Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Who to vote for on May 6, if you care about your safety and about the fire & rescue service

If you want a fire & rescue service that keeps you safe, then your vote matters on the 6th of May. Please make sure you are registered and that you use your vote in all the elections on that day. If you are already registered, make it easy to vote by applying for a postal vote, but please note that your completed application form must arrive by 20th April.

I am not a member of a political party and my vote is not guaranteed to any particular party. That is because none of them have policies that I am in full agreement with, so when I vote I consider the candidates, their policies and their performance. 

Whilst campaigning in support of our fire & rescue services I have spoken to politicians, local and national, from every political party that will listen. I have yet to decide which candidates will get my vote in May and I will not try to influence anyone else to vote for specific candidates or political parties. 

However, based on past performance, the one thing I am sure of is that I will not be voting for any Conservative candidates. That is because Conservative Government policies and Conservative County Councillors have, over the last ten years, done immense damage to our fire & rescue service. 

As a result, we are all less safe.

Policies and decisions have not only been inept, they have been arrogantly steamrollered through with dishonest claims, unsubstantiated assurances and inadequate scrutiny.

Valid public concerns have been ignored, firefighters bullied,

and opposition Councillors treated with contempt.

Remember this?

There are still just 24 operational fire stations with 11 fewer operational fire engines, but even more incidents are being attended. Conservative Councillors falsely claimed that incidents would decrease, yet they have increased every year since 2015/16.

Even more incidents attended

In 2015, after the second round of cuts to the service, Conservative Cabinet Member Lionel Barnard stepped down. Conservative Leader Louise Goldsmith said at the time that he had left the fire and rescue service "in very good shape".

Just three years later Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services began an inspection that resulted in our fire & rescue service getting the worst report of the 45 services in England. 

Of the three principal areas they reviewed, how staff were looked after was rated inadequate, and both effectiveness and efficiency were rated as requires improvement. Not one of the sub categories achieved an acceptable 'good' rating. None of this was the fault of staff in the service, the blame lies squarely with the inept Council.

The County Council's Conservative administration repeatedly ignored warnings from firefighters, from the public, and from opposition Councillors. Conservative Councillors summarily dismissed genuine concerns as 'scaremongering'. The one well informed Conservative County Councillor who voiced concerns subsequently resigned, and others who dared to ask awkward questions were disciplined.

Conservatives: "in very good shape" = 
Inspectors: "inadequate" & "requires improvement".

We were told in 2014 that planned cuts were 'improvements' that would ensure at least 30 fire engines available around the clock. Despite warnings that the cuts would make fire crew availability worse, the Conservatives stuck their heads in the sand and went ahead. The result was that during the day, less than half that number were available and on occasions as few as ten fire engines were available to cover the whole of West Sussex.

We were told that money taken from operational response, by cutting fire engines and firefighters, would be used for prevention to save more lives. In 2015/16, when the cuts took effect, there were four fire deaths in West Sussex. In the first three quarters of 2020/21 there have already been four fire deaths in West Sussex (quarter four figures have not been released). The number of fire casualties taken to hospital has increased. In 2015/16 it was 43, in 2019/20 (latest full year figures) it was fifty two, a 21% increase.

The Conservative Government is talking about taking the fire & rescue service away from County Councils and giving control to Police & Crime Commissioners. There is no justification for this PCC empire building, and it will give the public even less of a say in how their fire & rescue service is run.

The Fire & Rescue Service should be safer in County Council hands, 
but it will not be safer if those hands are Conservative Party hands.  

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Shocking weakness in West Sussex/Surrey fire control deal revealed

 Diverted emergency calls cannot be actioned

West Sussex County Council has gone to great lengths to hide details of their inadequate deal for Surrey Fire & Rescue to handle West Sussex emergency calls. The reasons why are now becoming clear. 

At Friday’s Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee, thanks to determined questioning by Councillor Michael Jones, it emerged that the back-up, or 'buddy', fire control that receives West Sussex emergency calls when Surrey fire control cannot, is unable to send any help. 

When Surrey fire control is busy, those in trouble will have their calls diverted to the 'buddy' control at Merseyside Fire & Rescue. Callers will understandably think, after giving details of the emergency, that help will be on the way, but it will not. Merseyside will have to pass the details to the already busy Surrey fire control before any help is sent.

