Independent Inspection of the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service
5.1 The TOR for this inspection were agreed prior to the inspection, which formally commenced on Thursday 30 June 2022. The fieldwork was conducted by a core team of 4 inspectors (Appendix B), comprising of personnel who have experience of leading Fire and Rescue Services at an executive and non-executive level. The core team was supported, where necessary, by other appropriately qualified and experienced professionals.
5.2 The team aimed to carry out inspection work in line with the TOR and triangulate evidence in order to draw valid conclusions upon which to make recommendations for improvement. The team interviewed/met with key personnel, i.e. Board members, DoH officials, ELT members, Senior Leadership Team (SLT) members, Heads of Function and officials from the representative bodies. They also reviewed available strategic documentation, performance information and data, as well as observing operational incidents, training exercises and executive level meetings.
5.3 Given the concerns raised around the operation of NIFRS and to ensure robust consideration of the TOR, the Inspection Team recognised the value in engaging as widely and with as many people as possible across the organisation. This approach ensured that the Inspectors accessed the perspectives and experiences of personnel from across the entire Service, thereby building a more detailed understanding of its organisation, departments, functions and most importantly, its people through their lived experiences.
5.4 To facilitate this, the Inspectors engaged with the crews at each of the 67 operational fire stations, the Regional Control Centre (RCC) personnel, the Area and District management teams and the personnel that form the teams across the support functions that enable front-line service delivery. By adopting this approach, a total of 1,088 NIFRS personnel were able to engage with the Inspection Team through the course of the inspection. Table 1 below provides a summary breakdown of the functions/teams engaged.
|Function||Duty System||Who||No. of Locations|
|Operational Fire Stations||Wholetime||2 Watches||14|
|Day Crewed||1 Watch||4|
|On Call||Whole crew||59|
|Regional Control Centre||N/A||4 Watches||1|
|Facilities & Assets||1|
|Fleet, Engineering & Supplies||1|
|Learning and Development Centre||Day Duty||Instructors||2|
|Flexi Duty||Training Managers|
|Area Staff||N/A||Management Team||4|
|District Staff||N/A||Management Team||13|
5.5 In each of the engagement sessions, 2 hours were allocated for the visit and the format was a semi-structured discussion, with the Inspectors asking open questions (below) relating to the TOR. Importantly the discussion was allowed to flow, focusing on empowering personnel to share their lived experience and perceptions (and therefore their reality) of working in NIFRS.
5.6 Discussion Question Topics
a General observations of working in NIFRS
b Operational Equipment
c Operational Intelligence
d Operational Assurance
e Training & Development
f Community Safety
h Engagement with Senior Managers
j Organisational Culture
k Is there anything else you would wish to share?
l What one thing would you change to improve NIFRS?
5.6.1 Through the course of the engagements, which were very well supported by personnel, common themes/issues emerged and these are summarised in the following paragraphs.
5.6.2 There is a very strong loyalty and commitment from staff towards the organisation and people have a real pride in their identity working for NIFRS. They believe that communities across Northern Ireland respect, value and trust their Fire and Rescue Service.
5.6.3 Many of the people we interviewed expressed a real concern about the lack of staff across all functions to deliver against the day to day ask of the organisation. Personnel feel that due to budgetary pressures and the need to find efficiencies, there has been a continual cuts agenda for some time and that it is always the staffing levels that are impacted first. This results in the organisation having to rely on the goodwill of people to go ‘above and beyond’ with an over-reliance on the use of overtime to maintain safe crewing levels within operational functions. Operational personnel are also frustrated with the application of the overtime policy in that the amount of overtime any individual can work is restricted. If they reach a threshold then under the working time directive they are unable to do any further pre-arranged overtime, even if they were willing to do so to keep an appliance operationally available. Within the support and enabling functions, staff numbers have decreased in the organisation’s desire to ‘protect the front-line’. This has resulted in the demand on support services outweighing the capacity to deliver. Consequently, operational personnel feel unsupported and support staff overwhelmed. This is exacerbated by the pay scales of support staff, which are perceived by many to be lower, like for like, when compared with other public sector organisations in Northern Ireland. NIFRS is therefore no longer competitive in the employment market which makes attracting the right calibre of new staff difficult and retaining existing staff challenging. During the course of the inspection, we were told of valuable and skilled staff exiting the organisation to work for another public body in essentially the same role but for significant salary increases.
