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RDS Staffing Shorfalls

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Finding myself on yet another all-day detachment to a sleepy retained station, i’m interested to hear what solutions different services have to cover staffing shortfalls at RDS stations?

Our brigade, like many, is facing a constant battle to keep retained pumps on the run and despite year-round RDS recruitment, multiple training courses per year and the limited introduction of RDS Support Officers, almost every day (and some nights) there is a WT pump(s) being knocked off the run to detach their crews to RDS stations.

As a probationer on a 1 WT pump station, I’m now spending more time detached than riding my own pump, missing fire calls and training as a result and it’s getting to the point where I’m starting to consider other options.

So, I’m all ears to hear if and how other services are addressing this problem?

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If there is a significant gap in coverage due to a number of retained stations being unavailable, we will normally have the WT pumps being sent to standby at key retained stations for the duration of the shift, or until enough retained appliances become available again. These WT pumps are normally from one of the several two pump stations. Occasionally a retained pump from one area will be sent to standby instead! It really throws a spanner in the works when you have lots planned for your shift, then having one pump being sent to sit on a tiny station in a sleepy town that quite rightly doesn't justify a WT crew. 

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And here lies the problem with RDS/On Call and its often direct conflict with modern life. I am sure you are aware, but a general history lesson... A long long time ago when the world was a more genteel and slower place to live, smaller towns and villages had their own Fire Station crewed by locals who primarily helped to protect their local community from fires and respond to other emergencies, occasionally venturing into nearby smaller towns and villages to mutually assist. This Retained version of Firefighting history is probably the purest and most altruistic form of our vocation there has ever been. These people were mainly born, raised, schooled, socialised, worked, wed, raised families of their own, grew old and eventually died all within the very same footprint. 'Commuting' to work was on a bike or bus and by and large even this was not very far if at all, commuting daily long distances to work and back was unheard of. In TV speak, few people even had a telly before our well loved and much missed Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953, let alone one with 100s of channels... yet when the maroon went up or the bell rang, people ran up the path to the Fire Station to answer the call, with usually the first to arrive at the Fire Station being the ones on the pump. This by and large went unchanged for five decades except for 'modern' technology replacing the bells and maroons. With the car becoming ever more attainable for the hoi polloi, this allowed people to venture further afield to work and this they did in droves - in the dark days of the early 1980's it was actually a Government encouraged and promoted practice with Norman Tebbits famous 'Get on your bike' diktat for people to go and find work, albeit meaning venturing further afield by any means. This work revolution was the first blow to the long term sustainability of RDS/On Call, especially in the day time, with the very same smaller towns and villages largely becoming dormitory in purpose.

Nothing can stop time, my face and body would welcome it, but sadly nobody can do anything about it - the Fire and Rescue Service included. As yet more years went by, new pressures and challenges have presented themselves which historically were not an issue when people lived and worked within the same place - these quieter nice towns and villages are often far enough away from a large major conurbation, yet still close enough to it for a daily commute which empties them of their available labour, again due to the car and travelling distance to work people are willing to make. What this has done to the property prices in those nice places is reversed their historic appeal - being far from a major hive of activity and services was once a major draw back and house prices were lower to reflect this. Again, the car turned this on its head - these houses, close enough to commute but far enough well removed, have dealt RDS/On Call its second blow, house prices! namely that with retained there are only so many properties that lie within a certain footprint that can realistically service the response time to the Fire Station which many people can now not simply afford. Lets not forget, that any RDS/On Call Firefighter who covers nights and weekends at least, supports a Fire Services response model by way of an extremely costly house purchase. In some of these areas, it is evident that those who can and do afford them, are not going to sacrifice and disrupt their precious time/family time for a few hundred pounds per month!.

The third blow to the long term sustainability and viability of the RDS/On Call premise per se is 'increased scope'. Historically the Fire Station, served by locals who would drop everything at work or at home to rush up the path, did so turning out to emergencies within the town itself. Not anymore. To Fire and Rescue Services who have sought to limit everyone from potentially turning up and needing to be paid, with 5 going to the job and the rest getting an attendance fee, they have 'leaned' this down to On Call so only those on duty that particular hour will go. Nice in theory, but this again limits resilience when it wasn't a strong point before. Added to this is the 'mission creep' of no longer just turning out within the parish boundary of times previous that employers were used to and 'could swallow' due to a shared general appreciation of the greater good for the community, which they themselves were part of. The 'modern' FRS world wants sweat for its money and this now see's RDS/On Call pumps being mobilised to incidents, standing by etc. miles away from where they are based with an obvious impact on employers of primary employment and families to which not many FRS considered or consider now. Employers and families who were once happy for their staff or loved one to help out with the need being local, are now not so when its towns away... and who can blame them?

