Monday, 8 June 2020

Secrecy and inadequate scrutiny continue to blight fire service improvement

Control room cover-up continues

"Sorry, all our operators are busy. 
We don't have enough operators, but we do have flashy technology that works most of the time. 
Unfortunately, even if it is working, we still can't help you until you can speak to an operator." 

Both West Sussex and Surrey County Councils are refusing to reveal crucial details about their controversial control room arrangement. Their desperation to keep details secret is so strong they are willing to ignore the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

Both Authorities were asked to carry out internal reviews of their refusal decision.  West Sussex has failed to carry out the legally required review. Surrey County Council carried out a review, but still refuse to reveal information by misusing legal exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act. Both Councils have now been referred to the Information Commissioner.

Surrey County Council blames West Sussex County Council for this ludicrous secrecy. Their review says:

"Having consulted with WSCC they do not agree to 
the information sought being released into the public domain

"The Council could face a breach of confidence action from WSCC". 

The idea that West Sussex County Council would waste public money on legal action against Surrey County Council, for releasing information that should be in the public domain, is ludicrous.

West Sussex has already wasted millions of pounds in their quest to replace their first-class control room with inferior versions. First with East Sussex and now with Surrey. The County Council was clearly rattled by questions and criticism about their previous inept decisions, and it appears they then decided to try and obstruct public scrutiny of this new collaboration with Surrey. Conspiring with Surrey, they added unnecessary confidentiality clauses to the collaboration agreement, and concocted a confidentiality agreement. All intended to try and evade their legal obligations to be transparent and accountable

They falsely claim the information is "commercially confidential", yet Councillors were previously told that this was not a commercial arrangement. They were told this was a collaboration arrangement, so there was no need to comply with the regulations that govern the commercial contracts of public bodies. 

The arrangement is made under section 16 of the Fire & Rescue Services Act 2004. Such arrangements are commonplace, especially between neighbouring authorities, and allow one fire & rescue service to provide a service on behalf of another. Unlike a commercial arrangement, there is no profit for either party. The only payment is to cover the actual cost of delivering that service. 

Both Councils have shown utter contempt for legitimate public interest. Given their desperation to avoid disclosure, it seems the flaws in this arrangement may be even worse than we first imagined.

New Scrutiny Committee fails at their first meeting

Chairman blocks questions about the fire control agreement

Last week saw the first meeting of the new Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee (FRSSC), which took over scrutiny of fire & rescue from the Environment, Communities and Fire Select Committee (ECFSC). Serious concerns were raised about this control arrangement at the ECFSC meeting in January and Members were told that more information would be provided at the first FRSSC meeting. None has been published.

No evidence has been provided to support claims that the technology allows reduced staffing levels. A claim that suggests a lack of understanding of how fire & rescue service control rooms work, and a failure to realise that people in trouble will wait longer for help to arrive when there are not enough control operators on duty. Technology is also of no use whatsoever when it fails, something that Assistant Chief Fire Officer Jon Lacey told Councillors can happen with any mobilising system. When it does, you immediately need control operators to do that work manually.

Changes to minimum staffing and incidents to be managed following the agreement (Incidents - 2019 figures)

When Councillor Michael Jones raised concerns about inadequate staffing in the control room, Chairman Steve Waight shut him down by saying they would be "going beyond our remit if we were to start telling officers whether the number of staff working in the control room is right or wrong". Yet Michael Jones did not suggest that, he just wanted to see some justification for staffing decisions, which is exactly what scrutiny is supposed to be about. 

Effectively, the Chairman was telling Councillors that they can only scrutinise those things he agrees can be scrutinised. An all too typical WSCC version of scrutiny that is designed to hide things they want kept secret, like Chief Executive pay offs.

It is unacceptable that Councillors were not allowed to scrutinise full details of this arrangement before Surrey took control of West Sussex emergencies. 

It is scandalous that West Sussex County Councillors, especially those who are serving on a scrutiny committee, are still being blocked from scrutinising an arrangement that increases the risks for firefighters and the public in West Sussex.

CFO wants to 'take staff with us', but Councillors do not

At the last meeting of the ECFSC, there appeared to be quite a bit of support for staff representation to be included on the new committee. Last week, Councillor Michael Jones voiced concern that this had not happened and formally proposed that a Fire Brigades Union representative should be invited to all meetings on a non-voting basis. 