5.6.4 Across the organisation, staff were routinely challenged and frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of workforce planning, stating that NIFRS always seems to be reactive rather than proactive. For example, the organisation waits for vacancies to arise, even though it knows they are coming, before commencing a recruitment or promotion process. This lack of planning then creates skill gaps, a loss of continuity and capacity issues due to the fact that recruitment and promotion processes take so long to complete. In some cases we were advised this could take in excess of 12 months from start to finish. During the intervening period, the function or location affected is running short on resource, with the direct impact this has on the ability to deliver against stated workloads. During the vast majority of the engagement sessions, personnel expressed frustration with the format of recruitment and/or promotion processes and they don’t believe the ‘Personal Qualities and Attributes’ (PQA) based approach actually produces the most suitable candidates for the role. This is because they feel that the PQA process leans towards academia rather than practical application and the process doesn’t necessarily take account of experience, but relies on the ability of the candidate to ‘tell a story’ that is not challenged or validated. In addition to the frustration cited around the format of the processes, there were a number of occasions where people stated that they did not have any trust in the integrity of the system, with concerning words like “cronyism” and “nepotism” being used as descriptors of how processes were run and people selected. Whilst this is very difficult for the Inspection Team to verify, the fact it was raised on a number of occasions, right across the organisation gave sufficient cause for concern.
5.6.5 Staff stated that there are too many temporary promotions in place, which results in an instability across the organisational structure, inconsistency in decision making and a real challenge to developing professional relationships, with personnel changing post every 6 months. Staff were also frustrated about the apparent lack of structure to selecting personnel for temporary promotions, with the only qualifying criteria seeming to be the time in role and their position on a temporary promotion waiting list. Suitability in terms of experience and qualifications, for the actual post, do not appear to be factors considered when people are selected for the temporary promotions. The lack of experience and qualifications is considered to be counterproductive, as the individuals will take time to learn the role and are likely to require considerable support from the people they are there to manage. In addition, just as they get up to speed, they get moved on as the 6 months period has elapsed, and so the whole process begins again. This has been the experience of many functions for a number of years and their reality is, therefore, that it is almost impossible to make progress and move anything forward.
5.6.6 Staff expressed concern around the inconsistency in interpretation of policy and consequently its application. They believe that this is as a result of silo working across the 4 geographic area commands, with it being frequently suggested to the Inspection Team that NIFRS felt like 4 different organisations and sometimes 5 when the disconnect from the HQ function was mentioned. In reality, what staff experience is the same thing being done in 4 different ways, which creates confusion, frustration and at times a strong feeling of inequality. This was corroborated by the Area Command teams. This was not solely specific to the operational sector, as staff from across the support functions have experienced the same thing. Across the Service there is a lack of understanding of the interdependency of functions/areas, combined with a lack of understanding of the very pressing challenges being experienced by NIFRS. Each function therefore tends to operate in isolation, addressing its own needs. Collaborative working, improved engagement and better organisational communication would ensure that interdependencies are identified and understood. With structured planning and prioritisation, appropriate resources could be allocated to better meet the Service and community’s needs.
5.6.7 NIFRS presents as an ambitious organisation that is effective at developing ideas and starting projects and programmes of change. This ambition however is hampered through a lack of resources and although many things may be started, they are rarely finished or completed and often sit in a position of flux for years. This creates a sense within staff that the Service is always changing when in fact the reality is, that nothing substantive ever changes. The stated ambitions need to be harnessed to the willingness of the workforce to deliver change, through a robust strategic planning process supported by a properly resourced programme management approach, if real change and improvement is to be delivered.
5.6.8 Most staff commented on, what they perceived as, a lack of leadership across the organisation. Starting at the top and working down through all levels, with people not understanding the strategy, objectives and priorities of the organisation. In addition, a large proportion of personnel identified that the prevalence of temporary posts contributes to the leadership challenge. They observe that people are not in the role long enough to make any necessary changes and are unable (or unwilling) to make the leadership decisions required. A recurring comment was that many in temporary positions have too much focus on themselves and the next promotion rather than on the organisational need. Staff at all levels recognise that a lack of formal and structured leadership and management training is contributing to this challenge. On a number of occasions across the organisation, staff stated that they had witnessed or were aware of what they consider to be poor behaviours and poor decision making from some senior managers, who should actually be setting an example, however, it was the opinion of the majority that they have in fact done the very opposite. Frustratingly for staff, the organisation and system seems to accept this.
