“We are 100 per cent behind you and any way we can help you we will” was the message to the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service when it laid out its improvement plan to county councillors.
The service was recently on the receiving end of a highly critical report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, which rated it requires improvement in some areas and inadequate in others.
Now a 12-person improvement board, chaired by the county council’s chief executive Nathan Elvery and including acting chief fire officer Neil Stocker, has been set up to start bringing things up to scratch before the inspectors return in September.
At a meeting of the council’s environment, communities & fire select committee on Wednesday, members discussed the issue at length, speaking with fire officers and union representatives about the problems raised and an extensive list of work being put in place.
The county has already provided £380k per year to help kick-start a three-year improvement plan between now and 2021/22 and the committee was given details of the money which would be needed to deliver it – a total of £4,099,496.
Leader Louise Goldsmith assured members that money would be available.
She said: “We will put the money in because one of the things we have done is put money in savings for the rainy days. Unfortunately it’s raining today.
“That does mean, because we’ve been prudent, we can invest – and we will invest – in the service to get it right and ensure that the staff are well supported.
“I want to reassure everyone of the commitment and determination is very much there and will be backed by money and by action.”
Mr Elvery said: “When the inspectors come back in September, we have to demonstrate to them with confidence that we can improve that service. And of course we will.”
Mr Stocker told the meeting that the fire service last underwent a full HMI inspection in 1998 when it was known as West Sussex Fire Brigade, and this latest one was ‘long overdue’.
Talking members through the 10-point improvement plan, he said the service would need the help of all members ‘to get beyond good and on to outstanding’.
Looking at some of the issues raised by inspectors, Mr Stocker told the meeting that the backlog of more than 500 ‘safe and well’ visits had now been cleared, an education programme relating to bullying and harassment was being brought in, and a business case and funding to improve the out of date IT system had been approved.
The committee came up with eight points for Debbie Kennard, the cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, to consider.
They included the need to set up a separate scrutiny board to focus solely on fire issues, the need to involve unions in the improvement plan and future development of the fire service, and the need for the plan to be adequately resourced in the short and long term.
Some members had concerns about Mr Elvery being named chairman of the improvement board.
While committee chairman Andrew Barrett-Miles felt it was appropriate because Mr Elvery was the line manager of the fire service, he agreed the matter needed to be looked into further.
He also asked for the fire service to present a progress report to the committee in the autumn, before the inspectors returned.
Mr Barrett-Miles told Mr Stocker and his team: “We look to support you in what you’re doing and we continue to appreciate it as members of the public.
“We are behind you 100 per cent and any way we can help we will.”