Moments earlier the Chief Fire Officer had told Councillors that a vital part of making necessary improvements was "making sure that we take staff with us". She added, "staff and people have been our absolute focus". Yet all the other Councillors turned a deaf ear to the Chief Fire Officer's comments. By rejecting the proposal from Michael Jones, they effectively said, "we don't care what staff have to say."

The Chairman condescendingly said, "If there is an issue that I and the Vice Chairman believe is relevant to the unions, then we would seek the union to come along." That statement suggests that he has no intention of properly scrutinising the Fire & Rescue Service or Duncan Crow, the Cabinet Member for Fire & Rescue and Communities.

I was incredibly surprised that Councillor Bob Smytherman did not support the proposal, as Liberal Democrat Councillors had previously supported more involvement from staff representatives. 

Councillor David Edwards later said, "Being as the CFO represents the staff I am satisfied there is representation". It seems he does not understand the role of the Chief Fire Officer, which is to manage the fire & rescue service in line with West Sussex County Council's direction. The idea that the service's boss can also act as a staff representative is bonkers. No matter how concerned for staff she may be, she is not going to put proposals to the Council and then make counter arguments on behalf of her staff. It is a conflict of interest and it would be unreasonable to expect her to do so 

Inadequate report was result of inadequate scrutiny

Councillors need to open their eyes and recognise that the poor report, received from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, was not a reflection on the service's dedicated staff. 

It was a failure of Councillors to properly scrutinise previous Chief Fire Officers and Cabinet Members. Too often they just accepted whatever they were told. Even when staff representatives and the public were able to tell them they were being misinformed and misled, they stubbornly failed to scrutinise effectively and just rubber-stamped decisions. 

Councillors must listen to staff whenever they have something to say, not just when Steve Waight and Lionel Barnard decide they want to listen. The FBU represent those on the front-line who know first-hand what challenges firefighters currently face. Their input can only improve scrutiny of the fire & rescue service.

The Environment, Communities and Fire Select Committee had acknowledged, following the HMICFRS report, that they needed to work more closely with staff representatives. So it is sadly ironic that the Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee, which was supposed to improve scrutiny and oversight, is reverting to WSCC's bad old ways.

If Councillors won't consider all the evidence, then scrutiny will fail and the service's efforts to improve will be undermined.


Sunday, 23 February 2020

Secrecy and cover up continue like a cancer in West Sussex

The control room fiasco gets worse

In my last post I referred to the Freedom of Information requests, which were submitted to both Surrey and West Sussex fire & rescue services, about the control room fiasco. Both of them should have provided the requested information by the 18th February, but they did not. Surrey did reply on the 18th but said, “Unfortunately, there will be a short delay in issuing the response to this request.” West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service finally responded, three days late, but failed to provide any information.

They refused the request and claim the information is “commercially sensitive”

Now the last time I looked both Surrey and West Sussex County Councils, including their fire & rescue services were not commercial organisations, but public bodies that are accountable to the public. The Fire & Rescue Services Act does permit a fire & rescue authority to arrange for another fire & rescue authority to discharge functions on its behalf, but it does not say that details of how they discharge that function can be kept secret. 

With a new County Council Leader, new Chief Executive and new Chief Fire Officer I had hoped the days of secrecy and cover up were behind us, but it appears my hopes were misplaced.

Council Leader Paul Marshall’s claims that his vision is “to lead an authority that is open with the public about how it works” and that he “welcomes scrutiny” seem rather hollow now. Council Chief Executive Becky Shaw’s claims about communication being important seem similarly hollow. Chief Fire Officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton speaks about the importance of staff being able to trust in the organisation, but it seems that public trust is not important when secrecy is the priority.

Incredibly, there is no agreement!

The West Sussex reply goes on to say: "The project has only recently commenced, with the section 16 agreement yet to be drawn up." So West Sussex County Council has spent a large amount of public money, and Surrey have been handling West Sussex emergencies for nearly three months, without a signed agreement - unbelievable.

Any responsible fire & rescue authority would have had the Fire & Rescue Services Act section 16 agreement drawn up and signed before handing responsibility over. Once again, West Sussex County Council fails to do things responsibly.

