How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
An efficient fire and rescue service will manage its budget and spend money properly and appropriately. It will align its resources to its risk. It should try to keep costs down without compromising public safety. Future budgets should be based on robust and realistic assumptions. Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
However, in one sense, it is highly efficient: it has an innovative deployment model which, if better funded, would be a cost-effective way of keeping people safe.
Management and representative bodies deserve much credit for the design and operation of this model. So too does the workforce, on whose goodwill and professionalism it relies. But the service cannot consistently sustain its available resources to meet both daily demand and provide additional resilience to meet infrequent high-risk events in accordance with its risk and demand-led model. It needs to ensure other departments’ productivity is not reduced to support the staffing model. The demand-led model has the potential to be effective, but it currently relies too much on its bank-based additional shift system.
The service is good at collaborating with others and has worked to operationally align with neighbouring services and with other blue light partners. This has improved effectiveness and efficiency, reduced costs and made savings.
The service knows its main financial risks. But, despite being aware of these risks, it can’t show plans for meeting the potential funding gaps. If any of the risks come about, it will have a significant impact on the service’s operation and its future sustainability.
The service collaborates effectively. It has joined with other Thames Valley fire services in procuring fire engines. And it has shared estates with other blue light partners.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Cause of concern
We have serious concerns as to whether Buckinghamshire FRS has the resources it needs to meet its foreseeable risk. As a result of the financial position the service finds itself in, it doesn’t have enough operational firefighters to resource its prevention and protection functions and crew the minimum number of fire engines it says it needs.
At the earliest opportunity, the service should:
- ensure it has the capacity and capability to support its activity in its Public Safety plan; and
- consult with the people of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes on options to have the most effective and efficient response against the financial environment in which it operates.
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
Buckinghamshire FRS is clear about the financial challenges it faces and refers to these risks in its corporate risk register. It recognises the importance of aligning resource to risk and has been creative in achieving more with less. But, despite its innovation, the service will not be able to sustain its activity in prevention, protection and response with the resources it has been allocated due to the financial challenges it faces. The council tax precept (£64.57 per annum for a band D property) was frozen for several years and decreased by 1 percent in 2015/16. As such, the service precept is significantly lower than the national average and is the lowest precept of any non-metropolitan combined authority.
The service has a medium-term financial plan for the period to 2024/25. Its annual budget for 2019/20 is £30.3m. The service’s efficiency plan seeks savings of £4.5m between 2015/16 to 2019/20. However, the service told us it forecasts to exceed this amount, anticipating total savings of £5m over the period of the plan. But these savings are being used to cover increased costs.
The service has sound budgetary mechanisms. These reflect the priorities of the public safety plan. Buckinghamshire FRS has allocated resources for prevention and protection across the service at multiple sites. As previously mentioned, the service operates a demand-led model in relation to its operational firefighters. This is designed to allow the service to balance day-to-day demand with extraordinary demand.
It needs to meet normal day-to-day low-level demand for emergency response while maintaining a proportionate and cost-effective response capability for infrequent
large-scale high-risk incidents. The service’s on-call staff can respond to emergency incidents immediately or in staged incremental time slots. This allows the service to resource appropriately for periods of infrequent high risk and quickly increase the number of fire engines it needs during an operational incident.
But we found the service cannot consistently maintain the number of firefighters and provide the number of fire engines it has committed to in its public safety plan. The service has committed to 12 wholetime appliances and three on-call appliances being available each day.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £18.06. This is considerably lower than the England rate of £22.38. It is one of the lowest costs per head across all fire and rescue services in England and reflects that around a third of its firefighters are on-call.
Productivity and ways of working
As at 31 March 2018, the service had the full-time equivalent of 244 wholetime staff, 101 on-call staff and 104 support staff. This provides a range of working models to support the service in fulfilling its public safety plan.
The service has seen the full-time equivalent total workforce reduce by 30 percent between 2012/13 and 2017/18. It therefore relies on a bank system to offer a flexible resource designed to maintain appliance availability in the event of crewing shortfalls. But, in reality, it struggles to do this. The service recognises it needs to increase the number of firefighters to improve availability and, as at 31 March 2018, the service has recruited 30 wholetime firefighter apprentices.
We heard the service removed operational personnel from protection duties to staff under-resourced fire engines. This affected fire protection duties.
