and includes all staff in all parts of the organisation. Services still have much work to do to improve workplace behaviour.

We repeatedly heard about overbearing or autocratic management styles. Many services don’t train their managers in people skills, such as leadership, motivation, challenging inappropriate behaviour and managing performance. As a result, we found staff and managers behaving and leading the same way they themselves have always been led. However, we do of course fully accept that, when responding to incidents, command and control with authority and directness are needed.

We graded a small number of services outstanding for their values and culture. These services have clear, unambiguous values and frameworks for behaviour in place. Their senior leaders demonstrate the service’s values and promote them throughout the workplace. Not only could staff tell us about the values, they could also link the values to their roles in practical terms. The values and behaviours often featured in wider service activities, such as development programmes and processes for promotion and recruitment.

We were pleased to see that services are trying new approaches. For example, Staffordshire FRS removed rank markings from day-to-day uniform, which staff welcomed. This was done to remove perceived barriers and foster a more inclusive environment that values all staff equally.

Disappointingly, in many services, we found examples of unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, discrimination and language unsuitable for an inclusive workplace. This behaviour hadn’t always been dealt with strongly enough by line managers.

According to our staff survey, 24 percent of respondents felt they had been harassed or bullied at work in the past 12 months.[5]

Most of this group reported that this was by someone senior to them; the most common reason given by respondents for the bullying or harassment was their role, level or rank. Of those who had felt bullied or harassed, 54 percent didn’t report it, 36 percent reported it informally and just 10 percent reported it formally. Reasons for not reporting it included believing nothing would happen, fearing being victimised or labelled a troublemaker, and concerns about confidentiality.

The prevalence of bullying in the sector has been known for some time. It was included in Adrian Thomas’s independent review of conditions of service for fire and rescue staff in England, which was published in 2016. Senior leaders have much more to do to improve culture across the sector, and to eradicate behaviour, language and attitudes that have no place in inclusive and modern workplaces.

Services need to think hard about the consequences of a watch culture

Most FRSs base their staffing on operational watches. These are small groups of staff who work closely together in tight-knit teams, often training, dining and spending rest periods together.

We saw undeniable benefits to staff working in this way. Operational watches often work well as teams because of the amount of time they spend together. They communicate effectively at incidents and are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their colleagues. We heard of many examples where this watch ethos drove team members to work harder so as not to let their colleagues down. This can sometimes translate into better outcomes for the public. Watches also often turn to each other for support after traumatic incidents.

However, we witnessed significant negative characteristics of the watch system. Very often, staff stay on the same watch for many years, in some cases for their whole careers. Because of a lack of movement between watches or stations, old attitudes and working practices can become entrenched. In some cases, inappropriate language and behaviour go unchallenged by line managers. Those who join a watch may feel under pressure to fit into its established culture.

In services that failed to promote and model their values and behaviours effectively, we saw watches that had developed their own subcultures, often not in line with the culture of the service. This at times led to a resistance to change or to commit to new ways of working. And although staff on the same watch looked after one another, they would be less likely to seek professional support outside their watch. They were reluctant to seem weak or to be putting their head above the parapet. As a result, staff may not get the help they need.

Services should consider how to address these problems to make sure the culture on watches is positive, progressive and welcoming.

Services take staff wellbeing seriously

A healthy and content workforce is likely to be more productive and effective. We found that, in most services, senior leaders prioritise and promote the wellbeing of their staff in many ways. Most services provide specialist support for staff via an occupational health department, such as physiotherapy, psychological counselling and medical screening.

We were encouraged to see more services beginning to address and promote positive mental health. This includes engaging with the mental health charity Mind’s Blue Light Programme and the Oscar Kilo initiative, which provide resources and guidance to help services plan their wellbeing provision. We also heard many positive examples of the work done by the Fire Fighters Charity to support the physical and mental wellbeing of current and retired members of fire service staff.

Most services have a positive health and safety culture. Most services have a positive health and safety culture, in which staff and managers are well trained and understand their responsibilities for keeping workplaces safe.

Most services monitor statistics about accidents to learn from trends, reduce the risk of further harm and find out where they can improve how they work. According to our staff survey, 84 percent agreed that their personal safety and welfare are treated seriously at work.[6] Despite the high number, services should consider why some staff disagree.

Services need to monitor staff working hours more closely

The traditional 2-2-4 model (2 days, 2 nights, 4 days off) is designed to provide a reliable service to the public both day and night, while making sure firefighters have enough rest between shifts. It also allows firefighters to have other jobs on their days off. Of the 40 services who gave us data,[7] around a quarter of their wholetime firefighters have registered secondary employment.[8] And of the 44[9] services that gave us data, 11 percent of wholetime firefighters are also on-call firefighters in the same service.

