Update on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s planning and preparedness for COVID-19
Findings – organisational learning and opportunities
The organisation has had to adapt to the quick changing operating environment that has emerged during the C-19 pandemic and recognises the need to be agile and prompt in its decision making. The benefits of streamlined bureaucracy and speed of decision making has been acknowledged at many levels.
Commanders and managers are keen to maintain this agility, although are cognisant of the need to maintain proper accountability and scrutiny.
It was identified there were times when the SFRS commanders were unclear or unable to commit the SFRS resources when working with partners within Local Resilience Partnerships (LRPs), many needing to escalate to a higher level of authority, although there were no detrimental impacts reported, the potential does exist.
The SFRS should ensure there is clear decision making and authority to commit resources with those representing the Service.
As with other public bodies forced to restrict its workforce from operating normally, the SFRS has been quick to have non-station based staff work from home (WFH). The speed in which it has been able to adopt WFH is very positive, as is its ability to procure technology/devices to assist home working. This is recognised by Representative Bodies as a positive contribution to reducing staff disruption. We are advised that WFH and greater work flexibility will be included in future documents of the SFRS HR plans.
The WFH arrangements need to be evaluated as it is too early to be assured of the longer term consequences of this new way of working.
Not all staff in the SFRS have been able to WFH, operational whole-time fire crews have been working from fire and rescue stations, and we were pleased to see a number of arrangements adopted that are designed to reduce the risk of contamination and spread of the virus in the workplace.
The three OC sites (Edinburgh, Johnstone and Dundee) were recognised early as a significant point of failure and management were quick to make these workspaces sterile areas. The result is that there has been limited impact to the functionality of the emergency call management arrangements in the SFRS.
Fire and rescue stations have been working to ensure they are C-19 secure. The complexities of the 24 hours duty systems is such that it is extremely difficult to have completely C-19 safe spaces. The need to respond to emergency incidents has meant the risk control measures are often unable to be implemented as desired. Unfortunately, a number of staff on fire and rescue stations have been tested positive for C-19 or have been affected by Test and Protect. The need to self-isolate has at times impacted the whole station leading to appliances being unavailable. Management has utilised the appliance withdrawal policy to manage and minimise the impact of the down time. The withdrawal of appliance policy plans for the loss of appliances down through 4 tiers of attrition to a minimum 30% level.
During the early stages of the pandemic, it was reported that protective equipment was in short supply. This was not unique to the SFRS. We are aware that the original planning assumptions to hold 3 months stock of protective equipment has been reviewed and the SFRS will now be storing 6 months stock of some supplies.
All staff groups are well supported with a range of occupational and mental health provisions. We received no negative comments from Representative Bodies on welfare arrangements, however we understand that there are different levels of anxiety across the various staff groups.
Service wide communications was initially very challenging with messages being amended daily. The volume of information being disseminated has led to many staff raising concerns of information overload and fatigue. The rapidly changing environment meant it was difficult to ensure consistency of early messages, this may have impacted upon staff confidence and personal vulnerabilities about their security and safety. It has been universally recognised that the introduction of task cards reduced the volume of information and gave managers a consistent set of priorities leading to less variance in decision making. The CFO Blogs were also mentioned as providing assurance, information and engagement.
Training and exercising has been significantly affected by C-19. Training is restricted to risk critical areas of business and multi-agency training beyond virtual training has ceased. The use of remote training/learning is being used but it acknowledged that most staff benefit from practical and where possible ‘real environment’ training. The SFRS recognises that skill fade is inevitable and will impact on RDS/Volunteers and specialist staff more than whole-time staff.
The SFRS should ensure a training needs analysis of all areas of training is undertaken, and that a plan is developed to ensure specialist skills such as water rescue and rope rescue is in place to prevent long term risk to staff and communities.