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. Cleveland Fire Brigade’s overall efficiency is good.
Cleveland Fire Brigade is good at financial planning. It has a five-year medium-term financial plan in place that is updated annually. The plan is linked to action in its CIRMP. It has made large savings over the past eight years, according to data provided by the brigade.
The brigade has changed its staff working patterns to improve productivity. It has good systems in place to manage this. Better use of technology would make it more productive and efficient.
It has a positive approach to collaboration, meeting its statutory duty. But it should do more to monitor, review and evaluate its collaboration activities. The brigade has business continuity plans in place. It needs to improve its oversight of these plans to make sure all of them are being tested.
The brigade has made good use of external funding including successfully bidding for government funding and generating income from partners for its commissioned services team. It has also set up a successful community interest company, which provides community safety services to the community.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Cleveland Fire Brigade is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following areas in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The brigade should ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration.
- The brigade should ensure it has good business continuity arrangements in place that take account of all foreseeable threats and risks. It needs to review and test plans thoroughly.
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
Cleveland Fire Brigade has clear and sound financial plans. It has processes in place for both internal and external audit and scrutiny by the fire and rescue authority. These allow the plans to be challenged.
In the year to 31 March 2018, firefighter cost per head of population was £28.07. This compares with the England rate of £22.38.
It has developed its strategic objectives in line with its CIRMP. These include identifying existing and future risks to its communities and assessing new ways of working for prevention, protection and response activities. We could see the link between the proposals set out in the CIRMP and how the brigade has developed its structure and its prevention, protection and response activities.
Between year to 31 March 2013 and year to 31 March 2018, the brigade’s workforce has reduced by 13.6 percent – 105 full time equivalent posts. It has had three organisational reviews since 2011 so that preventative, protective and response activities are suitably allocated. The service told us these reviews achieved efficiencies of almost £3m while improving the service to the public. Some of the outcomes of the reviews were:
- staff moved from headquarters to district community hubs to increase public access to community safety services;
- increased front-line resources;
- streamlined support services; and
- fewer management tiers.
The brigade has a five-year medium-term financial plan showing the financial effects of its CIRMP, which is reviewed each year. This plan considers a range of scenarios such as changes in government funding and future pay awards. Reserves of £0.6m per year for the next three years are being used to balance the budget. However, we are satisfied that the brigade has a good spending plan in place for its reserves, which includes building a more efficient estate. It has plans to allow it to balance its budgets without having to rely on reserves in the future.
The brigade showed that it has been able to make savings. From 2011/12 to 2018/19, external funding fell by around 34 percent, equating to nearly £10.5m. The brigade has managed this reduction though its CIRMP. The brigade’s budget for 2019/20 is £26.9m. As part of the brigade’s current efficiency plan, it is on track to make £3.44m of savings by the end of 2019/20. Savings will be made by:
- changes to control room arrangements following a review;
- change of crewing for the incident command unit;
- closure of a fire station; and
- more on-call firefighters and fewer wholetime firefighters.
Productivity and ways of working
In 2017/18, the brigade reviewed the productivity of its firefighters. This is positive and not something we have seen in many other services. This review analysed how long firefighters were spending doing the essential elements of their role such as responding to incidents and training. In doing so this identified the time left for other things, in particular prevention and protection activities.
Each station has annual targets for prevention and protection activities. Targets are monitored and managed through district performance meetings and then quarterly brigade performance meetings. Prevention and protection teams have similar processes for target setting and performance management. We found this performance management process is effective to ensure the correct output is achieved. However, the brigade should do more to assure the quality of its prevention and protection activity.
Since 2012, the brigade has introduced new working patterns for its staff to increase productivity. All were introduced as local agreements after negotiations with trade unions. Staff other than firefighters – known in the sector as “green book staff” – have transitioned since then to annualised hours providing flexible provision of services. Trainers in its learning and development department have moved from working a five-day week with core hours of 9am to 5pm to seven days a week (including bank holidays) with core hours of 9am to 9pm. This means trainers are available throughout the week. It increases the training courses offered and provides more opportunities for on-call staff to receive training.