Having already handed their legal responsibility for call handling and mobilising over to Surrey, West Sussex has left itself with no bargaining power when they eventually draw up the agreement. Concerns that this arrangement lacks proper safeguards for West Sussex residents now look very real. It was completely reckless to commence operation without a signed agreement, especially on staffing levels.

Without a signed section 16 agreement, it begs the question, 
"Has West Sussex County Council acted lawfully?"

Commercially Sensitive Claim is bogus

When they even refuse to provide information on West Sussex only activity, it is very clear that the commercially sensitive claim is bogus. 

The question about control room training and experience of the West Sussex staff who are responsible for assessing and signing off the adequacy of staffing levels for the agreement only relates to West Sussex. Similarly, how on earth can details of the standards, good practice guides, studies and research material, used by West Sussex to inform the assessment process, be commercially sensitive? 

Details of problems that resulted, or could have resulted, in a delay to the attendance at West Sussex incidents since Surrey took over, and what has been done about those problems, are matters of serious public concern, but apparently that too is “commercially sensitive”.

The public also has a right to know what performance standards West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service has specified in this yet to be concluded agreement with Surrey, but again they claim that is “commercially sensitive”.

With increasing concerns nationally about IT failures and inadequate staffing levels in fire controls, secrecy and cover up cannot be tolerated.

Chief Executive Becky Shaw was right when she said that there are "fundamental issues that need to be addressed" in West Sussex County Council. One of them is the Council's historic resistance to scrutiny and accountability, including trying to frustrate legitimate Freedom of Information requests.

So I would ask Paul Marshall, Becky Shaw and Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, "are you continuing to resist scrutiny and accountability, or is this the result of poor advice from those in the Council who have always preferred secrecy and cover up?"

If it is poor advice, then it is time your advisers were reminded that they are supposed to protect the public, not cover up County Council mistakes.

Why adequate staffing is vital

There is no pattern to instances of high demand in fire service control rooms, it can happen at any time of day, on any day of the week, and at any time of the year. The recent bad weather is a reminder of how demand can suddenly increase. A summer storm in July 2007 illustrates this very well. At the time, each fire & rescue service had their own dedicated control room and in the case of West Sussex it was well staffed. 

At the peak, West Sussex's fire control was receiving two emergency calls a minute and within 15 hours they had managed just under 300 emergency calls. Of those, 150 were about incidents in West Sussex, but 146 were for other fire service control rooms that were unable to answer their calls in a reasonable time. Most were for emergencies in London, but Surrey provided the second most and East Sussex the third most calls. Not all the calls that day were flooding related, there were also fires, rescues and road traffic collisions. 

With significantly less control staff today, 
a similar event would result in serious and even life threatening delays.  

During the recent storm 'Dennis', London Fire Brigade suffered a major IT failure and "Control room staff were forced to resort to taking pen and paper notes, and patching calls through to local fire stations manually." Clear evidence that claims about technology enabling you to have less staff are reckless. 

Staffing levels must always be sufficient to handle both 
sudden increases in demand and technology failures. 
Performance information secretly moved

At the last County Council meeting there were two interesting questions about fire & rescue from Councillors Chris Oxlade and Michael Jones. 

Chris Oxlade pointed out that details of response times for the second fire engine attending fires, and for the first fire engine at road traffic collisions were among items removed from the council’s Performance Dashboard. He asked when they would be restored.

The answer revealed that the data had been moved and could now be found on the fire & rescue service reports page of the website. Reassuring that the information can be found, but disappointing that it is less user friendly than it was on the Performance Dashboard.

It remains unclear why it was secretly moved with, apparently, neither the public or councillors being informed. Perhaps they did not want people to scrutinise it?

More dubious advice

In a question about councils selling data to third parties, Michael Jones also asked about sensitive and personal data now being shared with Surrey County Council, following the fire control change. The answers were rather alarming. 

It appears that no consent was sought from individuals, businesses or partners to share personal, commercial or security sensitive information. The excuse offered was that the Fire & Rescue Services Act provided a lawful basis, but that Act does not cover data sharing. That is dealt with by the Data Protection Act, which they seem happy to ignore.

Now it is true that the Information Commissioner has accepted there may be a need to share data during an emergency, but blanket sharing ahead of an emergency is not accepted. In their haste to enter in to this arrangement it seems that the the Data Protection Act and the rights of individuals were not properly considered. 