5.6.9 Operational personnel are very concerned with the current Learning & Development (L&D) structure and its supporting processes. They do not believe it is fit for purpose nor delivering against the organisational or individual needs. They are particularly concerned with risk critical training such as Breathing Apparatus (BA) Refresher training not being kept up to date. In addition, a large proportion of personnel expressed concern about the availability of courses and the lack of opportunity to access structured and accredited professional and personal development. Concerns were also frequently raised about the inconsistent delivery of information and material at the Learning and Development Centre (LDC), combined with the quality and credibility of the training instructors. Many station based personnel perceive that some instructors have little or no operational experience and therefore lack depth and credibility. The new LDC at Cookstown was raised frequently by operational personnel. There was a strong support across the organisation about the development in principle, however a considerable number of staff had significant concerns around the location of the facility and associated travel times, as well as how NIFRS was going to staff and operate the facility to its full potential. As training is a specific line of enquiry within the inspection TOR, further comment on training will be provided within that section of the report.
5.6.10 Managers at all levels across the organisation stated that they frequently felt disempowered and having to operate in a system where mistrust and upward decision making was the norm. Managers were equally frustrated by what they perceive to be a lack of desire from the organisation to undertake meaningful capability management, citing a lack of support and guidance when having to have the difficult conversations and make the difficult decisions. This results in challenging situations and circumstances not being dealt with, thereby exacerbating the challenges around workforce planning, resource allocation and subsequent capacity to meet organisational needs and demand.
5.6.11 Without exception, throughout the inspection staff cited the IT system as being extremely problematic, a barrier to progress and essentially unfit for purpose. Staff routinely have difficulty getting logged in to the system and then can be ‘kicked off’ without warning for no apparent reason. There are multiple standalone systems and the lack of integration means that the same information often has to be keyed multiple times across different platforms, which is not only inefficient, it is also challenging due to the unreliable access to user accounts. Staff are equally frustrated in trying to access IT support with the system requiring a helpdesk request to be logged on the system. For people who cannot access the system, there is no method of requesting support other than getting someone else to log it for them. In these instances, the helpdesk then liaise with the originator of the request and not the account having the problem which again leads to frustration. Control room staff are equally frustrated as even due to the critical nature of the operating systems within control, they cannot access a ‘priority system’ should there be a need for IT support. The IT capability is reported on in more detail at section 6.8.21 of the report.
5.6.12 The quality of fire appliances and the operational equipment they carry is well received by operational personnel. Whilst there is a very small number of locations where crews would welcome an updated or newer vehicle, the vast majority of firefighters across Northern Ireland are appreciative of the high standard and good specification of equipment. There were some challenges presented around the turnaround time for cleaning of firefighting personal protective equipment (fire kit) and the quality and suitability of spare fire kit as an interim/emergency measure. However, operational crews were well aware of the emerging evidence around the carcinogenic effects of the products of combustion and supportive of the improving approach being taken by NIFRS to address this issue. They also advised that there is an increasing length of time being taken to access replacement operational equipment. The Fleet, Engineering and Supplies function is reported on in more detail at section 6.8.12 of the report.
5.6.13 Operational personnel across Northern Ireland feel they are delivering effective community fire safety information and advice, including the completion of free Home Fire Safety Visits and talks to primary school children. They would however like access to updated tools such as interactive games for school visits and better quality materials to leave with the community to remind them of the visit. There are varying degrees of activity across different stations and whilst this may sometimes be based on demographics and risk, it is primarily due to the challenging financial situation and the directive from the organisation for crews to focus on the priority areas mentioned above, particularly in the areas served by on-call crews. On-call firefighters play an important role in protecting their communities and there was a clear willingness from the majority of those engaged to deliver more community safety activity through a structured, resourced and financed approach.
