How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Avon Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The service must improve the way it uses resources. Its medium-term financial plan (MTFP) does not link to its IRMP. It describes proposals for savings but does not identify those savings. The service explores ways to improve productivity, but we also saw inefficient processes. Avon FRS uses flexible working practices, which has improved staff retention. But the service’s system for deploying commanders to an incident is inefficient. We found some inefficiencies in staffing. The service’s plans to address some of these are at an early stage.
We saw examples of Avon FRS’s collaborations with other organisations. Some have improved efficiency. Others appear to only benefit the other party. The service is drawing up a strategy to ensure all its collaborations are mutually beneficial.
The service tests its IT continuity arrangements. But the arrangements for the control room are not underpinned by a business continuity plan. The service does not have a programme to test it.
Avon FRS is good at making the fire and rescue service affordable now and in the future. It has reduced the size of its staff to make savings of more than £14m since 2010. It is reviewing its management structure and its procurement and transport processes. It collaborated with a neighbouring service in procurement, realising savings of £50,000. The service acknowledges it needs to invest in technology. It already uses technology to collect and share information and is working to extend this to other work areas.
Avon FRS invests for the future. It used its reserves to put together a team to draw up its new IRMP. It plans to modernise three fire stations using funds from the sale of its former headquarters. It would like to collaborate with other community service providers on this project. It has also collaborated with the local authority and with a neighbouring service in a training centre.
The service has no trading arm but uses its property to generate income.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to ensure that its medium-term financial plan is linked to its integrated risk management plan.
- The service should design a business continuity plan for its control room to support the current emergency procedures.
- The service should assure itself that the way it deploys supervisors to operational incidents is cost-effective.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
How plans support objectives
The service has an IRMP in place until 2020. It details how the service intends to operate during this period. The service has an MTFP covering the same period. The plan’s principles are:
- All spending will be reviewed to ensure it is aligned with identified need and represents value for money.
- Efforts will be made to make the most of external sources of funding.
- Existing resources will be re-aligned to meet objectives in the IRMP.
- The MTFP will provide a framework for the annual revenue budget.
- The management of risk is a key corporate objective and central to the development of the medium-term financial strategy.
There is no clear link between what has been described in the IRMP and the MTFP. The MTFP details current and future savings but there is no clear reference to the IRMP and it is not possible to easily identify the savings that will be made from some of the proposals.
Budget holders are allocated additional funding as earmarked reserves. To use these reserves, budget holders must submit a business case to the senior management team for approval.
Productivity and ways of working
The service has introduced a more effective way of deploying one of its specialist assets. In April 2017 the service moved its urban search and rescue (USAR) team to Hicks Gate fire station and at the same time changed the crewing model. Prior to this, the USAR team didn’t respond to any other type of incident. The team was only available for technical rescues, either locally or nationally. The service has reduced the number of operational staff by changing the crewing model of the USAR team. The team’s primary role now is to respond to any incident as well as USAR incidents when requested.
We also found examples of inefficient processes. At the start of every shift, each fire station sends information about crewing levels to the control room by fax rather than using electronic systems. There are duplicate recording systems for breathing apparatus sets and vehicle testing. Staff must complete an entry in a log book as well as the station diary. Although we understand the need for these processes, this is a duplication of effort. The service should consider a more efficient process for recording information.
The service has shown its flexibility by introducing flexible working patterns for individuals. This has resulted in the retention of knowledgeable and experienced staff in the service.
As at 31 March 2018 the service has approximately 174 supervisors (watch and crew manager or equivalent FTE) trained as level one commanders. The level of the supervisory manager may vary but all commanders are trained to the same standard for level one command. Despite this, we found that the service still chooses to deploy an additional commander and an additional fire engine to incidents depending on the supervisory level of the commander. This is an unnecessary and inefficient use of resources. It could also lead to confusion about who is ultimately in charge of commanding the incident.
We found that the service has two levels of watch manager (a watch is the name for a team attached to a station). These are an A and B grade, with the watch manager B attracting a higher level of pay. The service may wish to review whether it needs to have two levels of watch manager across the service. We acknowledge that plans to address this are in their infancy.
