4 Assessment of case study evidence against the aims of reform for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
4.1 Aim 1: To protect and improve local services despite financial cuts
The evidence reviewed in the Year 1 report suggested that SFRS had made significant progress in rationalising service provision while maintaining operational service delivery. As part of a programme of work to ensure there is alignment between the distribution of assets and demand, SFRS representatives emphasised how there had been strategic investment in localities which had fewer resources under legacy arrangements. But the report also highlighted a number of on-going challenges, particularly in relation to the rationalisation of estate, falling numbers of civilian/support staff, and the complexity of tackling duplication due to differences in 'back office' business processes.
4.1.2 Key findings from case studies
There was clear evidence in each of the 4 case study areas that firefighters, councillors, community groups, council staff and the general public perceived that the level of local service had been maintained since reform. However, firefighters did report feeling stretched as a result of declining numbers of administrative staff and had concerns regarding the centralisation of support services, poor IT and their ability to access some equipment.
There was a strong consensus across all 4 areas and between firefighters, councillors, council staff, community groups and the public that there had been relatively little perception of change in the level of service provided in local areas since reform. The public in particular continued to view the fire service as an organisation, and the individuals working within it, in very positive terms. Firefighters also mentioned positively the less visible but important activity that had gone to standardise equipment and protocols across Scotland, and the additional work they now do to attend ambulance related calls. However, there were some concerns expressed in those areas that were relatively well-resourced under legacy arrangements that they had seen a diminution in resourcing as a result of attempts to better align resource deployment to local needs and that changes in crewing practices to achieve consistency across the country had reduced the number of firefighters allocated to some appliances.
In all 4 areas some national level decisions were perceived as creating local challenges. Reductions in the number of administrative staff, for example, were viewed as increasing workloads and middle managers reported having less time for partnership working, managing their crew and delivering training. Decisions regarding the centralisation of support functions were also seen as increasing levels of bureaucracy in accessing support or equipment compared with legacy arrangements  .
The poor provision of IT in local areas was of particular concern, especially for retained firefighters in rural areas, who made reference to 'dated' systems, poor network performance and a lack of computers  :
'I do quite a bit of my work from home. I have no access to the intranet from home. Retained staff, we just don't… Therefore I can't access our standard operating procedures. I can't access probably half the information that I need to from home' (Area C - firefighter)
There were more mixed views about IT support. Having access to a single national number to access support was seen positively but the amount of time spent waiting for help was a source of frustration. There were also mixed views about access to and standard of equipment in each of the 4 areas. In one of the rural areas there was a very positive assessment about the standard of new equipment:
'…there's standardisation of things which is going to be very positive. So we have new Breathing Apparatus sets, you know?, and they're a higher standard than we had before, and I think the fact that it is being delivered as a national project makes a lot of sense, but I think it will make us safer within our working environment' (Area C - firefighter)
In the other urban and rural areas, by contrast, concerns were raised about a reduction in the number of appliances since reform, ageing and unreliable equipment and the length of time it takes for equipment to be repaired.
4.2 Aim 2: To create more equal access to specialist support and national capacity
The Year 1 report indicated that there was relatively detailed documentary evidence regarding the establishment and functioning of arrangements to access specialist expertise and national capacity. SFRS and HMFSI had both developed a detailed picture of variation in equipment, skills and capacity across Scotland and have made progress in better aligning resources with need. The examples of the Clutha Bar helicopter tragedy and the widespread flooding of 2015 were both cited as strong examples of faster and more effective deployment of specialist expertise than would have been possible under legacy arrangements. There had also been progress with the standardisation of procedures and equipment and the creation of national databases. Moving forward there were on-going challenges for SFRS about the most equitable and appropriate geographical location of assets due to the variable risk profiles of different areas and the changing demands on the service as a whole.
4.2.2 Key findings from the case studies
Across the 4 case study areas, firefighters generally had positive experiences of being able to access specialist support and national capacity. However, some concerns were expressed regarding the logistics of engaging specialist teams and the risks of de-skilling local firefighters because of a reliance on specialists from out with their areas.
The process of creating equal access to specialist support and national capacity was generally viewed very positively in all the case study areas. Knowledge of what specialist equipment exists across Scotland had been enhanced and access had improved because there were now groups of trained specialists who can be deployed locally, whereas pre-reform, a local area might not have had the necessary expertise to deal with a complex incident. The only critical observations were about the logistics of moving specialists around the country and the time it might take to reach rural locations; and, as in policing, a concern about the de-skilling of some local officers as they become more reliant on specialists from out with their area.
