Building trust and better morale are keys to improving West Sussex’s fire and rescue service

New firefighting kit is one of the ways West Sussex is seeking to improve things for staff
New firefighting kit is one of the ways West Sussex is seeking to improve things for staff

One hundred days into her post and the chief fire officer of West Sussex is using the most powerful tool in her arsenal to lift the service from the depths of a frankly awful inspection report.

She’s talking to people.

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton took on the top job at West Sussex Fire & Rescue not long after it was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, with two areas found to be ‘inadequate’.

Since then, she has overseen an impressive amount of work, most important of which has been earning the trust of her staff – something that appeared to have been sadly lacking.

With the inspector’s report listing bullying in the workplace among its concerns, the need to earn that trust has been crucial. 

Dr Cohen-Hatton acknowledged that fire services – not just in West Sussex – were hierarchical beasts which made people feel like they had to stick to a set route to raise issues.

This was one of the first things she aimed to change, telling staff to get in touch with her if they felt something was not right. It appears they have been doing just that.

She said: “What I’ve said to them is I want them to feel open, I want them to feel like they can just pick up the phone and speak to me or drop me an email.

“And lots of people have and that’s been really, really good – particularly in a service where I know that trust is an issue.

“We have to build it from the bottom up but we also have to build it from the top down as well. That’s something that I take really seriously.”

The issue of trust was first raised at one of the 26 listening groups held so far to allow staff to share their experiences of working for the fire service.

The findings from those groups will be published in a report to all staff at the same time – no matter how senior or junior – ‘so we get the same feedback, the same results and then together we will do something about it’.

On top of that, the first staff conference was attended by 200 people, with calls for another to be held, while bullying and harassment guidance will be issued to managers this month.

Dr Cohen-Hatton told a county council scrutiny committee that, while a huge amount of work had been done, she knew it would ‘only be effective if people trust in the organisation enough to use those tools. It’s an ongoing process’.

The inspectors are due back later this month for a follow-up visit but Dr Cohen-Hatton is under no illusions that all problems will have been miraculously fixed.

She told the committee: “We are going to see progress but I would like to manage expectations that this will be by no means the finished project in terms of fire and rescue improvement.

“My staff have worked incredibly hard both before I joined the service and since, in terms of addressing some of the improvement areas that we have set out.

“It’s important to me that we’re realistic about our expectations because I won’t have people feeling like they’ve failed because we’re unrealistic about how long things take to fix and how much there is to do to fix it.”

The morale of staff has been only one of the problems facing the fire service – they have an IT system that is older than their chief officer and a continuing need for more money to be pumped into the organisation.

The county council provided £5.1m to help fund the improvement plan and a new IT system is scheduled to come online in April.

On top of that there will be a couple of new fire engines to replace some of the older stock, new uniforms, new radios and West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service badges to help staff regain some of the identity many felt was being lost.

But more money is clearly needed.

Dr Cohen-Hatton said: “Financial investment has been absolutely crucial but I know that’s only going to take us a few steps on the journey and we’ve got many, many more.”

She added: “We’re being very clear about what it is we need to do and what it is we need to be able to do that with.”

Dan Sartin, of Unison, told the scrutiny committee that there had been a ‘cautious so far so good’ from staff in recent months.

He added: “Things are starting to move in the right direction. Staff tell us that things have felt calmer since the acting chief [executive, Lee Harris] took over the helm in October. This was felt right down to the shop floor level.”

Mr Harris kept the chief executive seat warm after the departure of Nathan Elvery, before Becky Shaw took over the running of both East and West Sussex County Council this month.

Looking back at her first 100 days, Dr Cohen-Hatton said: “I’ve met with a group of people who care passionately about the service that they’re part of and who are proud to work for the service as well. 

“What they need is the environment in which they’re able to succeed.

“That’s where I see my job coming into it – to be able to provide them with what they need to be able to do that.

“It’s much broader than the improvement stuff and the structural stuff. This is about how they feel when they come to work.”