A lack of firefighters, engines and funding have been partly blamed by inspectors for leaving the fire service in charge of Northamptonshire in need of improvement.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has judged that Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service ‘requires improvement’ at effectively keeping the public - and its staff - safe, in a report released today.
Its author echoed union concerns from recent years that a 'financial straightjacket' placed on the service was hampering its emergency response capability.
The fire service needs at least 14 fire engines available at any one time. However, the inspectors found that, over a short period in November, there were 'far fewer available engines than this', which they said was having a 'clear knock-on effect on response capability'.
Last year, the Chronicle & Echo also reported how the firefighters' union - the FBU - had real concerns of Northamptonshire's ability to cope when on-shift staff call in sick.
This was also echoed in the report by HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Zoe Billingham.
She said: "We identified several problems with the service’s approach to workforce management.
"Although it takes staff wellbeing seriously, it does not have a workforce plan in place to deal with absences. This is a consequence of having too few staff available."
The inspection was carried out during November last year, and a progress report was obtained by the inspectorate just last week. Both visits pay tribute to the dedication of the service staff.
Mrs Billignham says the service is going through a 'time of upheaval and challenge' having recently transferred governance from the county council to the police, fire and crime commissioner Stephen Mold.
But she said the second, June inspection, showed the county's fire service was beginning to make improvements.
Chief Fire officer Darren Dovey, said: "We welcome this report from HMICFRS which has helped us scrutinise areas for improvement in our work to help keep the public safe.
“We are delighted the inspectors who revisited last week were impressed with the significant improvements we have made since their initial report, which stemmed from a visit last year while we were still governed by Northamptonshire County Council (NCC).
“We want the public to feel reassured we have listened to what the inspectors have said and, as such, earlier in the year we put in place an action plan to target areas for improvement.
“One area we have specifically targeted is that of the daytime availability of some fire engines in the county. We have now created a bank of available staff, which has given us the flexibility to send firefighters to stations that may require particular skills or expertise such as driving or command skills, increasing their availability to respond."
Mr Dovey added that "Given the financial pressures faced by NCC (Northamptonshire County Council), it was perhaps inevitable that prolonged funding constraints created challenges in certain areas of our delivery."