So, whenever Surrey fire control is overwhelmed with calls during periods of heavy demand, there could be lengthy delays. That is bad enough but if Surrey fire control must be evacuated, or if they suffer a serious technical failure, this unacceptable lack of resilience will mean no help is sent to emergencies in West Sussex or Surrey.

The Government paid West Sussex County Council and East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service millions of pounds to help set up the combined Sussex Fire Control Centre at Haywards Heath. Part of that funding was to provide the technology for a 'buddy' control that would receive emergency calls for Sussex and could then send local fire engines to the emergency. Work was underway for Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue to be able to do that.

Despite progress to provide that resilience, and the millions of pounds of national and local taxpayer's money spent, West Sussex County Council abandoned the Sussex Fire Control agreement just four years after it began handling West Sussex emergencies. Not only doing the dirty on East Sussex but abandoning proper resilience for the inadequate resilience of Surrey’s fire control. 

This is another example of inept and hasty decision making by WSCC's Cabinet, and inadequate scrutiny by County Councillors.

Cabinet Member’s ‘Del Boy’ reassurances

Cabinet Member Duncan Crow once again deliberately misled the meeting. He claimed that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) had said staffing levels in the Surrey Control Room were adequate

They did not. 

The report he referred to was not about standard staffing, it was about arrangements during the pandemic. He failed to mention that the report also said that Surrey had provided more trained staff for the control room during the pandemic. It is also doubtful that HMICFRS has the knowledge and expertise to properly assess control room staffing levels.

The Cabinet Member also decided to play politics by criticising Michael Jones for daring to ask legitimate questions about inadequate staffing levels. Levels that were clearly inadequate, as after Michael Jones first raised concerns, standard staffing levels were increased by two on each shift. He also rightly questions if this will be enough when East Sussex hand responsibility for their call handling to Surrey. Something forced on them by West Sussex County Council's hasty and ill-considered desertion from the Sussex fire control.

Mr Crow’s na├»ve claim that, “clearly there are always going to be the right number of staff to operate that control room”, is just unsubstantiated fantasy. Listening to his assurances is rather like listening to TV character Del Boy Trotter telling you all his products are guaranteed.

Mr. Crow has also been blinded by the false notion that new technology allows staffing levels to be reduced. Technology may simplify some operator tasks, but enough staff must be available to receive emergency calls, speak to other services, and undertake the many other actions that can only be carried out by a person, especially at busy times. 

Emergencies are random events and the need for several staff to be available to deal with sudden increases in demand cannot be replaced by technology. It is even more vital following the revelation that the Merseyside ‘buddy’ control must contact the already busy Surrey control before any help can be sent to West Sussex emergencies.

Inadequate answers

It is concerning that Assistant Chief Jon Lacey, as the control project manager, either did not know what call queuing is, or chose to avoid the question by talking about prioritising incidents. 

Call queuing is where an emergency service chooses to accept the ‘999’ call with the caller then hearing a recorded message saying the control room is busy and asking them to stay on the line. The call is not diverted to another control and the wait to speak to an operator could be lengthy.

West Sussex residents deserve a proper answer to this question.

Deputy Chief Mark Andrews suggested that slight improvements in the number of times Surrey's control alerted West Sussex stations within two minutes of receiving an emergency call was a success. 

However, he failed to mention that at no time since Surrey took over, in December 2019, has their best performance even equalled Sussex fire control's worst performance. It seems their "state of the art technology" is not as wonderful as they want us to believe.

Worse performance is not a success.

It was also disappointing that Councillor David Edwards question about moving fire engines around the county did not get a straight answer from Chief Fire Officer Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. He referred to fire engines being moved to different areas, something the Chief Officer said was a regular occurrence. 

He asked if there were occasions when a fire engine was moved to another area and an emergency call is then received in the area that the fire engine had been moved from.

The straight answer is yes, on occasions, fire engines are moved further away from the location of the next call. 