The Commissioner's guidance is clear, before sharing they must consider if the objective can be achieved by passing less personal data and that sometimes consent should be sought before sharing data.

This is even more alarming when you realise that the data is now much more vulnerable to unlawful access because it is stored in more locations, including those of commercial organisations:

Data held by West Sussex County Council is stored on servers in Chichester and Horsham. Data held by Surrey County Council is stored at their premises in Salfords and Guildford.

Data is stored on commercial premises for the following reasons:

• Hosted – where the Council’s bespoke system is hosted at the software vendor’s own premises or third-party premises (e.g. Cloud provider – Microsoft, Amazon, etc.).
• IaaS – Infrastructure as a Service – where the Council buys compute and storage capacity from a mainstream Cloud provider and manages these applications directly.
• SaaS – Software as a Service – where the Council buys an end user solution – with operation, maintenance, storage and support of a software solution handled directly by the vendor – the Council consumes resources provided as a service (SmartCore Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) replacement project is proposing to procure through this model).

When you realise that stolen, leaked or corrupted data often results from the actions of disgruntled employees and companies who lose contracts, having so many opportunities to gain access to the data, lawfully or unlawfully, is alarming. 

Now of course they mention agreements and contractual obligations covering data protection, but they can fail and the more there are the greater the risk. Not forgetting of course that the section 16 agreement with Surrey has not yet been drawn up!

The Council's continuing cavalier attitude to data protection
and freedom of information legislation is disturbing.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Surrey fire control deal puts West Sussex lives at risk

At the recent Environment, Communities and Fire Scrutiny Committee meeting at County Hall, Councillors questioned claims that the arrangement for Surrey to control the response to West Sussex emergencies was "a success". Unfortunately, the denials and assurances sounded ever so familiar.

Groundhog Day

When the West Sussex control room was closed and the Sussex control room opened, WSFRS officers assured Councillors it would be straightforward and the Cabinet Member claimed it was a success. When reports of problems were leaked, WSFRS officers and the Cabinet member dismissed them and only admitted to "teething problems" that had been "fixed".

"There is nothing that would give me or officers cause for concern"
Cabinet Member Lionel Barnard August 2014

Lionel Barnard added that staffing was satisfactory, sickness had dropped and everything is "as we would expect it." Yet, a freedom of information request revealed a very different story, and one that would get worse.

There were also strenuous efforts, in both East and West Sussex, to keep problems with the technology secret. This went on for over four years and thousands of pounds were spent trying to fix the problems. It was only after West Sussex's Chief Fire Officer Sean Ruth left that East Sussex began to admit problems, although they blamed connections to existing systems and the old chestnut, "teething problems". 

Although those who reported the original concerns believed that the problems had been fixed by 2018 and the Control Centre was working well, West Sussex decided to leave East Sussex in the lurch by abandoning the Sussex Control Centre. Rushing in to this deal with Surrey, and spending even more money, has again resulted in reports of problems with staffing and technology.

The previous assurances about the arrangements with East Sussex proved false, dishonest even,
so how can we have faith in the latest assurances about the arrangement with Surrey?

Assurances not enough, evidence is needed

Councillors, notably Michael Jones and James Walsh, rightly questioned those assurances and asked for more detail and some evidence to support them. The question is, will the details and evidence be published to allow proper scrutiny, or will they be sent to Councillors with instructions not to reveal the detail? An all too common tactic from West Sussex County Council when they wish to cover up failures.

In an effort to try and ensure information is made public, I have submitted Freedom of Information requests to both West Sussex and Surrey. Of course they may try and keep that information secret, by using exemptions in the legislation, but if they are truly open and honest they will not. It will certainly be an interesting test of WSCC's claims to be improving their culture, especially with regard to honesty and accountability. 

The meeting was told that the FBU Safety Critical Notice was just a Surrey affair and that West Sussex FBU officials had not raised any issues. That may have misled Councillors in to believing that the errors and failings had not affected West Sussex. As West Sussex firefighters had reported 'near hit' events to managers, they would have no need to report them to the FBU. That would only follow if they believed no action was being taken.