We also noted that certain support staff roles are not consistent with staffing models across the sector. Given that the service still needs to make ongoing efficiency savings, the service may wish to review all back-office and support functions to improve efficiency and meet its budget.
The Investing for the Future savings programme identified that the sale of the service’s headquarters in Bristol would result in a significant capital receipt and revenue savings. In 2014, the service launched a programme aimed at making annual savings of £4.5m. As part of this, the service moved into Avon and Somerset Police headquarters in 2017. This has led to a closer working relationship with the police.
We found that the service collaborates with other organisations. Examples include responding to members of the public who have fallen behind closed doors, or helping with searches for missing people. We found that the service values collaboration, but consider that it should evaluate the effect that this has on the organisation’s primary duties.
The South West Emergency Services’ Collaboration Forum is the principal forum for the service to explore collaboration. One of its projects is the data analytics project, which seeks to use and share partner information. It is too early to identify any benefits from this project. But we are interested to see the outcomes of this programme.
The service wants to collaborate even more. It is working on a plan to ensure that collaboration is mutually beneficial and not simply the transfer of demand from one organisation to another.
The service has business continuity plans for aspects of its IT function. But the arrangements for the control room are not under pinned by a business continuity plan. The control room has a fall-back facility. A neighbouring service will answer emergency calls while the service activates its secondary control room. There is no programme of testing and exercising scheduled.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.
Improving value for money
Avon Fire and Rescue Service has made savings of over £14m since 2010. It mainly achieved this by reducing operational and support staff posts. The service has shut three fire stations: Speedwell, Brislington and Keynsham. As at 31 March 2018, Avon FRS had 486 (FTE) wholetime fire fighters, 143 (FTE) on-call fire fighters and 122 (FTE) support staff.
The independent statutory inspection report that was published in July 2017 recommended a review of the management structures and framework for procurement and transport processes. This is a significant piece of work. It should allow the service to achieve value for money through more robust procurement and contract management.
We saw evidence of effective collaboration through a joint procurement project with Gloucestershire FRS. Both services have collaborated to obtain new breathing apparatus sets. As a result, Avon FRS has achieved savings of £50,000.
The service recognises it needs more innovation and investment in technology to move towards digitalisation.
It has developed a web-based tool to collect feedback from operational incidents. This tool is more accessible and easier to use than earlier paper forms. The new tool allows the service to gather and analyse learning from operational incidents. This learning will inform future training and shared learning across the organisation.
The service uses portable laptops that have various functions. Frontline crews can use them to amend risk information during premises risk visits. And staff use them during home fire safety checks. The information on the laptops automatically uploads to a central database. Other systems draw on the information in this database.
The service is designing a new application to gather and share information from home fire safety checks. This should improve the effectiveness of home fire safety checks.
Future investment and working with others
The reserves policy sets out the need for reserves. It describes how the service manages reserves. A working balance of 3.5 percent of the general reserves budget is considered necessary to cover fluctuations in assumptions such as pay inflation and council tax receipts. The service reviews its reserves on an annual basis to ensure there is flexibility in the way reserves are allocated.
Following the independent statutory inspection, the service used its reserves to create a team to manage the improvement programme. It also created a dedicated team, funded from reserves, to design and develop the new IRMP.
The service has identified three fire stations – Avonmouth, Bath and Weston-super-Mare – which need modernisation. They have a combined maintenance back-log of £580,000. The projected maintenance costs to keep them fit for purpose are at least £1.2m. The service will re-invest money from the sale of its former headquarters to improve these three stations, through either refurbishment or rebuilding. The service would like to collaborate on this project with community partners, for example the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust.
The service has made a conscious decision not to pursue a trading arm. It generates additional income from property, for example, the rental of space for telephone masts and equipment. It also has solar panels on fire authority property.
The service is committed to a 25-year private finance initiative scheme for a joint training centre in Avonmouth. This is a collaboration with Gloucestershire County Council and Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority. The training centre has a wide range of training facilities. Staff use it regularly and consider it highly beneficial.