5.6.14 During the inspection, the team visited the volunteer crew on Rathlin Island and, in common with the experience of visiting crews on Scottish Islands, they found them to be extremely self-sufficient, resilient and possessing a real pride in the service they provide for their community. The Fire and Rescue Service capability is delivered through a team of trained volunteers who are provided with a full firefighting capability fire appliance and a fire station, which is shared with HM Coastguard and also houses the Coastguard emergency response capability. During the engagement with the Inspection Team, the Rathlin Island crew advised that they felt there had been good investment from NIFRS in developing the island’s firefighting capability with recognised and tested operational procedures to support them from Ballycastle and beyond, should the need arise. One area however that they stated they would be keen to explore, given their isolated location, was the emergency medical response (EMR) capability on the island and how the local fire crew could perhaps support and help to deliver this. The crew made it absolutely clear that there was no intention to replace existing medical intervention capabilities but to seek opportunity to support that for the benefit of islanders and visitors to the island alike.
5.6.15 Staff across all functions and areas reported that they considered there was poor communication across the organisation. Most communications are issued electronically, however the challenges with the IT system means that often staff don’t receive them or certainly not in a timely manner. Equally, much of the information received by individuals is not necessarily relevant to them and it seems a ‘send to all’ approach exists with emails. Prior to the global pandemic, there were structured and planned engagement and team meetings where area, district and/or functional personnel could meet to discuss business matters, thereby ensuring continuity of messaging whilst at the same time developing knowledge and understanding as well as developing professional relationships. Frequently staff stated that they would welcome the reintroduction of these events as when people don’t know the full narrative, they fill in the blanks with what they believe to be the reality rather than with the actual reality. There is a small and professional communications team in NIFRS. Although their capacity is limited they produce some excellent, internal and external, communications. That said given the observations above, and the demand for contact and engagement with staff and wider stakeholders, consideration should be given to the size and focus of this team.
5.6.16 Across the organisation, staff at all levels stated to the Inspection Team that they felt undervalued, that their goodwill was continually exploited and that morale within the workforce was at an all-time low. Concerningly, staff reported that they felt like they were operating in a culture of mistrust and fear with the organisation always looking for someone to blame, with too many managers who only focused on themselves. An example from the Regional Control Centre (RCC), where a member of the control staff reported ‘feeling undervalued by managers and completely detached from the rest of the organisation and considered as an afterthought to anything and everything that NIFRS did’.
5.6.17 RCC staff expressed concern around the workloads associated with operating the Resource Planning Unit (RPU) outside of normal office hours. Due to the overall lack of operational resource, it has been necessary for NIFRS to establish a Headquarters based RPU which oversees the availability of operational personnel and co-ordinates operational staffing on a daily basis, moving resources around to meet operational and organisational need. During office hours, Monday to Friday, this capability is delivered by a dedicated team of 4 personnel, however outwith those hours, the responsibility passes to the duty watch in the RCC to deliver the capability on top of delivering a busy emergency service control function.
5.6.18 The issue of firefighters’ Pay & Conditions was raised at almost all engagements. It is recognised by staff that pay is negotiated at a national level through the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (NJC) and as such NIFRS has limited control over agreed pay levels. The issue is of such importance to firefighters, however, that it is appropriate to recognise this within the inspection report as a key influencing factor that is having a direct impact on the wellbeing, motivation and morale of personnel. Outwith the pay level issue, personnel frequently raised the possibility of paying additional responsibility allowances (ARA’s) for specialist skills. There was an overwhelming support among station based staff for recognition of emergency fire appliance driving as a specialist skill and for personnel receiving an ARA for undertaking this role. Personnel suggested that this approach would address the current issue of a shortage of drivers by incentivising taking on this additional skill. It is important to note that emergency fire appliance driving is a core skill in the firefighter’s role map and therefore does not attract an ARA. The Inspection Team are in no way advocating that an ARA should be paid for driving and present this for information only.
5.6.19 The challenge around pay is not exclusive to the operational workforce, it applies equally to support staff within the enabling functions, where it was also raised frequently. The current support staff pay scales are no longer attractive to the employment market and as such NIFRS is finding it difficult to attract new people into support roles whilst at the same time finding it difficult to keep staff, particularly when other organisations are paying significantly more for like for like roles.