It was admitted at the meeting that there had been 'near hit' reports and a weekend system failure, but it was claimed they were not safety critical. I beg to differ. A 'near hit' report means safety was compromised, and it was only luck that meant serious consequences did not result. It is like saying a safety harness failure wasn't safety critical because the person wearing it was close to the ground and wasn't hurt.

It was disappointing to hear that some Councillors were unconcerned about these failures because "you expect teething problems". This was supposed to be a state of the art, tried and tested system, not some early stage experimental computer system. These are not "teething problems" or "bedding in" difficulties, they are failures. 

Failures of concept, of planning, of testing, of training, 
of implementation, of data validation, or all of those.

When lives depend on a system, such failures are unacceptable.

Having heard the dubious claim that less staff were needed because the system relied more on system data being updated automatically, I was astonished to then hear that the data updating was unreliable. It depended on the mobile telephone network and coverage was poor in some areas. The committee was then told that they were going to switch to the Airwave system to improve the situation, but it could take three months to get the necessary licence.

So why did they go ahead before it was in place? No explanation was given. The Committee Chairman said he knew about the licence issue last July, but the meeting was told the application had not yet been submitted. That beggars belief. The mention of Airwave raises further concerns:
  • Airwave is basically a mobile telephone system that also does not have 100% coverage.
  • Like other mobile telephone systems, Airwave can experience failures and overload.
  • Airwave is due to be replaced by thEmergency Services Network, which is yet another mobile telephone system that has yet to be fully tested.

West Sussex residents less safe

The committee was told that ways of working had been changed "for alignment". No detail was given, but reports suggest that West Sussex has cut their levels of protection for the public to match Surrey's poor standards.
Leaving busier fire stations without a fire engine is not a 'culture change', 
it is a downgrading of the service provided to West Sussex residents.

Councillors were told that the system had a new tool for mapping risk and maintaining cover, as if that somehow made it acceptable because it is the computer that says "NO". The parameters used by the computer are determined by the supplier and should meet the requirements of the Service. If the system is as good as claimed, then it should be perfectly possible to have West Sussex standards applied, even if they are different to Surrey's. 

It was concerning to hear about dependence on 'the cloud'. Whilst it is true that this may offer some benefits, it also creates new vulnerabilities. Industry experts will admit that your data could get lost, wiped, corrupted or stolen. They will of course assure you that they take security very seriously, but we have seen many large organisations, who take security seriously, suffer significant problems including denial of service, theft of data and infected systems.

For many years fire services ensured that their control room systems were isolated and protected. 

Now they are happy to put them at risk to save a bit of money. 

I am also concerned that data obtained by West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, which they are legally obliged to protect, is now accessible to Surrey County Council and those contractors and sub contractors used to store or transmit that data. The more people that have access, the greater the risk of unauthorised, malicious or criminal access. WSFRS obtains a lot of data from individuals and businesses that is personal data under data protection legislation, or is commercially or security sensitive.

If a GP refers a patient to another part of the NHS, the GP has to have written permission to share their details. So I wonder how many West Sussex residents and businesses have been asked if they are happy for their data to be shared with, or accessible to, other public and private organisations?

Over £4 million wasted

It was also disappointing to hear the Assistant Chief Fire Officer suggest that, because the control building at Haywards Heath could be used for other purposes when East Sussex move out, money had not been wasted. Finding a use for the building is not the issue, over £2 million was spent on converting it to meet the specialist needs of a fire service control facility. In addition, another £2 million of the £3.6 million Government grant was spent on equipment and work that will now be wasted.

These joint figures were published by East Sussex in 2014, so they do not include subsequent spending by both Services to fix problems. Exactly how much has never been revealed, with some costs being hidden under other budget headings. The Surrey move means that most of the money spent at Haywards Heath has been wasted, and even more is likely to be spent on converting it back to other uses. 

Inadequate staffing levels a major threat to safety

The excuse given to Councillors for such low levels of staffing in Surrey's control was that the technology reduces the need for staff to undertake certain tasks. Yet we were also told that when the technology fails, staff can carry out those tasks. No one can predict when failures will occur, which means that when they do staffing will be hopelessly inadequate.

No matter how good the technology, it cannot replace the Control Operator's ability to gather vital information from often agitated and distressed callers and to ensure that the right help is quickly on its way. No one can predict when many callers may need that help at the same time, which means that when they do staffing will be hopelessly inadequate.

