Cornwall Fire Service inspection report ‘requires improvement’

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service has been told it needs to make decisions about its resources “on risk, not on savings” after the service was rated as ‘requires improvement’ at an inspection into its standards.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services carries out inspections on all 44 services in England, visiting Cornwall earlier this year and publishing its findings today (Wednesday, December 15).

The fire service’s previous inspection of this kind was in July 2018, with an interim visit in autumn 2020 to see how it was responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Similar to an Ofsted inspection of schools, inspectors look at different areas of the fire service’s work, from its effectiveness, to its value for money and its work in the community.

While they found improvement was still needed, progress was identified since the last inspection, which the fire service described as “significant”.

Effectiveness – requires improvement

The fire service received the same overall rating as in 2018, as well as for ‘understanding fires and other risks’, and ‘protecting the public through fire regulation’, both of which were rated as ‘requires improvement’.

‘Preventing fires and other risks’ fell from ‘good’ last time’ to ‘requires improvement’ now, however ‘responding to fires and other emergencies’ has improved, from ‘inadequate’ last time to ‘requires improvement’ this time.

The service’s response to major and multi-agency incidents was judged as ‘good’ in both inspections.

Inspectors said: “We are concerned that the service is not reviewing or updating risk information for firefighters promptly. This affects public and firefighter safety.

“The protection team is still understaffed so high-risk buildings are not inspected often enough. The [fire] service reduced the prevention team to cut costs. But now there is a backlog of high-risk home safety visit referrals.

“Positively, we found a notable improvement in safeguarding knowledge since our last inspection. And we were impressed by the innovative tri-service safety officer collaboration. Incident commanders are well trained, and the service keeps the public informed about incidents. It has good arrangements for major incidents involving other emergency services, including neighbouring fire services.”

The service has made some improvements since the last report File image: Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service/Caterina Lombardi

The service has made some improvements since the last report File image: Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service/Caterina Lombardi

Efficiency – requires improvement

Inspectors’ judgement of ‘making best of resources’ remained as ‘requires improvement’, while ‘future affordability’ fell from ‘good’ last time to ‘requires improvement’ now.

Inspectors said: “The service needs a more systematic approach to achieving value for money. But we were pleased that it has improved staff productivity.

“Budget forecasts show only inflationary increases, so it is not clear whether the service’s plans for the future will be affordable.”

People – requires improvement

The fire service was judged by inspectors to have dropped a level when it came to the ‘people’ criteria.

‘Getting the right people with the right skills’ and ‘ensuring fairness and promoting diversity’ both fell from ‘good’ in 2018 to now ‘requires improvement’, although ‘promoting the right values and culture’ remained ‘good’ both times. ‘Managing performance and developing leaders’ remains at ‘requires improvement’.

Inspectors said: “Communication by leaders has improved. But this is sometimes seen as one-way. The service needs to ensure staff are comfortable challenging leaders.

“It is not clear how the service uses recruitment and promotion policies to increase diversity.

“More work is needed to manage and develop aspiring leaders and high-potential staff.”

Inspector’s findings

In her report, inspector Wendy Williams wrote: “The service has experienced resource limitations and other challenges, including changes in senior leadership, Covid-19, and preparations for the G7 conference. However, I am satisfied with some aspects of the performance of the service.”

She praised the new Tri-Service safety officer initiative that has been developed and expanded in the past year, describing it as an “innovative scheme” that had resulted in a range of community safety benefits for several rural Cornish communities, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This has led to financial efficiencies for the service and its partners,” she said.

Ms Williams said that the culture in the service has improved, with “signs of progress” in people management.

However, she found “barriers to the service improving equality, diversity and inclusion” and said it must get better at identifying and developing future leaders and staff with high potential.

Despite this, she was able to remove this as a cause for concern, as found in 2018.

She described it as “disappointing” though, that the service had been “slow to respond” to some areas for improvement identified last time, and that it had found a new cause of concern, over managing risk-critical information, which she said needed to be collected, shared and reviewed consistently.

“Its risk management plans must include simple, clear, measurable outcomes. It can then use them to show progress and effectiveness to the public,” she said.

Ms Williams also said: “The service must robustly address its finance and resource needs so it can build capacity for improvement and change.

“It should base resourcing decisions on risk, not on savings.

“I am satisfied with some aspects of Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service’s performance. But there are areas it still needs to improve.”

Cornwalls Tri-Service was praised in the report

Cornwall’s Tri-Service was praised in the report

Incidents and callouts

Up to the end of March 2021, Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service responded to an average of 8.42 incidents per 1,000 people in the population – lower than the England average.

Home fire safety checks per 1,000 people and fire safety audits per 100 premises were also both below the national average, at 3.81 checks per 1,000 (to 4.47) and 1.75 audits (to 2.55) respectively.

However, the average availability of pumps was higher, with 89.2% available in Cornwall compared to 83.07% in England as a whole.

The cost of having firefighters is also higher in Cornwall, with the average cost being £26.73 per person in Cornwall per year, compared to £23.82 nationally.

The inspection found that the highest proportion of firefighters’ time in Cornwall up to March 31 this year was in fact on false alarms, with 2,101 (44%) of incidents being false alarms.

Second was non-fire incidents, of which there were 1,601 (33% of the total), with actual fires coming in last at 1,124 (23%).

Overall view

Cornwall goes against the national average when it comes to the overall number of firefighters, which has risen by 2.27% between 2015 and 2020, compared to a fall of 5.3% nationally.

It also has 1.05 firefighters per 1,000 people, compared to 0.63 nationally.

However, the number of full-time firefighters – as opposed to those who are ‘reserved’ and just called to work in event of an emergency – is half the national average, with just 32.38% being ‘wholetime’ compared to 65.1% across England.

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service response

Chief Fire Officer Kathryn Billing said that while the service is continuing to make improvements, the latest report reflected the “significant progress” that had already been made.

Kathryn, who was appointed Chief Fire Officer in May 2021, said: “We have come a long way since the previous report three years and although there is still work to be done, I am really proud of the progress we have made particularly during these unprecedented times.”

“Throughout the pandemic our crews have and continue to provide support to our blue light colleagues and stepped up to support local communities across Cornwall. We are incredibly proud of our fire service, but we also recognise that there are areas where further improvements are needed, and we are committed to addressing those issues.”

The inspectors identified one cause of concern in relation to managing information about risk.

Kathryn added: “This is an area that we are prioritising and focussing on to improve immediately. We have commitment from the council to support our improvement plans, this means we will be able to update our information technology and increase the availability of officers to complete the risk inspections.”

Martyn Alvey, portfolio holder responsible for public protection at Cornwall Council, said: “This report is very encouraging, and it is fantastic to see that the Tri-Service safety officers, who are unique to Cornwall, have been recognised for their efforts in supporting our local communities.

“I have confidence in our new Chief Fire Officer, and we are committed to ensuring that the service can continue to make the improvements that are required to keep both our crews and our residents safe.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of our Fire and Rescue Service staff for their hard work in striving for continuous improvement since the last inspection and for everything the service has done to support the fight against Covid, helping to protect vulnerable people throughout these very difficult times.”

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