5.6.20 Table 2 below provides a summary of topics discussed during visits to stations, control, LDC and area/district management teams. This table shows topics that were raised on 60% or more occasions with the full list being available in Appendix C.
|Poor IT systems||99%|
|Strong commitment of staff and pride in organisation||97%|
|Firefighter Pay & Conditions||94%|
|Instability in structures/too many temp positions||91%|
|Concern at availability of resources/personnel churn||84%|
|Lack of leadership||84%|
|Poor training structure||84%|
|Frustration in recruitment processes||82%|
|Training course availability – poor||82%|
|Inconsistency in decision making and/or policy interpretation||81%|
|Low morale and goodwill eroded, feeling undervalued||79%|
|MODAS – very poor and unreliable||78%|
|Engagement with senior managers/Board members – poor||78%|
|Gartan management policy – poor||76%|
|Equipment issue and repair/replacement – extended turnaround||76%|
|Good appliances/operational equipment/PPE||76%|
|Overall Service wide communications – poor||75%|
|Experience/credibility/quality of instructors at LDC||73%|
|Lack of workforce planning||69%|
|Unrealistic on-call firefighter workloads||69%|
|Good community safety activity being delivered||69%|
|Frustration in promotion processes||63%|
|On-call Project – lack of progress or update||63%|
|Confusion/frustration with on-call availability contracts||63%|
|Instability in structures/too many temp positions||100%|
|Low morale, goodwill eroded and feeling undervalued by managers||100%|
|Control staff feel detached from the rest of the organisation||100%|
|Poor training structure for control staff||100%|
|No formal development pathways or packages across all roles||100%|
|Concern at availability of resources/personnel turnover||86%|
|Strong commitment of staff and pride in organisation||86%|
|RPU workloads are unrealistic and putting significant pressure on already depleted resources||86%|
|Lack of workforce planning and succession planning||86%|
|Poor IT systems||86%|
|Concerns about lack of progress and update on new Command and Control Mobilising System (CCMS)||86%|
|Inconsistency in decision making/policy interpretation||71%|
|Lack of leadership||71%|
|Poor management processes (within control management team)||71%|
|Continual reliance on overtime to maintain minimum crewing – detrimental impact on personnel||71%|
|Lack of career/personal development opportunities||71%|
|Frustration in recruitment processes||71%|
|Instability in structures/too many temp positions||100%|
|Strong commitment of staff and pride in organisation||100%|
|Concern at availability of resources/personnel turnover||94%|
|Lack of leadership||94%|
|Frustration in promotion processes||94%|
|Poor IT systems||94%|
|Inconsistency in decision making and/or policy interpretation||88%|
|Frustration in recruitment processes||88%|
|Too much silo working||82%|
|Lack of workforce planning||82%|
|Poor training structure||82%|
|Training course availability – poor||82%|
|Lack of project/programme management processes||76%|
|Lack of career/personal development opportunities||76%|
|Lack of capability management taking place across organisation||76%|
|On-call system requires review/update||65%|
|Culture of blame and lack of trust||65%|
|Managers do not feel empowered||65%|
|Concern at availability of resources/personnel churn||100%|
|Lack of strategy, vision or planning||100%|
|Lack of project/programme management||100%|
|Strong commitment of staff and pride in organisation||100%|
|Support staff Pay & Conditions||100%|
|Low morale and goodwill eroded, feeling undervalued||100%|
|Instability in structures/too many temp positions||89%|
|Too much silo working||89%|
|Lack of workforce planning||89%|
|Poor IT systems||89%|
|Overall Service wide communications – poor||89%|
|Inconsistency in decision making/policy interpretation||78%|
|Lack of leadership||78%|
|Business processes overly bureaucratic and too paper based||78%|
|Culture of blame and lack of trust||78%|
|Managers do not feel empowered||78%|
|Lack of capability management taking place across organisation||78%|
|Need to embrace the digital world and automation||78%|
|Operational personnel don’t always seem to understand support functions needs and challenges||78%|
|Engagement with Board members – poor||78%|
|Frustration in recruitment processes||67%|
|Lack of career/personal development opportunities||67%|
|Payroll systems – slow to implement pay uplifts and lack of detail on payslip||67%|
|Working from home/hybrid working – welcomed by staff||67%|
|Engagement with ELT – poor||67%|
5.7 On-call Duty System
5.7.1 Of the 67 fire stations in Northern Ireland, 60 of them are crewed wholly or partly by on-call firefighters. On-call firefighters are personnel living within local communities who carry a pager. When there is a demand for an operational response, the pager is activated, and they are required to respond to the fire station within 5 minutes to crew the fire appliance(s) and attend the emergency call. On-call firefighters generally have a primary employment out with the Fire and Rescue Service so when the demand comes during normal working hours they usually respond from their place of work and outwith those times from their home address. Within Northern Ireland on-call firefighters are required to provide a minimum of 84 hours of availability per week and in some cases, depending on their specific contract of employment, this figure may be higher. In addition to providing operational availability, they are required to attend a training evening at their station for 2 hours each week in addition to 7 further days over the year. For providing this commitment, on-call firefighters are paid a standing retaining fee each week and then paid an hourly rate for all fire calls, training events and other work associated with the role, such as the delivery of community safety activities.