This is not a commercial call centre where staffing can be varied to match expected demand and, if demand is unexpectedly high, the only result is frustrated customers. This is a critical control room managing the fire and rescue service's response to life threatening emergencies. There is no pattern to instances of high demand, it can happen at any time of day, on any day of the week, and at any time of the year.

There are not enough staff in the Surrey Control Room to safely deal with emergencies in Surrey and West Sussex. It will be even worse when they also deal with East Sussex emergencies.

Relative workload per Operator on minimum staffing 
(last column assumes minimum increased by one, as it did when West Sussex joined)

Not enough Control Operators to answer calls for help means
people in danger wait longer for Firefighters to arrive

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Safety Critical Notice issued for Surrey Fire Control

When I posted yesterday about the problems following the so called "successful implementation of the Fire Control project", I was clearly unaware how bad the situation really was. The FBU safety critical notice, issued late yesterday, shows that West Sussex County Council has made yet another inept decision.

8th January 2020

The Fire Brigades Union demands that Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), immediately suspends the West Sussex control and command function until adequate control measures are put in place to mitigate the safety critical issues that have been identified. These safety critical issues have come to the attention of the FBU since the transfer of the West Sussex control and command function to Surrey on the 4th December 2019. The safety critical issues being encountered pose a significant risk to both public and firefighter safety. The identified safety critical issues are both unacceptable to the FBU and our members in terms of both severity and occurrence since the transfer. The safety critical issues broadly fall into the categories below;

 Surrey Control staff have not be sufficiently trained to carry out their role on behalf of West Sussex
 Multiple technical failures of IT systems
 Severe understaffing
 SFRSs failure to invoke its Emergency Recall to Duty (Whole-time, Mobilising Control and Support staff only)
 SFRS failure to invoke its Degradation Procedure

SFRSs failure and omissions as categorised above have, and still are’ resulting in emergency fire and rescue operational failures as described below;

 crews being mobilised to emergency incidents from the wrong locations causing substantial delays in getting resources to emergencies.
 crews being sent mobilisation alerts, when they are not available to respond
 incident commanders not being able to access safety critical operational information from control

Control staff are under extreme pressure due to these factors, this appears to be forcing them to forgo necessary (and required) rest breaks further increasing not only stress levels, but also fatigue in the workplace.

FBU members and SFRS staff working in the control room are under extreme pressure and suffering stress levels that are detrimental to their mental wellbeing. This has already led to occurrences of work related sickness and multiple reports of staff breaking down in tears both within the control room and at home following their shifts.

This situation is totally unacceptable to the FBU and our members and must be rectified immediately.

Should SFRS not comply with above demands then the FBU believe that the Service shall be contravening Health and Safety Regulations including;

The Working Time Regulations 1998

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Management of Health Safety at Work Regulations 1999

Copies of this notice shall be sent in line with FBU protocol to the Health and Safety Executive, FBU regional and national officials as well as FBU members in Surrey.

Copies will also be sent to Surrey County Council, West Sussex County Council, as the Fire Authorities of both affected counties as well as West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. A copy will also be sent to West Sussex FBU officials.

A copy will also be sent to the East Sussex Fire Authority, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, and its FBU officials, as these issues may impact on East Sussex’s decision making in regards to its own mobilising control function.


 Immediate suspension of the provision of West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service control and command functions until;

o Control staff in Surrey have been sufficiently trained to provide a command and control function for West Sussex.
o Staffing levels in the Surrey Control room are sufficient and do not pose a threat to the wellbeing of those working there.
o Identified IT faults and failings are rectified.
o All control staff and operational Duty Managers are suitably trained and empowered to implement the Emergency Recall to Duty (Whole-time, Mobilising Control and Support staff only) and/or the Service Degradation Policy, on occasions when the agreed minimum crewing level of 6 control staff (which must include 2 supervisory manager roles) is not achieved.

The FBU is of the opinion that Surrey Fire and Rescue Service is inflicting unacceptable and unnecessary levels of risk on the public and employees of the Fire and Rescue Service’s in both counties. Therefore, the FBU believe that the Surrey Control is not capable of safely or effectively carrying out the command and control function on behalf of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service at this time and therefore it should be immediately suspended until these safety critical issues have been suitably resolved.