Several services have no oversight or control of the hours that staff work. This is a concern. Most had policies in place that state the maximum number of hours staff can work, and the rest periods needed before and after shifts. But these hours are often monitored only by the member of staff, without management being aware. We saw several examples of staff working many hours of overtime or going straight from a wholetime shift to an on-call shift with little or no rest.

While we recognise that services are keen to promote individual responsibility, not knowing the demands on their staff time carries considerable risk, particularly if working excessive hours leads to an accident or injury.

Better workforce planning is needed

FRSs, like all employers, need workforce plans that identify the skills and capabilities they need, both now and in the future. Services should be able to explain how their workforce planning arrangements align to the overall workforce capabilities specified in their integrated risk management plans. They also need to make sure that staff leaving doesn’t disrupt the service to the public.

In the year to 31 March 2019, 1,460 staff retired from the FRS (due to normal retirement or early retirement). Most of those who retired were wholetime firefighters (1,119 or 76.6 percent). The average age of firefighters has gradually increased from 40 in 2011 to 42 in 2018, before falling back to 41 in 2019.

We found a mixed picture of workforce planning across services. Most services make their operational workforce a priority. They actively monitor projected retirement dates, the effect of vacancies on skills and capabilities, and the need to recruit and train new staff. The more effective services regularly update their workforce plans so they can respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances.

But many services give less attention to their non-operational workforces. Here we found a lack of effective planning. This was most troubling when staff had specialist skills and capabilities, such as protection. We frequently saw large backlogs in workloads caused by a lack of specialist staff. Building regulation consultation responses and proactive fire safety engagement with businesses are two such examples. Services should make sure their workforce and succession planning arrangements take full account of specialist roles and functions.

Staff are generally well trained and equipped to provide the best response possible to the public

Most services prioritise training for operational, station-based staff. They have good systems in place for training in risk-critical skills, such as incident command, using breathing apparatus and rescuing from height.

This training is provided mainly by specialist staff who are skilled and accredited, which means it is likely to be to a high standard. So we are reassured that, when the public need FRSs, they will get a response from crews who are competent and able to respond. In our staff survey, 73 percent agreed that they have received sufficient training to enable them to do the things asked of them.[10] Services should consider why over a quarter of staff don’t feel they are appropriately trained.

Firefighters must maintain an ever-increasing range of skills. For example, they must know how to rescue casualties from road traffic collisions and respond to hazardous situations involving water, such as flooding and drowning. They are also called upon to deal with incidents involving hazardous chemicals and to administer life-saving first aid.

But because training centres have limited capacity, much of the refresher training for these skills is provided locally at stations, often by watch or crew managers. In several services, these managers hadn’t received any training in how to provide training themselves. This includes what techniques to use and how to recognise whether those being trained understand the content. Services often assumed that a manager could provide training based on their knowledge and experience – which vary greatly – rather than any recognised effective practice.

This is a risk to these services and their staff. Without being certain of the quality of the training being provided, it is difficult for a service to guarantee its consistency and effectiveness. Some managers we spoke to said they lack confidence in their ability to give effective training sessions, and staff expressed concern at the inconsistent approach between watches.

Some services gave less priority to training for non-operational members of staff, including those in control and corporate services. Often, these staff had no structured training plan in place and few opportunities available to them. Every member of staff should have development and training opportunities to enhance their abilities and potential.

Diversity remains an aspiration, with much work still to do

Despite most services saying they are increasingly committed to improving diversity and inclusion, in this respect change in the sector is woefully inadequate.

FRSs should be inclusive and meet the needs of their whole workforce. They should represent their local communities. A diverse workforce should offer a broad range of experiences and backgrounds. Diversity can help to improve innovation, decision making and service to the public. Services also need a diverse workforce to be able to draw from the widest possible pool of available talent.

The number and proportion of female firefighters has slowly increased since 2002, the first year for which comparable data is available. In 2002, just 1.7 percent (753) of all firefighters were female. This increased to 6.4 percent (2,231) in 2019. Even so, fewer than seven in every 100 firefighters are women.

But since 2011, the main reason behind this percentage increase isn’t more female firefighters being recruited: it is that more men are leaving. The number of female firefighters has increased only by around 450 over this time, while the number of male firefighters decreased by almost 8,800.

The percentage of firefighters who are women varies hugely across services. In 2019, the percentage ranged from 2.9 percent (Isle of Wight and Cornwall) to 15.6 percent (Gloucestershire) of all firefighters (see figure 10).

