Hertfordshire’s Fire and Rescue Service faces staffing challenges

An inspection of Hertfordshire’s Fire and Rescue Service has revealed problems with staffing, IT equipment and buildings, but inspectors also said the service is “punching above its weight” in some areas.

Herts County Council invited a team of senior fire officers from other parts of the country to investigate how well the county’s fire service functions and how it could improve.

The inspection was part of the Local Government Association’s Peer Challenge programme – a sector-led opportunity to seek the perspective and observations of others in the same field – and involved a three-day investigation which included interviewing 140 staff.

The report said the potential for significant numbers of experienced fire safety officers and managers to retire within a short timeframe “could pose a real challenge to the service” and risks “significant loss of technical and managerial competence”.

It said the loss of these experienced officers could impact negatively on the service’s protection objectives when it comes to the planned redevelopment of Stevenage town centre, for instance when it comes to influencing fire safety consultations for new buildings.

Inspectors highlighted a strong culture of working with partners, a commitment to the training and development of staff, and sound financial planning and governance.

It also recognised the value added by the 2011 merger of the fire service with Trading Standards, and the broad role firefighters play supporting a range of health, youth and community programmes, including raising awareness of the risk presented by legal highs and skin whitening products.

The report said: “HFRS punches above its weight in making a positive difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.”

But inspectors said capital investment in the estate has been limited, with only three new fire stations built in the last 40 years, and outlay in this area “could be a game changer”.

The report said: “The estate is not in good repair and does not provide a modern progressive environment for a new culture to grow. Capital investment needs to be considered and faster progress made on projects that have been discussed for many years.”

The working environment, imagery and some areas of commonly used language were said to be “acting as drag weights” when it comes to shifting from a culture of command to a more inclusive team approach.

The report also said IT systems “are acting more as a burden than an enabler” and “a solid ICT infrastructure will be crucial for future success”.

Councillor Richard Thake, the county council’s Cabinet member for community safety, said: “Hertfordshire’s Fire and Rescue Service is one of the best in the country and I’m delighted senior fire officers from other services have found so much to admire.

“It’s clear the fire service’s position as an integral part of the county council is helping us deliver real benefits to our residents above and beyond responding to emergencies.”

The full report is at http://bit.ly/peerchallenge2016