Due to this concern about the logistics as well as the perceived stretching of resources within specialised teams, there were some anxieties about accessing support if multiple incidents were to occur across Scotland. There was also a view in one of the rural areas that specialist equipment was not always located in the most accessible places and the length of time taken to resolve where some equipment will be based in future was a source of concern.
The Year 1 report highlighted areas of good practice where major incidents had occurred and the specialist support response had been viewed positively nationally. On a local level however, the redistribution of resources had led to some areas that previously had access to specialist equipment locally now experiencing delays to obtain specialist resources during major incidents. This was raised as a particular concern in an urban area where the perception was that the response to a major incident involved delays in receiving assistance from specialist teams which under legacy arrangements would have been available to them locally.
The availability of specialist training for local firefighters raised an issue in each of the case study areas. A lack of training was viewed as leading to local firefighters feeling de-skilled:
'If it's a fire call it's your normal job and that's fine! You're on an even keel but if its water rescue you're just kind of there for the ride. It seems a waste because you've got an extra pair of hands and you certainly get put to work, you have something to do, either to carry stuff, or help as best you can but you've got no idea what you're doing! It's not a great feeling that because you kind of think sorry! You feel apologetic and as if you're in the way.' (Area B - firefighter)
In the rural areas, accessing specialist training was seen as a barrier to developing skills, due to a perceived lack of trainers in the area. However, in the retained fire station although accessing training was viewed as a challenge, being able to draw on expertise from outside their area was seen positively. There was also a recognition that it was not necessary for all retained firefighters to receive specialist training and it should be on a 'need to know basis'. For the urban areas however, the firefighters stated that being trained in some basic skills to help support specialist teams would ensure they are usefully deployed at incidents. Despite these concerns, there was also a degree of understanding that the service is still going through a 'harmonisation' period and that having a fully developed national training programme would take time.
4.3 Aim 3: To strengthen the connection between services and the communities they serve
In the Year 1 report there was positive evidence presented about the formation of new structures for local engagement, particularly with Community Planning Partnerships and local scrutiny committees. The appointment of Local Senior Officers had provided a focus for engagement with CPPs, formulation of Local Outcome Agreements, engagement with local stakeholders. The report also highlighted the clear shift towards a prevention agenda in terms of local engagement and partnership working. In terms of on-going challenges, there were concerns that budgetary pressures on all services might impede greater collaborative working and lead to organisations focusing on what they see as their core business.
4.3.2 Key findings from the case studies
In all the case study areas firefighters, councillors, council staff, community organisations and the general public identify the contribution that fire and rescue make to community well-being and how prevention was now a key part of the firefighter's role. Partnership working was also viewed very positively by all groups in each case study area but with scope for improvement around data sharing, communication and retaining informal networks in rural areas.
Across all 4 case study areas there was a very positive picture of community engagement activities undertaken by SFRS via visits, talks and presence at community events. In both urban and rural areas the general public viewed SFRS positively:
'They don't just do their job they go beyond that with care within the community' (Area D - public focus group)
The general public in each of the areas described having respect for the job firefighters do and had confidence that they would respond quickly in an emergency. Despite now being a national service, it was generally felt that they had not lost their localism and firefighters, the general public, council staff, councillors and community organisations could all give numerous examples of the service engaging with the community, including home safety visits, community events, and visits to schools. Central to much of this activity was advice about prevention and this was recognised and accepted as a core part of their role. Firefighters, councillors, council workers, community groups and the general public all recognised the preventative role SFRS are playing in the community and viewed this positively.
In some of the areas, however, it was recognised that there remained hard to reach groups, such as those from BME communities and those with drug and alcohol dependency where more work needed to be done. There were also some suggestions for improving community engagement activities by appointing Community Safety Advocates and provide skills training in effective communication.
In terms of partnership working, there was also a positive assessment of relationships and activities both from those in SFRS and those in the community. In each of the case study areas good working relationships with the fire and rescue service were identified by councillors, council workers and community organisations as well as the existence of good lines of communication to more senior firefighters. On the whole, firefighters, councillors and council staff viewed Community Planning Partnerships as important facilitators of joint working as was the co-location of agencies which existed in one of the case study sites. Although in one of the urban areas there was little reported contact between firefighters and councillors, the councillors' still viewed the fire service positively and did not feel their relationship had changed since reform.
There were examples in all the case study areas of strong partnership working. One of the areas was a pilot for responding to out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and although there was some concern about attending incidents they had not been fully trained for, on the whole, involvement in the pilot and the joint working with the ambulance service was viewed positively by the firefighters.