We recognise the service has been creative in doing more with less. But the service does not have enough staff for the risk and demand-led model. And the current budget does not allow additional staffing to increase resilience and sustainability of the system.
The service monitors performance at a strategic level. But we found that station performance management was limited. So, the service can’t measure the impact of its prevention and protection work. This information would help it to assure itself that it is targeting resources effectively.
Buckinghamshire FRS proactively meets its statutory duty to consider emergency service collaboration. It is a member of the Thames Valley Emergency services steering group, which includes representation from the police, fire and ambulance services.
The service is leading a partnership with South Central Ambulance Service and Thames Valley Police. This will see all three services co-locating to one purpose-built ‘blue light hub’ in Milton Keynes. The move to the hub will see the three services moving out of five different sites to work under one roof. It will provide savings to the taxpayer and reduced running costs of £180,000 per year, according to the service’s data.
Working with Royal Berkshire and Oxfordshire FRSs, Buckinghamshire FRS now has a single control room covering all three services. It will provide staff savings of £521,000 per year and reduce running costs by £85,000 per year, as well as providing savings to other services.
For each of the projects mentioned, the service and its Thames Valley Fire and Rescue service partners effectively evaluate the work. They ensure a common approach so that they can measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the services they provide to the public.
The service has robust and up-to-date business continuity arrangements.
This includes cyber-attack and the resourcing of fire engines. Each department must run an exercise each year to test its business continuity plan. The service’s business continuity plan was tested when the resource management team relocated from its Aylesbury headquarters site to Haddenham. The LRF also works with the service and tests against major incidents such as terrorist attacks, industrial action or pandemic flu.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Areas for improvement
- The service should use sound financial management to ensure all additional costs such as pensions liability are accounted for and that there is a contingency plan.
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
Buckinghamshire FRS has a good track record of achieving savings. Its financial plans consider risks outlined in its public safety plan, 2015-20.
The service is aware of its main financial risks. It believes these to be the withdrawal of government support for the recent increase in employer’s contribution to pension schemes; and pay increases agreed by the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services. There is also a risk that the specific revenue grants that the authority receives for urban search and rescue could be discontinued.
Although it is aware of the likely cost of some of these foreseeable risks, the service has no plans to meet these potential funding gaps. There is some doubt about what could be realistically achieved: given the current strain on frontline services, if any of these risks are realised, we anticipate a very significant impact on the service’s operation and sustainability.
The service’s capital programme was set at £7.6m for 2019/20. This includes the building of the blue light hub in Milton Keynes, which has been delayed, with £6.4m still to be spent on completion of the build. The joint procurement of fire engines and other operational equipment with the other Thames Valley fire and rescue services has resulted in £720,000 savings across all three services.
The service makes good use of investment for future innovation. We found the service has introduced an effective business and systems integration project (BASI). This replaces several disjointed systems and has streamlined processes across the service including finance, payroll, HR, fleet, assets and the premise risk management system.
All three Thames Valley FRSs have jointly procured 37 new fire engines over a
four-year period. The services anticipate that this will generate savings of £720,000. The three services have also agreed to standardise equipment on fire engines, which will improve operational alignment across the region.
The service has also worked with its Thames Valley fire service partners to jointly procure MDT software. This allows the swift transfer of risk information across all three services.
The service responded to feedback from a culture survey by installing satellite navigation on the MDTs. Before, operational firefighters were using mapping apps on their mobile phones on the way to incidents.
Future investment and working with others
If the pension grant funding were immediately withdrawn, the service is forecasting that its reserves would reduce from £11.6m as at March 2017 to £5m by March 2021 and down to just over £2.8m by March 2025. Of the remaining £2.8m, £1.5m is for the general fund, £0.8m is the service share of the control room renewals fund and £0.5m is to fund the continued introduction of firefighter apprentices. This only leaves £12,000 as capital reserves. This level of capital reserves is insufficient to make any future capital investments in property, fleet or IT.
The service generates income by renting operational drill towers to house mobile phone masts. Its data showed us this generates around £0.2m per year. It has also brought in house its treasury management and doubled the rate of return on its investments. The service has decided not to set up a trading arm because it felt the costs were too large compared with the likely benefit.
Buckinghamshire FRS has a positive approach to working with partners to achieve savings. This includes sharing estates with police and other organisations.
In a recent move, the service has joined the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company, a private company formed by other services to act as a pool for insurance purposes. It anticipates savings of between £0.05m and £0.08m per annum.