Figure 10: Percentage of female firefighters as at 31 March 2019

Across 45 services, the percentage of firefighters who are women ranges from 2.9 percent in Cornwall FRS and Isle of Wight FRS to 15.6 percent in Gloucestershire FRS.

Source: Staff headcount (firefighters) by gender: Home Office FIRE1103: 2018/2019

Note: Data is as at 31 March 2019.

We were also very disturbed to find that some services didn’t have the right facilities or provide appropriate uniform for women.

There were 10 fewer firefighters from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group in 2019 than there were in 2011. Because of the large number of white firefighters who have left the service, the proportion of firefighters from a BAME group[11] has increased only slightly since 2011 (the first year with comparable data available), from 3.5 percent to 4.3 percent in 2019. This is unacceptable, and services need to find a way to attract more people from this minority group.

According to the 2011 Census, 14.6 percent of the English population were from an ethnic minority group. A very small number of services are representative of the communities they serve in terms of ethnicity, but the vast majority are not (see figure 11).

Figure 11: Percentage point difference between the service’s BAME residential population and its BAME firefighters as at 31 March 2019

Across 45 services, the percentage point difference between BAME residential population and BAME firefighters ranges from -26.7 percent in London Fire Brigade to 1.2 percent in Isles of Scilly FRS.

Source: Staff headcount (firefighters) by ethnicity: Home Office FIRE1104: 2018/2019

Notes: BAME residential population data from ONS 2011 census data Workforce data is as at 31 March 2019. The percentage of BAME firefighters does not include those who opted not to disclose their ethnic origin. There are large variations between services in the number of firefighters who did not state their ethnic origin.

We recognise that women and people from BAME groups also work elsewhere in services rather than being firefighters. In 2019, 53.2 percent of support staff (and 77 percent of control room staff) were female. But these members of staff often don’t come into contact with the public, so the public doesn’t see this diversity.

We came across services that are trying to change this, and some have had early successes. It is also encouraging that the sector as a whole is starting to promote itself as a career open to a diverse range of people. Services are challenging the stereotypical image of a firefighter and are focusing more on communication and interpersonal skills. The NFCC and the Local Government Association continue to support services to be more diverse and inclusive workplaces. But far more needs to be done.

It is one thing recruiting a diverse workforce: it is quite another retaining it. Most – but not all – services have staff networks in place, which we welcome. But there need to be more role models and career pathways so that no one faces a ‘glass ceiling’ because of any characteristic.

In some services, we found either indifference to diversity and positive action or, on a small number of occasions, outright hostility. If services want to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture for a new diverse workforce, they must do more to educate their people, and challenge and dispel myths, about positive action.

In many services, equality, diversity and inclusion are discussed only once a year as part of online training. We heard frequently that it was viewed as a ‘tick box’ exercise by staff and was something to be endured rather than learned from. Services should consider whether they can make significant cultural improvements in this way alone.

We were encouraged that Kent FRS aims to make diversity and inclusion part of its everyday business, rather than topics that are only promoted during recruitment campaigns. We look forward to seeing the results from services that are increasingly committed to making their organisations more diverse.

Firefighting is a physical job and high levels of fitness are needed. To become a firefighter, recruits need to pass a range of tests, including physical ones. With the role of a firefighter evolving and newer equipment becoming available that is less physically demanding to use, services need to make sure their fitness testing remains reasonable for the role and that it is not unintentionally discriminatory.

In a small number of services, we were concerned to find a large proportion of the workforce unwilling to disclose their diversity information in workforce and monitoring returns. We don’t know why this information is being withheld. FRSs need to gather this information to determine:

  • how they compare with the communities they serve;
  • whether their recruitment activity is having an effect; and
  • whether they need to take positive action and, if so, how to target their resources.

But staff should be encouraged to provide this information away from any fear of victimisation. The percentage of staff not stating their ethnicity within services ranged from 0 percent (Isles of Scilly) to 49.6 percent (Essex) in 2019.

There is a lack of diversity among leadership

Diversity in senior leadership positions is even more limited than in the wider workforce. This is the case not only in terms of gender, ethnicity and other protected characteristics, but also in terms of diversity of background and experience.

The sector needs to do more to support future leaders. As part of our inspection, we considered the work services do to identify and develop talented staff with high potential to be senior leaders of the future. In almost all cases, services don’t consider high potential. Instead, they use very traditional models of development and progression, often linked to time served. Departing chiefs are often replaced by their deputies, rather than by talent from outside the service, including other sectors. These processes have been in place, unchanged, for many years.