That happens because the dynamic cover tool they keep referring to is not one of these:

Not available in Fire Controls

The dynamic cover tool cannot tell them where the next incident will be, fundamentally it only knows where and when previous incidents have happened. That may indicate an increased likelihood of incidents in certain locations and at certain times, but it cannot predict them

Moving fire engines to maintain response times in one area inevitably means increased response times in the area it came from. It is always a gamble, the odds may be slightly better but you, or more accurately the public, can still lose out. The County Council has already significantly lengthened the odds of getting a quick response by cutting a quarter of the front-line fire engines in West Sussex.

A life-threatening emergency can occur at any time and in any part of West Sussex.

A quick and effective response at any time, to any part of West Sussex is vital.

The dynamic cover tool may sound like a technological advance, but it cannot advise relocating limited resources any better than a fully trained control room operator. It may also make worse decisions, as it does not have the flexibility that a skilled control room operator has to consider all the factors in play at a particular time.

It is quite incredible that WSCC has chosen a fire control arrangement that is less resilient than arrangements 20 years ago. When West Sussex had their own control room in Chichester, an immediate evacuation would see emergency calls diverted to the East Sussex control room. Unlike Merseyside, East Sussex were able to contact West Sussex stations to ensure help was sent. 

West Sussex County Council has once again increased the risk to residents

They must urgently ensure that a fully resilient fire control back up is provided

Friday, 26 March 2021

West Sussex County Councillors continue the Fire Control cover up

 Whitewash Report

Today, the 
Fire and Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee will discuss a Task and Finish Group report that was supposed to address concerns about Surrey Fire Control managing West Sussex emergencies. 

Unsurprisingly, with 3 Conservative Councillors (Lionel Barnard, David Barling, and David Edwards), and just one Liberal Democrat Councillor (Bob Smytherman) on the group, the Conservative Chairman has produced a whitewash report that simply endorses the Conservative controlled council's poor decisions. 

You may recall that Labour Councillor Michael Jones asked to attend the Task and Finish Group but Chairman Steve Waight, supported by other Conservative Councillors, refused to let him. He used the excuse of proportionality, but based that on election seats won, not on the wishes of West Sussex voters. Only 51% of all votes at the last County Council elections were for the Conservatives, yet they grabbed 75% of the places on this group.

No proper investigation of concerns, just pre-election political spin

Meeting held behind closed doors

The report, produced after just one secret meeting, claims that Members heard 'evidence' from West Sussex and Surrey Fire and Rescue Services, yet it appears that no real evidence or written reports were provided to the group. 

The report says that the Scrutiny Committee agreed to establish the task and finish group “in order to scrutinise the first year of the JFC.” Yet the minutes of that meeting say, “Resolved – that the Committee: … Notes the concerns regarding the joint control room, and reemphasised that a Task & Finish Group would examine this in further detail in January 2021.”

The report makes no mention of those concerns and instead claims that “Its purpose was to scrutinise the Joint Fire Control Centre’s work since its establishment on 4 December 2019 (JFC), specifically examining:

• Whether the JFC collaboration project had produced the project deliverables;

• Whether the JFC delivered the project to agreed cost and savings;

• What improvements the JFC collaboration has achieved in the last 12 months since;

• The improvements and benefit deliverables over the next 12 months;

• Future partnership expansion opportunity during 2021; and

• Staffing implications.

Concerns ignored

It is unclear who decided on the 'purpose', as the meeting on 30 September 2020 did not set out those specifics. It is evident that the Conservative Chairman decided to ignore the concerns raised at that meeting, and previously at the Environment, Communities and Fire Select Committee on 13 January 2020. That committee agreed that the new Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee should be given a detailed report on the safety critical notice, the staffing levels and the robustness of the IT systems.

That report has never been produced.

The whitewash Task & Finish Group report is simply full of unsubstantiated spin - "efficient staffing system", "modern state of the art technology", "market leading", "transformed", "more effective and efficient" etc. Yet there is no evidence at all in the report to show that the arrangement is safe, effective or reliable.

The report is so detached from reality that it even claims the Emergency Services Network (ESN) can transmit data faster than Airwave, yet the Government’s ESN project has suffered significant problems. The Public Accounts Committee was told this month that the ESN Network is delayed and taking £650m from the Treasury every year. The latest expected operational date is 2025, six years behind schedule. Of course, that assumes it does not fail completely like the technology for the Government’s regional fire control project failed.

