Accusations of bullying due to gender or race were listed alongside ‘significant concerns’ about public protection in a highly critical report of fire services in West Sussex.
Overall, West Sussex Fire & Rescue was rated ‘requires improvement’, but two areas – ‘protecting the public through fire regulation’ and ‘ensuring fairness and promoting diversity’ – were found to be ‘inadequate’.
While exploring the latter, inspectors found that work to address bullying within the service had not yet started, despite concerns being raised in a staff survey in 2017.
They also reported that, during the inspection, they had met staff ‘who told us they had been bullied because of their gender or race’.
When it came to firefighting and keeping people safe, the inspectors provided a list of areas which required improvement – all of which appeared to be bread and butter fire service skills.
They were: understanding the risk of fire and other emergencies; preventing fires and other risks; responding to fires and other emergencies; and responding to national risks.
The report pointed out that, when it came to fires and emergencies, West Sussex had not met its response standards since 2014/15.
It added: “In its response to fires and emergencies, the service isn’t making the best use of resources. Its fire engine availability is low and it is struggling to recruit and retain sufficient on-call firefighters.
“It hasn’t produced a clear plan for aligning its procedures to national guidance, its management of information after an incident is often poor and it has had little success in reducing the high number of false alarms it receives.”
Figures in the report showed that, in the 12 months up to September 30, 2018, more than half of the 9,345 incidents attended – 51 per cent – turned out to be false alarms. That’s around 4,766 calls.
Almost 2,000 calls were to fires and around 2,600 were to non-fire incidents.
At the end of March, 2009, West Sussex had 46 fire engines. This was reduced to 35 by 2018.
The inspection report and improvement plan will be subject to scrutiny at a special meeting of the environment, communities and fire select committee, at County Hall, Chichester, on July 10.
Dr James Walsh, leader of the opposition and the Liberal Democrat group, said the report indicated ‘a total failure of leadership’.
He added: “Once again, it is time that she (Cllr Louise Goldsmith) seriously considers her position, and takes the decision to step down before she is dumped by her own party.”
Responding to the report, Neil Stocker, chief fire officer (acting) said: “We acknowledge the findings and recommendations in the report and thank the inspectors for carrying out a detailed review of our service, the first of its kind.
“I want to reassure the public that the safety of our residents remains the top priority for our fire and rescue service and we are determined to address the concerns raised in the report.
“The report identifies our areas for improvement but also a number of our strengths. Although there is always room for further improvement, last year we attended 9,292 incidents – up from the previous year. We attended 88 per cent of calls within our response times and in our post-incident surveys, 99 per cent of residents tell us they are happy with our service.
“When the inspection team revisited our service in February, they noted that we had taken on board their comments and have recognised the improvements we are making. They welcomed our detailed action plan which we will continue deliver as a priority.”
The Fire Brigades Union has said it was ‘not surprised’ that West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service had been on the receiving end of a highly critical inspection report.
Accusing the county council of the ‘systematic decimation’ of the service, the union called for millions of pounds of budget cuts to be reversed.
County council Labour group leader Michael Jones, responding to the report’s findings, said: “The report is yet another example of the West Sussex Tories failing to deliver important public services to the standard expected. This time, one responsible for protecting the entirety of West Sussex, and it is yet another hammer blow to the reputation of this council.
“The continual cutbacks of the service by successive Tory budgets have inevitably taken their toll, and the service has clearly been stretched too far, for years. If this has resulted in tensions rising and bullying, we are extremely alarmed to learn this because certainly no-one told councillors this was happening, and we will be looking to see what long overdue action the council will be taking to address it.”
If a vote of no confidence is called, it will be tabled at the next meeting of the full council, on July 19.
Report by Karen Dunn, local democracy reporter and Kelly Wickham, chief reporter for the Chichester Post.