Performance of East Sussex’s fire and rescue service a ‘mixed picture’ inspection finds

Fire crews responding to an emergency
Fire crews responding to an emergency

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service presents a ‘mixed picture’ with some areas requiring improvement, an inspection report has found.

The assessment comes as part of an inspection report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), which was published today (Tuesday, December 17). 

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark O'Brien

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark O'Brien

While the report praises some of the service’s work, in particular its top-ranked response times, inspectors also highlighted several areas in which it needed to improve. 

These include works to ensure ‘high-risk’ buildings are inspected in an efficient and timely way so that firefighters have accurate, up-to-date risk information at all times.

Responding to the report, Deputy Chief Fire Officer Mark O’Brien said: “We are pleased the report recognises the hard work of all of our staff [and] our volunteers and it recognises we are good in a number of key critical areas.

“It recognises we have some work to do and some improvements in a number of other areas, but collectively we are committed to doing that work to make sure the service is one we can be proud of and delivers for our communities.”

Mr O’Brien said work was already underway to make the improvements identified in the report and that the service had made “significant progress” since the inspection took place last June. 

One of these areas undergoing improvement, Mr O’Brien said, is what information is available to firefighting crews on the risks they may face on scene (such as buildings containing chemicals or other hazards). 

To gather this information, known as SSRI (Site Specific Risk Information), the service is meant to visit high-risk premises annually, and to visit or provide updates about low-risk premises every four years. 

However, inspectors found there was both ‘a lack of training’ about what risks were present in a crew’s local area and that the service couldn’t give details of how many visits to these sites it had completed.

Inspectors also said fire crews had “little confidence” in the quality of this information and noted there were sometimes differences in the information kept (on paper) at stations and on the digital database available to firefighters while at the scene.

Mr O’Brien said: “We are doing a huge piece of work so we get better at identifying the risks within a community and there is a system to transfer that critical data immediately to the fire appliance commander.

“We have done a lot of work to make sure  that [information] is useful, accurate and as up-to-date as possible, but there is some more work to do to streamline that process.”

The report also raised concerns about how the service tracks the availability of its on-call fire crews, with inspectors saying the information currently has to be uploaded manually for control room operators. 

The report also noted concerns around the availability of on-call firefighters more generally, noting some stations were available for less than 50 per cent of the time. 

The service was looking at its recruitment to address this concern, Mr O’Brien said.

Despite the areas for improvement, the report also highlights a number of areas in which the service is performing well. 

Notably, ESFRS had the fastest response time of any rural fire service, with an average response time of 8 minutes and 22 seconds. 

The service was also praised for its “realistic and robust” financial planning, which inspectors said had ensured the service would be affordable in the short and long term.  

HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Dru Sharpling said: “Our inspection of East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service revealed a mixed picture. 

“Although we did identify several areas in which the service is performing well, others require improvement.

“The service understands local risk well. It engages with the public to build up its understanding of risk, which it uses to help keep its integrated risk management plan profile updated. 

“However, we are concerned that this profile doesn’t match with the service’s operational work in a comprehensive way. We also identified issues regarding training on site-specific risk information.

“There are also issues surrounding prevention methods. For example, last year the service failed to meet its target to complete 12,000 home safety visits (although it is important to note that the service still carries out a higher rate of visits per 1,000 population compared to the rate for England).

“Emergency response is more positive. It has the fastest response time to primary fires out of any significantly rural fire service in the country. We were also pleased to see the service’s effective use of evaluation and debrief procedures after each incident, which help to refine its overall response process.

“I am also pleased with how the service manages its resources. It has realistic and robust financial plans in place, including business continuity plans. A dedicated programme management office oversees project progression to ensure benefits are realised.

“However, the service needs to improve how it manages and looks after its workforce. It doesn’t adequately promote its values and culture throughout the organisation. Workforce planning needs to be better outlined, with performance management a particular issue.

”I look forward to seeing what progress is made when we next inspect.”

Responding to the report, East Sussex’s chief fire officer Dawn Whittaker said: “There are some aspects of behaviour in our service that do need to change. “We want to be a service whose staff treat each other with respect and in a way that you would expect to see in any modern workplace. To that end, we will be introducing a new behavioural framework in 2020.

“Everyone is proud of the service we provide to the communities of East Sussex and the city of Brighton and Hove, but we are not complacent and we are committed to continuous improvement.”

Roy Galley, chairman of the East Sussex Fire Authority, added: “The service’s leadership team continues to have our backing and support as we see some of the key plans and strategies that have been developed in the last few years coming to fruition, this is important to bring about lasting change and efficiency to the public and communities we serve.”