The inspection report published on Thursday on West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire Services (HMICFS) shows how constant cuts by the Tory County Council and corporate restructuring have failed to keep the service to an acceptable standard, Labour councillors have warned.
West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (WSFRS) has come out of the report overall with a rating of “needs improvement” for Efficiency, a rating of “needs improvement” for Effectiveness and a rating of “inadequate” for People. It is also the only service in the country not to get a “good” rating in any category.
The inspection report highlighted a number of areas needing improvement which have caused Labour county councillors concern, including:
- Eleven fewer fire engines and On Call “retained” firefighter crews often unavailable, resulting in slower response times to fires and accidents as available crews have to travel long distances.
- The failure to move to up to date software, with systems working on very old “DOS based” systems which often lose data, and too much reliance on paper-based records. The electronic crewing system “FireWatch” was not effective at identifying staff shortages, which meant staff on stations were left trying to manage crewing gaps and even having to resort to using online messaging services to help deal with the problem.
- An insufficiently staffed Business Fire Safety team with inadequate capacity to inspect and revisit premises and respond to the needs of the county due to previous savage cutbacks to the service by the Tory leadership.
- A high number of “Safe and Well” visits for vulnerable people to prevent fire risks, trips and falls in their own homes either delayed or not logged when completed in sufficient time.
- Observations about “bullying” and harassment within the service, as those firefighters find themselves under increasing pressure from the cuts, which were known about from a staff survey as early as 2017 and the recommendations on an anti-bullying campaign still not acted upon even when the inspection took place in late 2018, or since.
- A failure to have a sufficiently diverse workforce with the force being predominantly male and white: figures from the inspection report confirm that only 6% of firefighters are female and less than 1% are from a BAME background, and
- The report said that the service hasn’t done enough to improve the experiences of women and people with disabilities, and must do more to understand and remove barriers for under-represented groups. The inspectorate also saw little promotion of equality and inclusion in the workforce.
Labour Group Leader on West Sussex County Council Michael Jones (Southgate and Gossops Green) responding to the findings of the report, said: “The report is yet another example of the West Sussex Tories failing to deliver important public services to the standard expected. This time, one responsible for protecting the entirety of West Sussex, and it is yet another hammer blow to the reputation of this council.
“While the entire Labour Group remain hugely supportive of our Fire and Rescue Service there are findings in this report that those in charge, both in the political leadership and the senior executive team at the county council, must take responsibility for. These aren’t things that rank and file firefighters can be blamed for – they are about resourcing and about how the service is managed.
“The continual cutbacks of the service by successive Tory budgets have inevitably taken their toll, and the service has clearly been stretched too far, for years. If this has resulted in tensions rising and bullying, we are extremely alarmed to learn this because certainly no-one told councillors this was happening, and we will be looking to see what long overdue action the council will be taking to address it.
“It is also no surprise that HMICFRS have picked up on the shortages in retained firefighters. We are coming to the point where the council’s ineffectiveness in addressing this cannot go on any longer. This isn’t just about trying to fill the gaps, it may need an entirely different approach.
“The West Sussex Tories pushed through all the cuts to WSFRS despite constant protests from Labour and other opposition county councillors. They ignored a petition signed by 3,500 West Sussex residents protesting against the cuts. They claimed we were all exaggerating the risks, but this inspection report makes it clear we were right all along.
“A lot of these issues could have either been avoided or dealt with much earlier, and the unfair funding issues with other councils getting much more funding from the Government for their Fire and Rescue Services compared to West Sussex still unaddressed.
“Tory Council Leader Louise Goldsmith and successive Tory Cabinet Members have stood by while the Fire Service has suffered, yet even now she has yet to write to Government protesting about unfair and unequal funding, despite a large majority of the council supporting a Labour motion calling on her to do so over six months ago, which is unforgivable.
“The council needs to have a full debate on this report, as it raises important issues of performance and about ill-conceived cuts which have left West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service much less resilient than residents have the right to expect.
“We owe our residents this because their safety and welfare is a fundamental County Council duty.”