The fourth blow, recruitment and retention is a crippling reality of FRS who utilise this model. The cost of recruiting, training and fitting out an employee, only for them to find that due to the previous three points above the post becomes unattractive, is why we see lots of RDS/On Call struggle - its looks great on paper, for some is definitely a great way to volunteer their time, but once the persons priorities change through their choice or someone else's it is often no longer a viable option after a short while and they leave... and then the cycle continues which is extremely costly and frustrating.. and repeat which leaves huge establishment holes while replacements are recruited and trained hence why pumps are of the run for considerable amounts of time.

The fifth and final blow, our old friend called 'elf and safety'! There is simply not a cat in hells chance that an RDS/On Call unit can maintain the same skills and competencies expected of their full time colleagues by attending a weekly drill night, much of which is spent on admin, routines etc. so not the three hours attributed to training - there just isn't! In a world where there has already been criminal prosecutions of FRS staff and two very high profile public enquiries that have ripped individual and services apart, the potential for judicial scrutiny of maintenance of competence means that there has to be an equipment, skills and function review of the whole RDS/On Call premise nationally in order that it remains in some way shape or form, but as can be seen by the woefully disconnected from reality report from Sir Ken Knight, whilst I am sure that it sounds a great idea to 'increase On Call establishment by 30%'... the stark reality is that 'life' and modern times simply are a masive barrier to that...

‘The challenge for all fire and rescue authorities in new reduced-demand environment is to fully consider how they make best use of On-Call staff’

Highlighting the potential for increasing the On-Call establishment by 10% to 40% of the total workforce, which if implemented would see saving of up to £123 million per year. For our part, if savings can be made, then a proportion of the savings need to be re-invested into the On-Call provision.

As expected some argued that RDS availability is the main difficulty to which he responded that innovation in attracting recruits, advertising and promoting the RDS at service level would assist on this issue. Something which we have been strongly arguing in favour of in the past when previous reviews have taken place.

On a final note...

I have managed two On Call units tagged on to the primary large wholetime Fire Station in the Borough, so I can at least say this from first hand experience, as is my first hand experience and acknowledgement of the absolute dedication and sacrifices made by the RDS/On Call crews throughout the UK.

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I think Percy has covered just about all the challenges in providing the RDS / On Call Service and Firefox most of the moves to maintain cover. 

What I would be concerned with though from your own point of view, is a probationary firefighter being constantly sent out. As you have already said you're missing out on training and experience gained from attending calls. With no disrespect to you, I'd also be concerned with how much a probationary firefighter can bring to the station you're being sent to, you can't drive, take charge or be BA team leader.

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No disrespect taken @Keith, I couldn’t agree with you more!
My WM and CM do try and keep me with the crew where possible for those exact reasons, but that all goes out the window on days, like today, where our crew of 4 is split to keep 3 retained pumps on at 3 different stations. 🤯

(Side note: my service does allow probationers to ride as team leader once we’ve passed an assessment. Not something many of us agree with, but that’s the state of play these days)

Out of interest, what is RDS cover like over in NI? NIFRS is the only service I’ve seen that only recruits for specific retained stations, suggesting that the others are at full establishment, or is that not the case?

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It's the same as everywhere else @C_Iain. Not necessarily the case with the RDS recruitment. As with everything it's down to the available budget at the time. Sometimes it will be for those that are most in need, others that always have difficulty recruiting and more often than not it will be based on figures at that particular time. However, by the time the recruitment takes place other stations will need people. They will then go to the top of the list for the next time and the cycle repeats.

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@KeithHow about the budget in NI mate?

I attended a meeting with a senior officer at your Lisburn HQ not long after Grenfell who said then that the lack of a NI Assembly was effecting budgets and the need to plan and resource long term projects 

Is it any better now? 🤔 

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Percy sums it up perfectly. Especially when it comes to standbys/area cover, the retained pumps that are on regularly shoulder alot of the burden for reliefs and standbys and people are away from their employment sometimes regular mornings in row. (Though a polite word with control means bit can usually be locally managed)

On another note though: in the current climate of tax cuts, why can local authorities not manage a council tax rebate for businesses who will allow their employees to respond to incidents? Businesses are essentially paying for their communites fire provision twice: once through their council tax and business rates, second through lost earnings and productivity from losing their staff for hours. This would at least go some way to incentivise day cover....  

