Critical inspection report 'hurts' says West Sussex's acting fire chief

Acting chief fire officer for West Sussex Neil Stocker
Acting chief fire officer for West Sussex Neil Stocker

West Sussex's acting fire chief has apologised to any staff who have experienced bullying and harassment but says improvements are already being made in light of a critical report from inspectors.

Neil Stocker, who has served in West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service for the best part of three decades, said the conclusions from inspectors 'hurt' but he was determined to make the changes needed.

Overall the service was rated ‘requires improvement’, but two areas – ‘protecting the public through fire regulation’ and ‘ensuring fairness and promoting diversity’ – were found to be ‘inadequate’.

Inspectors, who visited in November, also said they had met staff ‘who told us they had been bullied because of their gender or race’ in their report released today (Thursday June 20).

Mr Stocker, who is acting chief fire officer, described how many of the findings were not a surprise as the challenges facing the service had been identified in last year's Integrated Risk Management Plan, with an improvement plan already looking to address these.

However he felt the report 'put some of these areas across in a harsher tone' for some of the staff.

He said: "Can I apologise to all of our staff if they have every experienced harassment or bullying. There's no place for that in the organisation."

He described how they would be hiring an equalities and inclusion officer and are bringing in an independent company to come in and speak and listen to staff about what they are thinking and feeling about behaviours within the service. They will also be working with the youth cabinet so they can understand more about younger people coming into the public sector and what they can do to attract them into the service.

He said: "It's the best job in the world and I'm really upset this has formed part of the report and I will do everything I can to change that moving forward."

Lib Dem group leader James Walsh has suggested morale is at an 'all time low' within West Sussex's fire and rescue service.

But Mr Stocker said that while morale was definitely not at an all-time high he did not feel it was at an all-time low, but admitted there were 'frustrations' within the service relating to national pay agreements and pensions, which were having an effect.

The service has had to cut its number of fire engines and millions of pounds from its budget over the last decade.

But after challenges and the need to modernise were identified in the IRMP West Sussex County Council has started to invest in new technology to make sure the service's IT is fit for purpose.

After a debrief by inspectors in November, the council made £400,000 available to address the immediate areas of concern.

An improvement plan was then produced to give to inspectors in February, who were pleased to see national guidance around a risk-based inspection programme had been adopted.

Now all West Sussex buildings needing to be under a fire safety order have been identified, with 21,403 that would potentially need to be inspected. There are 1,533 buildings that the service needs to inspect over a two year or three-year period.

Post-Grenfell the priority has been to focus on high-rise buildings, but private resource is now being brought in to 'get back to where we should be', Mr Stocker said, while new inspection officers would also be recruited.

Meanwhile a backlog of safe and well visits has now been cleared and they are recruiting three specialist high risk safe and well assistants as well as bring in two dedicated trainers to make sure response staff can assist in medium and low visits.

Mr Stocker said; "That's why I'm assured that we will be given the resources to do what we need to do. In the improvement plan that we are going to publish you will see articulated the resource requirements we need not only to achieve the improvement plan moving forwards and the project support but actually what new resource we need to make that sustainable. I'm reassured we will get that support."

He described how when it came to emergency response standards this was one area where West Sussex was 'doing well'. Significant capital investment over the last four years was also ensuring firefighters have the right equipment to respond to emergencies.

While some parts of the county have 'buoyant' levels of retained firefighter availability, other areas were doing less well, with difficulties in recruiting and then retaining. This is a national problem and Mr Stocker felt a mature country-wide debate needed to take place around part-time retained staff who he called the 'stars of our community'.

Mr Stocker concluded: "I'm absolutely proud that we have a set of fantastic set of staff not only firefighters and their commanders but an absolutely fantastic set of support staff that make sure 24 hours a day 365 days a year we can get those fire engines out, we can get out into the community and look after those vulnerable people."

He added: "I would like to reassure residents that yes we take on what the report says. We are already identified many of these areas. We already have the support to improve, but most importantly we are there for them 24/7 365 come rain or shine whether it's their emergency they need us for or whether it's a vulnerable member of their family they need assistance with."