In all areas there was also recognition of the scope for improvement in partnership working. In both urban and rural areas data sharing between agencies was identified as a challenge and there was a perception among some firefighters that other agencies were sometimes unwilling to share information with SFRS. There was also a view that incompatible IT systems were making data sharing challenging.
There was a consistent view among firefighters that internal communication within SFRS of the outcomes of partnership working could be improved, given that it is typically more senior officers that participated in meetings so that local firefighters were less aware of what was decided. There was also a frustration expressed by firefighters that they were not always informed about the outcome of joint working, which they felt would be important for learning about what worked well and what did not work well. Indeed, in one of the urban areas there was a view that scaling up local examples of positive partnership working and disseminating them across the national service would benefit future partnership working across the country. A further impact of reform in rural areas was that firefighters felt there had been in a reduction in informal networking due to cuts in staffing. Before reform, the station manager in particular would have informally met with community representatives, rather than using formal structures such as meetings, which were felt to be more appropriate for urban settings. However, due to more demands on their time, they felt unable to have frequent informal interactions with community representatives. However, this view was not shared by councillors or council staff in rural areas who were satisfied with their interactions with the SFRS.
4.4 A changing working environment: The wider impacts and implications of reform for local firefighters
In addition to providing insights into the progress towards achieving the three aims of reform, the local case studies have also provided important information on the wider impacts and implications of reform for the working environment of firefighters. This is important because having insights into the nature of the local organisational context in which new initiatives will land should help SFRS as it moves from the 'integration' to 'transformation' phases of reform.
4.4.1 Internal communication
In all case study areas it was identified that there had been challenges in relation to communication since becoming a single service. In both urban and rural areas, firefighters described pre-reform lines of communication as short and quick but now perceived it took longer to find out information and it was not always clear who should be contacted. As a result, firefighters often described being passed between several people over the phone until they reached the appropriate person. One suggestion for improvement was for a designated person in each of the centralised departments, such as finance or IT, to be responsible for a particular area. This could ensure that firefighters from local areas would have a specific contact person rather than having to speak to a new person every time they tried to resolve an issue:
'So there are is an issue...again it's just because of the size, I think because of the size and the lack of communication people don't know who to speak to. And I think that the communication is probably one of the bigger issues within a big service' (Area A - firefighter)
The volume of communication was also identified as having changed in all areas since reform. Firefighters experienced a lot of information being 'pushed out' to local areas instead of allowing them to 'pull it down' and access specific information when they needed it. Firefighters also complained about the volume of emails they were receiving regarding training and new policies, leading them to spend a lot of time at their computers. Asked about what type of information they would like to receive, firefighters highlighted examples of successful local initiatives and best practice which could help them decide whether to implement these locally. There was also feeling that they were not working as a single service yet but were still operating regionally to some extent.
In addition, firefighters would appreciate more authentic communication from senior management. There was a perception that communication from senior management always focused on the positives but they would like to know about the impact reform is having on their colleagues and what management was doing to improve areas where problems have been identified.
However, there was a view that prior to reform firefighters felt that they could communicate with any rank; this was no longer perceived to be the case and the organisation was viewed as more hierarchical and that firefighters would only communicate with their line managers:
'It feels a lot more distant than it did and it already felt quite distant from the upper echelons of the management to now it feels like a different stratosphere that we're in now. So you just...very very disconnected I suppose' (Area B - firefighter)
In relation to targets, there was a view that the single fire and rescue service was more target-driven than its regional predecessors:
'…with the introduction of the new service… it certainly seems to be more target driven, we need bigger numbers, we've got to get... it seems to have driven very much more towards a corporate working process' (Area B - firefighter)
There were mixed views on the use of targets in the service. One view was that there was a sense of frustration expressed with this approach, with a view that a targets-based method of performance management may not provide the most appropriate measure to review how effectively the fire and rescue service was carrying out its role. However, for other firefighters the targets-based approach in relation to performance management represented an improvement on the system in place prior to reform, enabling senior members of staff to provide firefighters with a clear structure of what was expected and to hold firefighters to account. One criticism of targets was that they underestimated the complexity of the work carried out by the service, particularly as it adapts to include new areas of activity around prevention.
