A recent inspection of Northern Ireland’s fire and rescue service reveals that severe budget cuts and ‘lack of stability’ in the leadership has led to a ‘reductionist’ approach that leaves the service requiring fundamental improvement over the next five years.
His Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate Scotland carried out the review and the 100 page report contains 11 recommendations for change. These include embedding national operational guidance, developing a community risk management plan and for the government in Northern Ireland to publish a Fire Framework to set the strategic direction for the service.
The inspectors found that overall staff are very loyal to the organisation but at the same time staff reported, ‘that they felt undervalued, that their goodwill was continually exploited and that morale within the workforce was at an all-time low.’
Reviewing the culture was not part of the terms of reference but the inspectors said that a review was warranted based on what they observed during their visits.
Northern Ireland does not have its own inspectorate and turned to HMFSI Scotland to carry out the inspection. The Chief Inspector, Robert Scott – formerly Chief Fire Office of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Services – recognises in his foreword to the report, ‘the considerable and continuing instability at a political level, with the Northern Ireland Assembly not sitting for a number of years.’ He adds that as a result there has been limited Ministerial priority and direction setting for NIFRS including the absence of a National Framework document that is common to the other nations of the United Kingdom.
The inspectors looked at IT in the service, reporting that there has been an inadequate investment in technology over many years. They reveal, ‘at every engagement during the inspection, staff raised the issue of the IT system not being reliable or fit for purpose.’ The service does not have an IT strategy and one of the recommendations is to invest in IT although given the financial constraints detailed in this report, this is likely to be limited.
Andy Hearn is the interim Chief Fire Officer. Responding to the publication of the inspection report earlier this month, he said he welcomed and fully accepted the recommendations saying they would enable fundamental improvement over the next five years. He cautioned that the service had faced ‘extremely challenging budgetary environment.’ The level of change required will take time, he added and require political support to be successful.
He thanked his staff for their cooperation with the inspectors, their candour and commitment to change, adding, ‘Our people are our greatest asset.’
He added, ‘The report also acknowledges that many of the issues highlighted are not unique to NIFRS with recent fire sector reports highlighting the need for improvement in modernising reform, training and development, governance, community risk profiling, workforce planning and cultural change. We will use the report’s recommendations and also incorporate relevant national recommendations within the fire sector to create a 5 year NIFRS action plan, which aligned to the required financial support, will help us move forward with a renewed focus and pace.’