Independent Inspection of the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service
2.1 Since March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has been an ever present and disruptive element that all organisations have had to contend with. NIFRS is no different; the 30 months prior to this inspection have been extremely challenging with the uncertain and ever-changing demands created by the pandemic. This has required the Service to adopt a reductionist approach, with its key focus being to provide, maintain and deliver an effective emergency service, with limited opportunity for NIFRS to undertake anything more than routine service delivery work.
2.2 In line with all public sector organisations, NIFRS continues to operate within extremely challenging fiscal times; they have experienced a real terms reduction of £14.5 million since 2011/12. The pressure on financial resources, and the expectation that front-line services must be protected, has resulted in reductions in support services, both in terms of personnel numbers and a lack of investment in enabling management information systems (MIS). These ‘solutions’ have reduced the cost base of NIFRS but are having a significant detrimental impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation. It would appear that whilst these solutions were intended to be interim, they have removed much of the corporate capacity of the organisation such as Strategic Planning, Performance Management and Programme Management. These arrangements have now been in place for an extended period and these ‘interim solutions’ have now become the norm.
2.3 One of the biggest challenges over the past decade has been a lack of stability of leadership at the Executive level within NIFRS. This instability permeates throughout the Service, for example, at the time of writing this report, 47 of the 94 flexi-duty senior officer roles were being occupied in a temporary capacity. There has also been considerable and continuing instability at a political level, with the Northern Ireland Assembly not sitting for a number of years. As a result there has been limited Ministerial priority and direction setting for NIFRS, something which, in the form of a Framework Document is normal practice across the other nations of the UK. The Board has also experienced instability, when, due to a challenge around appointments, the Board had to operate with 5 Non-Executive Members down for a period of 18 months. This instability, alongside the Covid and financial challenges described above, has created a set of circumstances where uncertainty and disturbance has arisen. This has resulted in significant challenges in the building of key relationships.
2.4 The outcome of this stripping of corporate capacity, the lack of investment in MIS and the number of changes at an Executive level, is that the organisation is challenged in setting a clear strategic direction, identifying priorities, managing risk, and allocating appropriate resources. There doesn’t appear to have been a clear methodology applied to deliver these, including an analysis of risk and demand, a working Finance Strategy and a working People Strategy, all underpinned by a clear corporate risk appetite. A risk critical example of this is the failure to prioritise the full alignment with National Operational Guidance (NOG), despite an Internal Audit report identifying the risk and a recovery action plan being agreed.
2.5 Many key strategic planning documents examined are either in draft form or are out of date. There is little or no synergy between them and on occasions they are contradictory or using different terminology and objectives for the same thing. The documents do, however, present some very positive language and the stated aims, although ambitious, are forward thinking and align with the aspirations of a modern Fire and Rescue Service that seeks to remain relevant to the communities it serves.
2.6 More positively, the workforce is extremely loyal to the organisation. The vast majority of staff interviewed demonstrated a very strong association with the ‘brand’ and possess a genuine pride in their respective and collective roles. The Inspection Team witnessed a clear desire, amongst all staff groups, to always do the right thing for the communities they serve and deliver positive outcomes. Individuals, and teams, frequently go beyond what should reasonably be expected (with a long-hours culture being the norm). In spite of this desire to deliver positive outcomes the current challenges are acutely felt and are having a considerable impact, with many staff expressing frustration at, what they perceived to be, a lack of leadership, poor communications and citing low morale.
2.7 From a front-line service delivery perspective, many personnel are feeling vulnerable. They are concerned at the reduced crewing levels and the quality of training available to develop and maintain their competence. They are feeling frustrated at reduced resources in Fleet, Information Technology (IT), Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Operational Support, where extended lead times are being experienced for what appears to them to be basic and routine requests for support. They are also frustrated at what they see as a lack of leadership and a coherent direction of travel. From a corporate support staff perspective, many people reported that they feel undervalued and under increasing pressure. A 20.8% turnover of corporate staff last year, and indeed within the Human Resources (HR) team a 41.9% turnover, provided a strong indication of this.
2.8 From our engagement during this process we believe there is in place a capable and supportive Sponsor Team and Board. They display a strong commitment to the Service and to working with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). We are also pleased to see some stability returning to the ELT with the vast majority of ELT members now being appointed in a substantive capacity. The Interim Chief Fire and Rescue Officer (CFRO) and his team are well aware of the issues outlined above and are now in the early stages of addressing these. The current ELT have demonstrated without question that they have the skills and professionalism to lead the service on this journey of change. We are also encouraged by the desire shown by all parties to work with the Inspection Team to identify opportunities for improvement.
2.9 The level of improvement required will take time, financial investment and significant political support if they are to be successful. The observations and recommendations within this report should assist the Service in better understanding the main areas of concern, allocating resources to priority areas, and developing a detailed action plan to address the recommendations of the Inspection Team and set NIFRS on a positive journey of improvement.