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Cheshire 2018/19

Efficiency

How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?

Last updated 20/12/2018
Good

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.

The service is good in each of the areas inspected to do with efficiency in keeping people safe and secure.

The service is good at making the best use of resources. However, the benefits of collaboration and partnership should be evaluated, to make sure resources are being used productively.

The service’s medium-term financial plan is based on sound assumptions. However, financial forecasting has not considered a wide enough range of possible future scenarios.

Areas of possible savings have been identified. These include vacant posts, priority-based budgeting, collaboration with the police, and estate modernisation.

The service has struggled to recruit sufficient on-call firefighters.

The service has introduced flexible working; the benefits of this have not yet been reviewed.

The service is involved in extensive partnerships and collaborations with other agencies. These include shared back-office services with the police, and the North West Fire Control, which is shared with neighbouring fire and rescue services. However, there is scope for more formal arrangements to monitor, review and evaluate collaborative activities.

The service has funded the building of four new fire stations and a safety centre using capital reserves and central grants. This has helped it to revise the deployment of its resources, making a significant saving. It also plans to redevelop its training centre.

Although the service has done some benchmarking, comparing goods and services procurement, it is not systematic. There is scope for further benchmarking of costs and performance against other fire and rescue services.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Good

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure there is effective monitoring, review and evaluation of the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration.
  • The service should ensure it has sufficiently robust plans in place to secure the right level of savings in the medium term by widening its scenario planning and testing for future financial forecasting.

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

A medium-term financial plan (MTFP) is in place for the period to 2021, based on sound assumptions on grant funding, levels of council tax and inflation. It links to the IRMP through the service’s efficiency plan. The MTFP has examined the effect of different levels of council tax funding and inflation in order to estimate different levels of savings that might be needed. The financial forecasting has not adequately considered possible future scenarios beyond the expiry of its current financial settlement with government. This means that the service may not have sufficiently robust plans in place to secure the right level of savings in the medium term.

Areas of potential saving have been identified by the service in the short to medium term. These include reviewing vacant posts, and the use of priority-based budgeting to scrutinise current spending and performance. The service is reviewing savings from blue-light collaboration and estate modernisation, and plans to make wider use of benchmarking and performance information. To ensure the early development of potential options, it recognises that it needs the right opportunities for early consultation with staff and the public.

We noted that the allocation of resources between prevention, protection and response is currently looked at annually in response to the needs of the IRMP activity plan. It is not clear how the service’s planned use of priority-based budgeting will develop a clear rationale for how levels of activity will link to the IRMP.

Productivity and ways of working

To help with flexible working, many support staff have tablets/laptops with the ability to work from anywhere with wi-fi access, improving work-life balance. There is wi-fi access at all fire and police stations. Flexible working has not yet been reviewed to see whether efficiencies have been achieved.

The service has struggled to recruit on-call firefighters and ensure their availability. The service had taken a number of steps to address this shortfall. These have included taking its recruitment pod to high footfall areas such as shopping centres and supermarkets within a five-minute travel distance of on-call fire stations. The service has reviewed existing on-call contracts for non-operational and uniformed staff and is reviewing the reward and recognition scheme for stations that meet the on-call availability targets. At Wilmslow station, crewing is supplemented with wholetime operational staff. The service has six managers dedicated to providing support to on-call crews.

The service has reviewed the shift system and duty arrangements and has introduced a variety of fixed and flexible shift systems. It uses the traditional wholetime, two days followed by two nights shift pattern. However, it operates the wholetime system on a 12-hour shift pattern and rides with four firefighters on a fire engine as standard. It also uses a mix of day crewed stations and flexible on-call arrangements. Data supplied by the service shows that between the 12 months ending 31 March 2014 and the 12 months ending 31 March 2018 these changes have seen the number of wholetime staff required reduce by 77. At the same time the number of on-call staff required has increased by 33. The service recognises that these changes may hamper relations between firefighters and managers.