4.4.2 Training and career development
There were different views about the level of training available. Some firefighters felt that there was less training available since reform, that the training was less thorough and they were critical of the standardised approach and the use of online modules. Specifically firefighters mentioned that there were currently less training opportunities to become qualified in using specific pieces of equipment and some of the training was not available locally. This means that those firefighters who were qualified in using the equipment needed to use it all the time, and could become de-skilled in the use of other equipment. However, others reported that the level of training available since reform was good, that the standardised nature of training had improved in some rural areas and that it was positive that the online courses were completed by both whole time and retained firefighters:
'… So you know every single station is doing the same training right at the same time, and that's very good. Very good. So…yeah. So training is superb.' (Area C - firefighter)
In the former Strathclyde region there were particularly negative views expressed about first aid training. Firefighters in this area were now expected to assist the ambulance service and sometimes were the first on the scene ahead of the ambulance service. There was a feeling that first aid training had been less thorough since reform and the course was not to the same standard as previously. This had a negative impact on firefighters' confidence in dealing with medical emergencies. However, in another area, firefighters were positive about the cardiac arrest training they were receiving where it was being delivered by the fire and rescue service in partnership with the ambulance service:
'If we do turn up to something and we are having to wait for an ambulance to come I think there will be a lot of guys who will be a bit nervous and a bit right...I can kind of remember some of this stuff as opposed to being constantly trained on it and refreshed and qualified, and being more confident with it.' (Area B - fire fighter)
In rural areas it was felt that the current weekly 2.5 hour training for retained firefighters was too short to cover everything which was expected of firefighters. There was also concern that retained firefighters mostly benefited from the training delivered at the local station and did not have opportunities to go to the national training centre, at which a lot of the courses were offered to whole time staff.
Positive views were expressed by the whole time staff about having a national centre for training as this was felt to have helped standardise the training for everyone across Scotland. The fact that firefighters from across the country can now attend courses in the same location was seen to facilitate learning from others and drew on the skills from across different regions. Although many courses were delivered nationally, there was a view that there was still scope to deliver courses at a local level. There was also a view that training facilities had improved since the reform.
In regards to delivering training locally, firefighters at one rural station with retained firefighters felt that the number of trainers in the area had not increased sufficiently since the reform. This had an impact on middle managers who were in charge of delivering the training to retained staff, which has also had an impact on their workloads. Middle managers expressed a view that there should be a trained department member of staff delivering the training:
'So if an accident happens, the expectation is exactly the same, then the support should be the same if not better for those in more remote rural areas with less exposure to training and resources' (Area C - firefighter)
There were mixed views expressed regarding prospects for career progression within the national service. Whilst some firefighters felt that there were increased opportunities for career advancement, others pointed to a perceived reduction in opportunities for promotion and progression since reform. One reason given for why there were more career opportunities was the ability to take up opportunities across Scotland:
'…now that we're one service its opened up the whole of the country where you can travel about and take up opportunities that arise elsewhere… since reform the barriers between fire services has lifted, so we're one!' (Area C - firefighter)
However, a number of barriers to career progression were also identified which had resulted from the creation of the national service. There was a perception that at the same time as firefighters from across Scotland were being enabled to apply for roles nationally, fewer roles were being created, meaning 'more people going for less jobs'. In addition, the perceived reduction in the number of different ranks and roles within the fire service were seen as contributing to fewer promotion opportunities being available.
As a result, career progression opportunities for firefighters with family ties were viewed as particularly limited within the single service. There was a perception that opportunities within the local area were often filled by people coming from other areas. One view was that despite the limited nature of local opportunities for career progression, firefighters were not offered any incentive or financial assistance to move elsewhere to fulfil a new role or develop their careers.
There was also criticism of the lack of a single system for promotion across the organisation, the continued use of interim promotion systems three years after reform and the level of temporary positions, leading to a degree of uncertainty amongst staff in relation to their career development:
'… [The national service] inherited 8 different recruitment and promotion systems. They're running interim promotion systems at the moment, we're 3 years in and they haven't got a set promotion system' (Area C - firefighter)
4.4.3 Firefighter morale, retention and well-being
It was felt that the aims of reform had not been communicated to the local stations effectively by senior managers. This was viewed as impacting on morale, as there were a number of changes taking place, including staffing and shift patterns, but firefighters had little understanding of why the changes were happening. This was also viewed as creating uncertainty and concern about whether there will be any station closures. Firefighters also felt that senior managers do not always appreciate the impact of wider decisions on firefighters, for example, the change in the pension scheme  .
There was a perception that due to increased pressure in the firefighter roles, sickness levels had increased. In areas with retained firefighters there was a suggestion that the pressure in the fire service, such as receiving calls when not on shift, was affecting mental health.
Morale was viewed as being low in all the areas, and in some areas it was identified that firefighters were starting to leave after only a few years in the service, something which would have been unusual previously. There was a perception that firefighters are leaving the service due to increased stress in the job. This was seen as having an increased financial burden as the service has to recruit and train new firefighters more frequently.