The FBU are obviously willing to take a full and active part in investigating and mitigating the identified safety critical issues.

Richard Jones
Fire Brigades Union,
Executive Council Member,
South East Region

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Serious concerns about inadequate Surrey fire control

At their meeting on Monday, the Environment, Communities and Fire Scrutiny Committee will discuss the Chief Fire Officer's progress report on the Improvement Plan, which followed Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services inspection report. The full report to the Scrutiny Committee can be found in the agenda reports pack.

Some progress, but not all good news

It is pleasing that quite a bit of progress seems to have been made on improvements, but reference to the "successful implementation of the Fire Control project" appears to be misplaced. Information from reliable sources suggest a number of things have gone wrong, including mobilising failures, incomplete turnout instructions and delays. No doubt we will be told they were teething problems, but if implementation was "successful" there would be no such problems. There are also concerns that some back up options, which were available when West Sussex had its own control, are no longer there.

Inadequate staffing

The most worrying aspect about Surrey control also handling West Sussex emergencies is inadequate staffing. Something I warned about a year ago:

"Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) recently rated Surrey Fire & Rescue Service as inadequate. Their report included criticism of inadequate staffing in Surrey's control room." 

Reports from inside the service said:

With the possibility of East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service also opting to use Surrey for their call handling, staffing could become even more inadequate. East Sussex are only having to consider this because West Sussex County Council decided to waste millions of pounds by pulling out of the combined Sussex control. If East Sussex do decide that using the Surrey control is the only viable option, they must do a better job and insist on much better staffing.  

When the WSCC Environment, Communities and Fire Scrutiny Committee looked at the plans to use Surrey, there was a lot of discussion about technology but not about staffing. Just one question was asked and the then Chief Fire Officer told Members that he would ensure there would be enough staff. However, following answers to a written question from Councillor Michael Jones last month, we now know that was not done. 

Minimum staffing to handle emergencies in Surrey and West Sussex is just five for about 21,000 incidents a year. Minimum staffing when West Sussex ran their own control was four (9,000 incidents) and minimum staffing in the Sussex control, when serving East & West Sussex, was seven (18,500 incidents). 

The population of the area directly affects the number of incidents handled in a year and therefore control operator workload. Using Home Office data, the graph below shows the ratio of incidents and population per control operator, when at the respective minimum staffing levels.

It is quite impossible for the Surrey control to provide the level of service West Sussex residents have rightly come to expect. At busy times they will simply not have enough staff to ensure that emergencies in both counties can be handled quickly and effectively. Surrey County Council is effectively ripping off West Sussex County Council by charging a lot of money for a worse service.

It seems that senior officers in both Surrey and West Sussex have been so dazzled and preoccupied with technology, they forgot about the most important component of any emergency service control room - Control Operators. 

Important though good technology is, it is only ever an aid to Control Operators. They are the ones who have to answer every '999' call, extract the essential information required from sometimes distressed and confused callers, and then ensure the right resources are dispatched. And that is just the beginning. A routine emergency can generate dozens of Control Operator actions, a serious incident can require hundreds of actions and major incidents can require thousands. 

Control rooms can go from being quiet, with no incidents to deal with, to frenetic activity within seconds and dozens of emergencies needing a response within a few minutes. The only way to ensure that the public get help quickly and effectively is to employ adequate numbers of skilled and motivated Control Operators. Surrey have failed to do that and West Sussex have allowed them to.

Hidden performance standards and targets reassure no one

The written answer, provided last month, also said that, "there are numerous performance standards with targets assigned" to the agreement with Surrey, but failed to give any details. The only way County Councillors can scrutinise Surrey Control's performance, and the public can learn the real effects of this contract, is for those performance standards and targets to be published. We also need to see the figures for Sussex Control's performance, so that fair comparison is possible.   

Previous national data showed that the Surrey control took, on average, twice as long as the Sussex control to handle calls. Councillors were wrongly told that this was because Surrey "call challenged" and Sussex did not. The truth is that both controls use call challenging when necessary. Call challenging does however carry risks. Used properly it can prevent resources being sent to hoax calls, but it can also result in a delayed response to genuine calls and, in the worst cases, no response to genuine emergencies. It must only ever be used sparingly and cautiously.  

Assurances given to the committee have not been honoured,

Members must ask why and insist on improved staffing.