Targets for Safe and Well visits take into account the number of hours available to each station and duty system. The target is that teams contact 100 percent of the most vulnerable residents allocated to them, with 65 percent receiving a Safe and Well visit. This can result in crews having to try on more than one occasion to contact some residents, to achieve the 65 percent target. It is not clear how the target of 65 percent has been arrived at. We would urge the service to consider matching the target to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Collaboration

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service’s collaboration with Cheshire Constabulary to share a single support function providing back-office services is at an advanced stage. In April 2018, the final planned staff transfers from the fire and rescue service to work for the police in this joint function were made. At the outset, the benefits were expected to be:

  • reduced frontline support costs;
  • improved service; and
  • environmental benefits (leading to cost savings).

Indications in the 2015 business case were that estimated financial savings would be in excess of £1.4m. The total savings forecast in January 2017 was just over £670,000. The service was preparing to evaluate the expected benefits later in 2018.

We saw extensive partnerships and collaborative activities with fire and other agencies. Some of these – such as the North West Fire Control – had been subject to post-implementation reviews or other evaluations. However, this is not systematic, and there is scope for more formal arrangements for the service to monitor, review and evaluate the benefits and outcomes of its principal collaborative activities.

Continuity arrangements

The service has business continuity arrangements in place for critical areas such as IT and mobilising through fire control. The IT recovery strategy clearly defines roles and responsibilities of managers and staff in the event of IT systems failure. The policy gives clear guidance and identifies arrangements in the event of cyber-attack and other threats. The policy is subject to regular review and auditing.

2

How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?

Good

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at making itself affordable now and in the future. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to demonstrate sound financial management of principal non-pay costs. It should use benchmarking data more widely and effectively.

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

The service set aside capital reserves to fund a large building programme: four new fire stations and a community safety centre. This allowed the service to revise its crewing models, making a significant contribution to the £6.7m savings between 2013/14 and 2016/17.

Part of the proposal for future expenditure is the development of a new training facility and a new joint station with the police in Crewe. The cost of the new station at Crewe will be shared between both partners.

The redeveloped training centre will create an immersive and realistic training environment, while also reducing reliance on external training venues. Plans are in place for this to begin in 2018/19.

The service is aware that savings originally expected from blue-light collaborative work were likely to prove over-optimistic. This applies to both the amount and the timescale in which savings could be achieved.

We saw evidence of benchmarking, comparing the procurement of some goods and services, but it was not systematic for all non-pay costs. There is further scope for the use of benchmarking to review the service’s costs and performance relative to other fire and rescue services. The service should continue to explore saving opportunities in order to further invest in innovation and better ways of working.

Innovation

One of the early benefits of sharing resources with Cheshire Constabulary has been the additional capacity in support services. For example, the service’s previous team could not provide consistent support out of hours. Having access to greater shared resources has increased the technical skills available to both services, and out-of-hours support for the fire service.

The service is at the early stages of developing a financial protocol with Cheshire Constabulary to support changes in their joint estate. This protocol is a set of principles by which the organisations will assess sharing all their combined premises. It will consider factors such as land value, and how implementation and ongoing costs and benefits should be apportioned fairly. This is the first step in using combined assets and assessing efficiency for the public. The service could extend this to other areas such as fleet and some IT infrastructure.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service is reviewing both the amount and purpose of its financial reserves during 2018/19. There is a plan to reduce the unallocated general reserves to £2.2m of budget by 2020. In doing this, the service plans to set up a separate reserve for innovation. Through this, it plans to identify resources to allow innovation and support new ways of working.

Future investment and working with others

The service has a good track record of working with others. An agreement is in place with police and the ambulance service for firefighters to provide help at incidents that require a forced entry to enable a medical response to be administered.

We spoke to crews returning from an incident where they had gained entry. They felt it had been worthwhile and could give examples where their attendance had saved lives or greatly improved the wellbeing of the public.

Because of joining forces with police support service systems, the service should also benefit from the multi-force shared service centre. This began as a collaboration of several police forces sharing support systems. It provides access to payroll, accounting, purchasing and human resources IT systems. Having common systems should save money through economies of scale in buying and operating IT systems, also avoiding duplication of effort and reducing the range of skills required to operate the systems.