Control Room staffing still inadequate

It seems staffing has been increased from six to eight per watch, with the minimum on duty increased from five to six. However, it does not say if this is to cater for East Sussex calls when they join the scheme, or if there will be a further increase when East Sussex join the arrangement. 

If there is no further increase that represents at least an effective 50% cut in control operators to answer and manage emergencies for Surrey, East Sussex and West Sussex. It will mean more frequent overload and delays as emergency calls are diverted to other control rooms, and will occur during less busy periods than previously.

For every incident there can be several actions that need to be taken by control staff

Just two extra staff for over three times as many incidents is irresponsible

Cabinet Member Duncan Crow previously claimed there is no delay when emergency calls cannot be answered in the Surrey control room because all operators are busy. That is untrue, there is inevitably a delay as the '999' operator has to wait for a specified time before trying Surrey's back up number and then try that number for a further specified time before transferring the caller to another control room. Critical minutes lost for anyone in danger. Exactly how long that delay will be, and which control room the call will be diverted to, has not been disclosed. The Cabinet Member was asked last December, but failed to provide a proper answer.

The concerns of firefighters and the public have been ignored and the Council continues to refuse to publish any evidence to support their claims about the dodgy deal with Surrey County Council.

The public and firefighters deserve

better from the County Council

Friday, 27 November 2020

County Council secrecy and dishonesty continues to damage the fire & rescue service

Worst response times to high risk areas, inaccurate statistics and cover up

It seem that West Sussex County Council is still covering up their failings with regard to the fire & rescue service. Despite some signs of improvement in parts of the service, the County Council is still arrogantly ignoring their responsibility to be transparent and accountable.

The latest example was at the October Cabinet meeting, when questions from Councillor Michael Jones, leader of the Labour group on the Council, were ignored. The minutes of the meeting not only misrepresent the questions he raised but dishonestly claim, "the Chief Fire Officer responded to his questions." She did not, Council Leader Paul Marshall, who chaired the meeting, did not invite the Chief Fire Officer to answer those questions, he ignored them and moved on. It was blatant political bias, as when Conservative Councillors asked questions he did invite the Chief Fire Officer to answer them.

Cabinet Member Duncan Crow has been claiming response time improvements, yet he ignored the serious deterioration in response times to areas classed as high risk. The figures published in the latest quarterly performance report show the worst figures for five years, with the target being missed on 20% of calls. Councillor Jones asked why they were so bad and what steps were being taken to improve them. He got no answer.

He asked about discrepancies in the incident statistics shown in the annual report for 2019/20. In one part of the report it says 9,522 incidents attended, but in another part it says 9,582. The national fire statistics, compiled from reports submitted by WSFRS, show there were 9,620 incidents, which is 98 more calls than WSFRS claim in their report. Councillor Jones asked for an explanation, but his request was again ignored.

Michael Jones also asked why details of the wholetime and on-call establishment for the new fire station at Horsham had not been provided and he asked for details. He got no answer.

Finally, he voiced concern about the failure to provide statistics in response to a freedom of information request (full details available on the WhatDoTheyKnow website). This happened to be a request I had submitted in July and it is the first year that WSFRS had refused to provide the statistics. They claimed that they were intended for publication in the Annual Statement of Assurance and Annual Report, so were exempt. This appeared to be a dubious excuse, as the details requested had never been published in that report before. 

Surprise, surprise, when the report was presented to the Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee in September, the information requested was not in the report. Councillor Jones asked for an explanation and for the information to be provided to those requesting it and to himself. The question was ignored. 

I don't know if he has received the information, but I still haven't, despite being told that any statistics not in the report would be sent to me within two weeks. I have now referred the matter to the Information Commissioner.

Continuing secrecy over the Surrey Fire Control fiasco

Thanks to the Information Commissioner, a little information about this fiasco has eventually been released, but West Sussex County Council is still trying to keep other details secret. After being told the exemption they claimed was not lawfully used, they are now claiming a different and equally dubious exemption. The Commissioner is investigating.

According to WSCC, releasing details of the Surrey control room failures in December 2019 and January 2020, and the action taken to fix them, will "endanger the physical or mental health and/or safety of an individual or group". They don't explain who or why and they go on to claim that releasing the information would identify "potential vulnerabilities". Yet West Sussex County Councillors were previously told that all the problems had been fixed, which should mean there are no vulnerabilities. 