5.7.2 The on-call firefighting system was created in the post-war years and designed around how people lived their lives at that time. The system has served communities incredibly well; however, people are now far more mobile and no longer always live and work in the same location. These changes in lifestyles have not been reflected in the on-call system and have created a challenge to maintain good operational availability. This is due to the on-call service being demand led and there is no way of knowing when a call will be received. At the same time, on-call firefighters must meet the obligations of their primary employment contracts and work where their employers require them to do so, often some distances away from their on-call fire station, essentially rendering them unavailable whilst away. Normally if it was 1 or 2 firefighters this could be absorbed by the remaining crew. Current lifestyles, however, coupled with primary employment requirements, can result in many of the firefighters being away from the local area on a daily basis. Consequently, this can have a direct impact on the availability of the local fire appliance(s). It should be noted that this challenge is not peculiar to NIFRS and the issue of on-call availability is felt by Fire and Rescue Services across the UK.
5.7.3 Data provided to the Inspection Team from NIFRS confirms the challenge around primary employment commitments; however, it also identifies that providing weekend cover is also becoming a challenge. During the inspection, on-call firefighters explained that this was primarily due to the fact that the majority of on-call firefighters had provided their contracted availability through the week and therefore some elected to book off for the weekend with the subsequent impact on appliance availability. For those on-call firefighters remaining who are contracted to provide availability at the weekend, in some cases due to the station crewing profile, there were insufficient numbers purely on a weekend contract to maintain minimum crewing on their own, which in turn impacted on appliance availability.
5.7.4 The data provided is summarised in the tables below, which display the percentage of time on-call appliances have been below minimum crewing for years 2019/20, 2020/21 and 2021/22 across the working day period of Monday to Friday, 0800 to 1800 hours, the evening and night time periods of Monday to Thursday, 1800 to 0800 hours, the weekend period of Friday to Monday, 1800 to 0800 hours and finally an overall figure across the full year. A full breakdown of each year for each station is provided in Appendix D.
