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Norfolk's fire service not good enough, rules inspector

PUBLISHED: 07:51 20 June 2019 | UPDATED: 08:04 20 June 2019

Firefighters with breathing apparatus tackle a blaze at Rackheath Industrial Estate. An inspector has said the fire service requires improvement. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Firefighters with breathing apparatus tackle a blaze at Rackheath Industrial Estate. An inspector has said the fire service requires improvement. Picture: Neil Didsbury

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The fire service covering Norfolk is not good enough and needs to improve, say inspectors, who raised particular concerns over a backlog in home fire risks and complaints over bullying within the organisation.

Stuart Ruff, Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service's chief fire officer. Picture: Norfolk County Council.Stuart Ruff, Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service's chief fire officer. Picture: Norfolk County Council.

Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service was rated as requiring improvement in its first ever inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.

While satisfied with some aspects of the service and rating it good for responding to fires, the watchdog said there were "several areas" where the service needs to improve, such as in its understanding of risks, action to prevent fires and protecting the public through fire regulation.

Fire chiefs and county council leaders said they were "disappointed" with some of the findings, but pledged to deal with the issues and improve the service.

The inspectors found there was a "considerable backlog" of home fire risk checks needing to be completed, especially in rural areas. Some vulnerable and elderly people have been on a waiting list for several months, although an action plan is in place to tackle the issue.

Firefighters tackle a blaze at a house in Snettisham. Picture: Chris BishopFirefighters tackle a blaze at a house in Snettisham. Picture: Chris Bishop

The service was also not responding quickly enough to requests from building control consultations, with inspectors blaming a lack of capacity in the protection department.

Inspectors said the cutting of costs in the Norfolk County Council-run service had "come at the expense of resilience and capacity" and highlighted how its risk management plan was based on dated information, having not been reviewed since its 2014 plan.

And staff told inspectors they had been doing less to reduce arson in recent years, because of limited capacity within the department and partner organisations.

The inspectors also found, via a staff survey which garnered 195 responses, that 17pc of staff reported feeling bullied or harassed and 15pc felt they had been discriminated against at work over the past 12 months. Staff also said they would not feel confident to raise these as a formal grievance.

Margaret Dewsbury, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for communities. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYMargaret Dewsbury, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for communities. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Inspector Zoe Billingham said: "While some areas are satisfactory, there are several problems which the service needs to address before it can offer a comprehensive service to residents of Norfolk.

"Importantly for the public, the service is good at responding to emergencies when called.

"But we are concerned that the service does not fully understand the nature and level of risk to the public. Whilst it collects data from a variety of sources, it does not use this information to create a comprehensive risk profile against which to match its fire engines and crews.

"There is also a backlog in home fire risk checks meaning that those people who may be vulnerable to the risk of fire, like the elderly and those with disabilities may not be getting the fire prevention support they need.

Inspector Zoe Billingham. Pic: Bob Hobbs.Inspector Zoe Billingham. Pic: Bob Hobbs.

"There are some positives when it comes to how Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service manages its money and resources.

"We found that the service understands financial risk, with the result that it is meeting its savings targets. It also has effective business continuity arrangements in place.

"Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service places a high priority on the wellbeing of its workforce, with a range of staff support programmes in place. But many staff are unaware of the support available to them.

"I welcome the work the service has already started to respond to the issues we have identified. I look forward to seeing how this work progresses."

Stuart Ruff, Norfolk Fire and Rescue's chief fire officer, who was promoted from deputy in March after the January departure of former fire chief David Ashworth, stressed action was being taken to bring in the improvements which the inspector wants to see.

He said: "We welcome the report and are pleased that four areas of our work were recognised as being good.

"While I'm disappointed with some findings, I am committed to improving the service and acting on the points raised.

"I was saddened to learn that a number of staff felt there was an issue with bullying. Bullying is not acceptable and will not be tolerated within the service.

"Many improvements have already been made and I will continue to make the others happen."

Margaret Dewsbury, the council's cabinet member for communities, said: "Norfolk County Council is committed to supporting the improvements required and I have full confidence in Stuart Ruff and the whole service. It is great to see the service recognised as good for how it responds to incidents and risks."

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The inspection came amid controversy over the future of the service. Police and crime commissioner Lorne Green found himself at loggerheads with fellow Conservatives when he spent £100,000 on a process to explore whether he should take over the service.

He announced in November that he would not be submitting a final business case to the government - despite an eight-week consultation in which 59pc of more than 7,700 people who responded supported a switch.

With the county council set against the move, the "political will" which consultants had said would be needed was not there, while other takeover attempts in other parts of the country have led to legal challenges.

So Mr Green decided to pause the process, although he stressed it would remain under review and collaboration between the police and fire service has been stepped up.

How did the inspectors rate Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service?

Overall ratings

Effectiveness: Requires improvement

Understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies: Requires improvement

Preventing fires and other risks: Requires improvement

Protecting the public through fire regulation: Requires improvement

Responding to fires and other emergencies: Good

Responding to national risks: Good

Efficiency: Requires improvement

Making best use of resources: Requires improvement

Making the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future: Good

People: Requires improvement

Promoting the right values and culture: Requires improvement

Getting the right people with the right skills: Good

Ensuring fairness and promoting diversity: Requires improvement

Managing performance and developing leaders: Requires improvement

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