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On 01/10/2022 at 19:13, Br9mp81 said:

In a nutshell, full time commitment for (very poor) part time wages,hats off to them, i could not see my  wife putting up living round a pager

I second that

Some RDS stations are busier than whole time stations, especially if start dividing the WT calls by 25% to take account the 4 watches

From waking up the family for that 03.00 AFA run, to disturbing family occasions (we had a retained crew arrive partly suited for a wedding under their tunics) - I don't know if I could do it

I accept there are rewards from serving your local community and neighbours,  but the pay - especially the retaining fee- has always been shockingly low

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The problem is that during recruitment evenings, you can always say how big the commitment is and you’ll get enthusiastic nods, but 99% of those will not get it until they actually have the alerter in their hand. Come friday night they want to go out but cant book off. Then that friday night they dont turn a wheel. Next friday they book off and miss a job. Cycle repeats itself, maybe picking up a couple of jobs all for the princely sum of around £300 a month. But youve still got to give up your weekends for training, your weekly drill night, your better half moaning that you cant book off to go shopping on a saturday or to an evening at the flicks. So is it suprising that a large percentage of new RDS starters in this day and age dont make it 12 months in. Maybe at the recruitment evening tell the applicants “right for the next 4 weeks i want you to stay in on a friday and saturday night, dont drink and dont go out. Yes i know theres no chance of being called out as youre not in yet but that could be the reality when youre on the run. After those 4 weeks come back to me and tell me if you still want to join”

I for one would welcome streamed down recruitment evenings where maybe the applicants family was invited, just to understand the toll it WILL take on the family. God only know what an applicant, all excited that their cover is good and they live within spitting distance of the station, tells their family after the session. Im fortunate to work on a busy RDS unit for a rural service, my mrs knows that every summer when the weathers good we get battered ( this years battering job was 8 hours at a wood on fire with two pumps and a water carrier a mile across fields from the nearest hydrant, it saw me return home at 9pm armed with chocolates and overpriced disney magazines for the kids; i must also mention that 15 minutes prior to that turnout i had just returned from a house fire. Could your family deal with that? )

Now another issue with the retained model staffing is that when trucks are off the run, those that are on the run will work harder and go further. I went to an fire at a prison this summer, 25 miles on blues, took us OB en route and through three other station areas and we were still only the second truck there, thankfully it was dealt with by the first

You can trawl through youtube to see glossy recruitment adverts on the role and as always, you need to sell the positve side of the job. But that runs the risk of attracting people that may join because they think its a good idea or would be cool to tell people about. Something along the lines of the old “Police Could You” adverts would lay it bare:

Could you attend a teenager hanging in the local woods and then go home to cook your kids dinner?

Could you stand on a jet at a barn fire all night in January and then go to work the next day with no sleep?

Could you regularly sacrifice time with family and friends just in case you get called out?

Could you remain professional when called to assist ambulance and theres bluebottles all over the windows inside?

Could you appease your family/employers when youve been sent standby to another station all day?

Could you just get on with the job when the incident youre at is dreadfully under-resourced?

I agree that some people couldnt answer these questions until they are actually confronted with the situation. But they would hopefully get people thinking about what the role entails

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The pay for the commitment side of things is crap!  As an RDS WM, I get 57p per hour of freedom I give up.  Sounds dramatic?  While on call, I can’t go outside a 2 mile radius of the station.  That means no shops bar one corner shop, no taking the kids to the park or swimming or to footie practice.  No going to the gym or for a run or out on my bike.

And why should it be left to me to appease my primary employer when I get sent to standby 15 miles away for 5 hours at his busiest time of the week?  That should be something the service understand and assist with but not only do they not, they often rub salt in by trying to demand I drop everything to let some contractor into their station or dash to the station to provide them with xyz bit of info like the current level of the diesel tank that is apparently super urgent to them but that my primary boss couldn’t give a toss about.

I know you are RDS so you will know the above all too well.  You will also know that it is a fine balance between being too quiet so people go out as they feel they wont miss anything and being too busy so that the disruption to work and family life becomes too much.  It only takes a few long jobs or long standbys and you get seriously behind on work and sleep or you just run out of brownie points with the Mrs.  This summer seriously tested my Mrs’s patience, even after 23 years of seeing me disappear at the most in-opportune moments.  There were a few weeks where I did some 12 hour plus days going from call to call and still had to make up the missed time at my primary employment.  I left her to pick up the bits at home on numerous occasions and apologise to kids / friends / relatives as we missed yet another gathering or outing.  It is hard and I have found myself questioning whether it is worth it. 