|Station Type||Mon – Fri 0800 – 1800||Mon – Thu 1800 – 0800||Fri – Mon 1800 – 0800||Overall|
|2 Pump (1st Pump)||9.6%||0.5%||3.5%||4.4%|
|2 Pump (2nd Pump)||59.9%||11.4%||38.0%||35.7%|
|Day Crewed (1st Pump)||0%||0.4%||3.0%||1.3%|
|Day Crewed (2nd Pump)||6.6%||11.3%||40.6%||20.6%|
|Station Type||Mon – Fri 0800 – 1800||Mon – Thu 1800 – 0800||Fri – Mon 1800 – 0800||Overall|
|2 Pump (1st Pump)||8.8%||0.8%||3.4%||4.1%|
|2 Pump (2nd Pump)||56.0%||13.2%||32.6%||31.5%|
|Day Crewed (1st Pump)||1.8%||0.7%||2.3%||1.6%|
|Day Crewed (2nd Pump)||28.1%||12.3%||34.0%||25.0%|
|Station Type||Mon – Fri 0800 – 1800||Mon – Thu 1800 – 0800||Fri – Mon 1800 – 0800||Overall|
|2 Pump (1st Pump)||14.3%||2.7%||7.5%||7.9%|
|2 Pump (2nd Pump)||63.2%||16.1%||47.1%||42.2%|
|Day Crewed (1st Pump)||2.8%||0.7%||3.4%||2.3%|
|Day Crewed (2nd Pump)||30.9%||15.5%||44.9%||30.9%|
5.7.5 As previously explained, firefighters’ pay and conditions are negotiated at a national level through the NJC. On-call firefighters are paid 10% of the annual salary of a wholetime firefighter with the hourly rate of pay being exactly the same whether wholetime or on-call. The current pay and conditions for on-call firefighters is making it challenging to retain existing personnel and this is also having a detrimental impact on attracting new personnel to the Service, particularly those who can provide good availability and are able to meet the contractual availability needs. This is reflected in the current on-call staffing figures for NIFRS. As of December 2022, the agreed on-call establishment across all locations is 994 personnel with the actual number in post totalling 900 personnel. Of those 900 in post, a total of 133 are currently on long term sick leave (28 days or more), meaning that there are only 767 of the 994 establishment available, i.e. 77% of the on-call workforce. When the staffing levels are combined with the availability challenges of the remaining personnel, it puts significant pressure on the organisation’s ability to maintain a functioning and resilient on-call operational capability across Northern Ireland. It should again be noted that this is not just a challenge for Northern Ireland, so much so that the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has established an On-Call Group to consider how to address the issue.
5.7.6 Over the course of the inspection, each of the 60 on-call locations were visited and engaged by a member of the Inspection Team and on every occasion the crews demonstrated a real commitment and desire to deliver an effective emergency service for their respective communities. There were some common themes that emerged specific to the on-call firefighters and these are detailed below:
- On-call firefighters advised that the organisational expectation and ask of them has become unrealistic and in some cases undeliverable. There is insufficient contact time with the organisation to meet all of the workloads associated with this role. Staff feel that being expected to complete their training, as well other duties, in 2 hours per week at a training night just doesn’t work.
- On-call firefighters feel that their goodwill is exploited and the organisation takes advantage of their desire to provide a service to their respective communities which at times sees them undertake additional work without payment or recompense.
- On-call firefighters routinely reported feeling like second class citizens when compared to their wholetime colleagues. This included the way they were spoken to and treated when attending training events at the LDC as well as how they were treated on the incident ground when attending operational incidents.
- On-call firefighters are both confused and frustrated by the number of different contracts in place across all stations. In some cases, at the same station, firefighters can be on 4 different contracts which is difficult to manage and track and causes bad feeling as people are getting paid the same amount of money for delivering different levels of availability.
- On-call firefighters are frustrated with the operating policy and process for the online availability system (Gartan). There was almost universal support for the system itself, with firefighters understanding the need for the Service to have a ‘live’ picture of appliance availability. However, inconsistency and an unsympathetic application of the availability policy has created a situation where the system doesn’t work when trying to manage availability. On-call staff stated that since the introduction of Gartan in 2014 the actual availability has reduced because firefighters can now book unavailable whenever they want, even if that puts the station below minimum crewing, with no consequence to them individually, so long as they have provided their contracted hours.
- In a number of locations there are on-call firefighters who are dual contract working in a wholetime role for their primary employment but also employed as an on-call firefighter in their local station. Frequently these individuals expressed concern and frustration about the application of the overtime policy and attendance at the 7 safety critical training days for on-call personnel as the Service currently does not permit them to do either.
5.7.7 NIFRS recognises the challenges associated with the on-call service and is attempting to make progress in addressing these. An internal On-call Project has been established. During the course of the inspection, reference to the project was frequently made. Whilst the objectives of the project seem appropriate, the reality is that it is a project with no resource allocated other than a lead officer. The lead officer is committed to delivering change within the on-call sector and has established links with the NFCC and other Services. However, there is a significant capacity issue as they are on their own and also have a function to run on a daily basis. If NIFRS is to deliver the improvements required for the on-call sector then a dedicated and properly resourced project team needs to be established. This team should include people with a current experience of working in an on-call role. In addition, the project itself needs to be commissioned and managed formally through recognised methodologies and overseen at a corporate level.