Improvements to West Sussex’s fire and rescue service ‘significant’

Improvements made to West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service since a highly critical report last year have been described as ‘significant’ and ‘tangible’.

West Sussex Fire and Rescue. Pic Steve Robards SR1817306 SUS-180108-084210001
West Sussex Fire and Rescue. Pic Steve Robards SR1817306 SUS-180108-084210001

Last June, the words used by inspectors were not so kind, with the service rated ‘requires improvement’ and some its work with public safety, fairness and diversity branded ‘inadequate’.

Since then, a new Chief Fire Officer has been appointed – not to mention a new leader at West Sussex County Council – more money has been pumped into the service and those involved have thrown themselves head first into bringing things up to scratch.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

One of those improvements saw the county council set up a scrutiny committee focussed solely on the fire service.

Members met online on Wednesday (June 3) where the latest inspection, carried out in January, was discussed.

Duncan Crow, cabinet member for fire & rescue and communities, said last year’s report had been ‘a knock to say the least’.

He added: “I’m very pleased to see how the service has responded to the challenges that have been set to us and the progress that has been made on our improvement journey.”

That progress was detailed in a letter from HM Inspector Dru Sharpling, who highlighted the setting up of an independent advisory group, the installation of a new IT system, and the fact that staff felt more supported.

The latter was no doubt welcomed by all given accusations of bullying due to gender or race were on the list of ‘significant concerns’ raised last year.

For every ‘up’ there is a ‘down’ and Ms Sharpling said she was ‘disappointed’ that some of the work needed had been slow to arrive.

The backlog of Safe & Well visits – a free home safety check – and fire safety audits were only cleared in November, while some necessary staff vacancies were only filled in the last four months.

Chief Fire Officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton praised the dedication and hard work of her team and told the meeting that the first report had been welcomed ‘because it shows us how we can improve’.

She added: “But it was also something that was very difficult for staff given they’ve worked so hard and tried so hard – to have your efforts reflected back to you in language such as ‘inadequate’ is really difficult.

“A big part of this work for us isn’t just about looking at what needs to be done and putting in place a plan to do it.

“It’s making sure that we take staff with us on that journey and they have ownership of the improvements that we’re doing.

“Because ultimately, the service is only as strong as the people within it.”

Looking at the effect the pandemic has had on the improvement plans, members were told there had been a slight delay to the rolling out of the new IT system – known as Farynor – but it was being tested and some staff were already using it.

Mr Crow said priority Safe and Well visits had been carried out by officers wearing PPE, while phone calls and Skype were used for those that were not a priority.

Looking to the future, Dr Cohen-Hatton was under no illusions that improvement would be a quick and easy job.

She said: “We still have a huge amount to do and it’s really important to me that we’re realistic about what needs to be done to make this change real.

“There will always be that dichotomy between doing something quickly and doing something well.

“From our perspective, we’re working very hard to make sure that what we do is done well and that the change we have will be embedded and will still be there for years to come.”

There was a difference of opinion among members over whether to appoint a representative of the Fire Brigades Union to the scrutiny committee in a non-voting capacity.

Labour leader Michael Jones said there was ‘nothing to fear from such involvement at scrutiny’ and added: “I think it would lead to a better level of scrutiny and would assist us as members of the committee to understand the implications, the impact and the feeling of the Fire & Rescue Service personnel in greater detail.”

While Bob Smytherman (Lib Dem, Tarring) felt such representation on the committee would be ‘helpful’, he didn’t second Mr Jones’ suggestion and there was no support from the other committee members.

Chairman Steve Waight said: “If there is an issue that I and the vice-chairman believe is relevant to the unions then we will seek the unions to come along.”

Mr Waight said he would ask vice-chairman Lionel Barnard to chair a Task & Finish Group looking at the West Sussex/Surrey combined call centre after a number of committee members raised concerns about the set-up.

HM Inspectorate will carry out another inspection next year.

A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news, I am asking you to please purchase a copy of our newspapers.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspapers.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

Stay safe, and best wishes.