On C-Iain’s point, as a service  we have day duty officers who we will send to RDS stations to cover shortfalls, the idea being they do their admin etc whilst there but provide some resilience.  During the worst of the summer heatwave we also temporarily allowed WT/RDS to carry out their day shifts on their RDS stations if their WT pump was at standard crewing without them and it plugged a gap on the RDS station.  Apart from that it was a lot of work trying to use the RDS resources as best as possible.  We don’t detach WT staff to put RDS pumps on, we will send WT pumps to standby on RDS stations if global fire cover suggests that is the best course of action.


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@TandAthe RDS Support Officer concept seems to be the only feasible solution (aside from a long-term overhaul of the system nation-wide to look at issues like pay and better primary employer relations, as you’ve all mentioned). We’ve currently got 2 in the service, but most days they’re just a drop in the ocean.
Similar to your service, our duel WT/RDS contract personnel are often pre-determined to their RDS stations for the duration of their WT shifts, usually putting the WT pump off.

I speak to mates in other brigades and it blows their mind that we put the busiest pumps (the WT ones) off the run to staff the quietest and I fully agree with them, it goes against all common sense and logic and it’s only a matter of time before it all goes wrong with the worst possible consequences and I’m not sure I want to be around when it does.

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We are noticing that skills shortage is a big player. All of (or almost all) our RDS stations have WT ffs on secondary contracts. It is becoming more and more common that these WT ffs are the only drivers and/or officers. It's not uncommon for a RDS station to have 6, 7 or 8 avaliable ffs, but are OTR due to no driver or officer.

We have also started duel response, where two RDS crews that are incomplete will meet at a RVP, and combine to form a full crew. This helps, but is very time consuming.

We have support officers who fill some skills gaps, but they are a drop in the ocean.

My solution would be to move a service training centre to a RDS blackspot where there is a struggle to get a crew. Every tour, a different WT pump will train there, utilising facilities far beyond their home station. They would be providing cover for the area though whilst there, however as shouts will be few, competencies could be caught up on.

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I've always thought the WT/RDS system is a bit rear end backwards. Surely there's logic in basing WT crews in areas where cover is needed but for various reasons can't be properly supplied by RDS. Then in your larger towns where there is a far larger recruitment pool, base your retained crews there?

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What would an alternative system look like. Be Radical. Day Crewing, Day Crewing +, More Wholetime Crewing or stay as is but try and patch it up somehow? Clearly this is getting harder to sustain. 

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@Navigator lots of reasons why that wouldn’t work, but primarily because your larger towns are the areas with higher call volumes and higher risk, therefor need guaranteed fire cover, which you can’t get from RDS. Turnout time also becomes an issue for RDS in urban areas.

@Tiggs we’ve seen the full range of suggestions and ideas in our service. Everything from having “Nucleus Crewing”, where WT watches aren’t attached to a specific station and go wherever needed at the start of shift, all the way to disbanding the RDS and having strategically placed 1 pump WT stations spread across the whole service area.

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How about making the rewards more lucrative to attract and retain more of the local community?

This may include paying employers for time lost as their staff dash about squirting water

OK it's going to cost a few quid, but would still be cheaper than the alternatives 

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I think a simple tax rebate to employers would do it. Businesses rates where I am in the south east are eye watering. Any chance to claw back some of that would be roundly welcomed.

Businesses are already paying for fire provision through tax and rates just like you or I. If they are contributing twice by releasing staff for fire calls, why not cut them some slack for it? 


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SFRS (Scotland) is seeking funding from Scottish government to look into merging several RDS stations in a new building with ambulance and police co-located on some kind of wholetime model. Seems to be aimed at particularly rural locations like isles of Skye where you can have miles and miles without any cover. 

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Honestly, I think the merging of some RDS stations into one WT one in a strategic area would make alot of sense. You lose a bit of resilience when you have big jobs and just need fresh crews for reliefs, but gains in overall fire cover and response times. 

Putting my big cynical hate on for a sec: I think if we end up settling on this five percent pay "rise", then some of these stations with really low availability are going to be seen as low hanging fruit for savings.

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49 minutes ago, C_Iain said:

So would that mean upgrading those RDS stations to WT @Bgjm21?

If I’m honest I don’t think anyone knows how that would look yet. From what I’ve read it certainly seems to be the idea is to close x amount of RDS in favour of 1 WT

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