A few services have been willing to look beyond the fire and rescue sector to recruit talented people with more diverse backgrounds, either from industry or from other public sector bodies. These services recognise the value of diversity of thought and experience that other sectors can bring. We hope that more services are willing to identify and develop high-potential staff, both from within and outside the fire sector. This would help make sure that the vacancies created by current senior leaders retiring are filled with the most talented and capable staff available.

Inequality between operational and non-operational staff

FRSs are made up of operational staff (for example, firefighters) and non-operational staff. Both staff groups have a crucial role in each service’s success.

We heard consistently throughout our inspections that non-operational staff feel less valued than their operational colleagues. Common themes were less opportunity for development, less focus on their training needs, and having less of a voice than others.

Many told us that this had led them to seek opportunities outside the fire and rescue service. In 2019, support staff made up 18.2 percent of all staff but 22.2 percent of those leaving the fire and rescue service. This could be because some services have reduced their ‘back office’ functions, but it could also be a result of support staff feeling they are treated less favourably than operational staff. Services that don’t look after all their staff and give them opportunities are at risk of losing talent to other organisations and sectors.

There is much variation in how services seek and use feedback from their staff

As well as establishing an open and inclusive culture, FRS leaders should seek to foster an environment where there is effective communication both to and from leaders. Staff should feel their leaders are open to challenge, and leaders should seek feedback in meaningful ways.

Almost all the services we inspected have mechanisms for staff to give their views to senior leaders. These ranged from service-wide staff surveys to online engagement forums, focus groups and station visits. We also saw variation in how effective these feedback methods were. Services in Shropshire, Kent, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire have regular feedback and engagement events, which staff value and trust. These services could show us what they had changed in response to staff feedback. Staff felt listened to and taken seriously by leaders.

Many other services hadn’t taken enough action on feedback or communicated outcomes well. According to our staff survey, 68 percent agreed they had opportunities to communicate their views upwards in their service. But only 50 percent agreed that their ideas or suggestions would be listened to.[12]

In a few services, a culture of mistrust had developed between leaders and the workforce. Staff didn’t engage in staff surveys or provide feedback for fear they would be identified, or that their views could harm their future career prospects. In our staff survey, only 50 percent of staff agreed that they felt able to challenge ideas without any detriment to how they might be treated afterwards.[13] We encourage services to consider how staff feedback mechanisms might affect their culture, especially staff morale and motivation. They should model their approaches to feedback on positive examples from other services.

Managing and developing individual performance need to improve

We considered the work that fire service leaders do to assess and improve the knowledge, skills and behaviours of their workforces. This might be as part of a formal, periodic performance review or more informal conversations about future potential and ambition.

We saw a wide range of methods that services adopt to do this, with varied effectiveness. Overall, we consider that services require improvement in this area. In too many services, staff we interviewed considered the performance review process as a tick-box exercise of little value unless seeking promotion.

We recognise the view of senior human resource managers that line managers can have regular meaningful conversations about performance in other ways: for example, in a more modern informal context than the traditional annual appraisal. But in many circumstances where the annual performance development review wasn’t favoured, other forms of informal performance conversations between line managers and staff weren’t taking place either.

Royal Berkshire, Merseyside and Staffordshire FRSs make effective use of their respective performance review systems. They see them as a way for managers and staff to discuss performance, career aspirations and wellbeing. These systems give staff personal objectives that have a clear link to departmental and organisational objectives. Merseyside and Staffordshire services assess staff behaviours against each service’s behavioural framework, and Royal Berkshire plans to do so soon too.

Staff in these services consider that the performance review process makes them feel more valued in the workplace, whether or not they are considering promotion. We found this wasn’t the case in most other services. We hope that more services will use their performance management processes more effectively to promote cultural change.


[1] Excluding Isles of Scilly FRS.
[2] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019. Overall the survey received 7,182 responses and 2,407 responses from those who stated they were a firefighter.
[3] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019. Overall the survey received 7,182 responses and 4,928 responses from those who stated they were a firefighter or specialist staff.
[4] Excluding Isles of Scilly FRS.
[5] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.
[6] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.
[7] Cleveland, Hampshire, Humberside, Norfolk and Suffolk FRSs didn’t provide data.
[8] Excluding on-call (retained) staff within their FRS or other FRS. As at 31 March 2019
[9] Staffordshire FRS didn’t provide data.
[10] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.
[11] The Operational Statistics data collection assembles ethnicity information using five groups: white, mixed, Asian or Asian British, black or black British and Chinese or other ethnicity. The other option is ‘not stated’ and we have removed these responses from the calculations above.
[12] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.
[13] Our staff survey was carried out between August 2018 and August 2019 and received 7,182 responses.

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