The information also suggests why they were so keen to keep it secret and why they are still trying to hide other details. It appears that West Sussex paid scant attention to the issue of adequate staffing and the agreement was approved by a manager with no training or experience of control rooms. It also appears that they did not refer to any standards, good practice guides, studies or research material when reaching the agreement with Surrey, and even ignored the essential Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure’s guidance.

It seems that West Sussex just accepted Surrey's incredibly inadequate staffing of just six per shift, which Surrey claim ensures a minimum of five control room operators on duty. That leaves very little room to cover absences for training, annual leave, sickness etc., and will inevitably see delays at busy times. When West Sussex ran their own control room they also had six per shift, but that was to ensure at least four on duty for significantly fewer incidents.

Inadequate staffing = those calling for help having to wait longer for help more frequently.  

Cabinet Member wants to fiddle the figures

At the last Fire & Rescue Service Scrutiny Committee meeting, Cabinet Member Duncan Crow told Councillors how they could improve the statistics for the time that Surrey take to answer '999' calls. They are supposed to answer all of them in less than 7 seconds, but have been failing to do so on around 5% of calls. In an adequately staffed and properly run control room '999' callers should be answered immediately, and certainly well under 7 seconds. He said that as some incidents can generate multiple calls, they should only assess the time it takes to answer the first '999' call. He said he knew that would make the figures "better".

Not only is this shabby manipulation, it suggests subsequent '999' calls are unimportant. Quickly answering repeat calls to an incident is vitally important. Subsequent calls can provide more accurate addresses, as well as critical details that can affect the safety of firefighters and the public. It is also absolutely vital, if the first call is not from the property involved, that a later call from someone trapped by the fire is answered immediately. If it is not, then the delay in the call handler giving life saving advice and obtaining information from the caller to help firefighters locate them quickly can cost lives.

Councillor Crow also seems to be disregarding the Council's legal responsibility to “make arrangements for dealing with calls for help”. That applies to all emergency calls, not just the first one. It is not the Chief Fire Officers of West Sussex or of Surrey, or Surrey County Council that are legally responsible for effective arrangements for dealing with calls for help from West Sussex residents. It is West Sussex County Council that remains legally responsible, as they are the  Fire & Rescue Authority and, as Cabinet Member, it is Councillor Crow who is answerable in law and to the public.

Every call to an incident is important and must be answered quickly, 
fiddling the figures is unacceptable.

Scrutiny Chairman wants to restrict scrutiny

At the same meeting, Chairman Steve Waight said that he wanted "to avoid us looking at any operational issues”. Yet there is no legitimate reason for preventing the committee from scrutinising operational issues. The County Council is legally responsible for all matters concerning the fire & rescue service, so Councillors should not be prevented from questioning any aspect of the service.

Now it may be that Councillor Waight is getting confused after his brief flirtation with the role of Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, a few years back. If so, he needs to understand that there are fundamental differences, established in law, between the two services. 

Chief Constables hold office under the Crown and are directly accountable for the exercise of police powers. They are operationally independent of elected Police and Crime Commissioners and Police and Crime Panels to ensure that politicians cannot interfere with how the law is applied, including who is arrested and who is not. Legislation also places specific duties on the Chief Constable.

Chief Fire Officers do not hold office under the Crown, they are simply employees of the Fire & Rescue Authority. Legislation places no specific duties on Chief Fire Officers, the legal duty for all aspects of the service's provision and operation is placed on the Fire & Rescue Authority, which is West Sussex County Council. There is no legal justification, or need, for operational independence.

Some Chief Fire Officers in the past have given poor advice, and some will no doubt do so in the future. Now that Chief Fire Officers can be appointed without any fire service experience, the quality of that professional advice must increasingly be in doubt. West Sussex, fortunately, appointed a professional Chief Fire Officer who started out as a firefighter, but that does not relieve Councillors of their duty to scrutinise thoroughly. I also doubt that the Chief Fire Officer would want scrutiny limited, as that is not in the interest of her staff or of West Sussex residents.

If WSCC is to avoid another inadequate rating, they must stop fiddling the figures, they must be transparent, and they must scrutinise properly


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.