As part of the brigade’s last CIRMP (covering 2014–18), firefighters and control staff moved to a new duty system. This system allows the brigade to draw on resources when they are needed, so only the appropriate number of firefighters are on duty. Operational staff working in central teams also support this approach and work shifts to support response crews when needed.
With this model, the brigade deploys operational staff flexibly to maintain its optimum number of fire engines. It regularly moves wholetime staff to on-call stations to make more on-call fire engines available. This is a good use of available resources to improve response, but staff told us this approach affects productivity in other areas such as prevention and training. The brigade should ensure it understands any effects of this approach.
During 2016–2018, the brigade made efficiency savings of almost £1m. Savings were made by reducing numbers of wholetime firefighters and increasing on-call firefighters. The modelling showed that this new approach meets the response standards promised to the public outlined in its CIRMP.
The brigade meets its statutory duty to consider emergency service collaboration. It is part of a strategic collaborative development working group with representatives from the police and the ambulance services. It chairs the assets sub group.
Some examples that have come through this group are:
- co-location with Cleveland Police at the newly built Thornaby fire station, who made a capital contribution of £162,000;
- long-term leasing of its old training centre at Grangetown to Cleveland Police, who have refurbished the building at a cost of £950,000;
- sharing its incident command unit and welfare pod (providing welfare facilities at incidents) with Cleveland Police;
- leasing a workshop bay in its technical hub for North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust technicians to maintain or service ambulance vehicles, generating £3,000 per annum; and
- co-location with HM Coastguard Rescue Team at Redcar fire station, generating £2,300 per annum.
In January 2019, the brigade agreed a statement of intent with Cleveland Police to explore ways of collaborating for their back office services.
It also shares premises with NHS staff at Redcar Fire Station and its Middlesbrough Community Hub. The brigade also collaborates with other non-emergency service partners. It helps rehabilitate offenders through community gardening activities at its headquarters site.
A noteworthy example of collaboration is the brigade’s involvement in an integrated community safety team based at Hartlepool police station. Representatives from different agencies work together to solve problems that affect their different organisations.
The brigade has a positive approach to collaboration. But we found it doesn’t consistently monitor, review and evaluate these initiatives to establish whether they represent value for money.
The brigade has good business continuity plans. Its framework highlights three types of business continuity plan: corporate (e.g. industrial action), departmental, and individual stations. The plans align with local resilience forum plans. Business continuity plans are reviewed each year by department heads.
The brigade has business continuity arrangements in place for critical areas such as ICT or loss of fire control. Its fire control function can be passed to two other fire and rescue services with the same mobilising system, Hereford & Worcester and Shropshire. This would happen in the event of extraordinary need such as a failure of the system or a severe increase in calls volume.
Plans are routinely tested for fire control and ICT, although this wasn’t the case for other areas of the brigade. We also found there was limited oversight and quality assurance of the process. The brigade should assure itself that its oversight of continuity planning and testing is effective.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Cleveland Fire Brigade is good at making its services affordable now and in the future. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The brigade needs to ensure it makes the best use of technology to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.
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
Cleveland Fire Brigade has a good track record of making savings. Its financial planning extends to 2022/23 and includes projections based on a wide range of financial scenarios. These include the effect of future changes in government funding, future pay awards and uncertainty about public sector employers’ obligations for recalculated pensions.
The brigade has a good understanding of future financial risks. Funding arrangements differ across services. Some rely on central government funding more than others depending on how much money they generate from local taxation. Cleveland is heavily dependent on central government funding as it has a low council tax base, with 65 percent of properties in band A and B compared with 44 percent nationally. Therefore, just a small percentage change in funding from central government could have a large effect on the overall budget. Current planning scenarios for 2022/23 give at best a £1.73m budget deficit, and at worst a £3.84m deficit.
Short-term plans, such as revenue underspends and leaving some posts vacant, are in place to meet the immediate shortfall. Longer-term plans are being developed. These plans include a review of back office services, reviewing non-pay budgets, reconfiguring the approach to operational response and a possible council tax precept referendum.
The brigade has a procurement strategy to collaborate when possible. It is part of the north east fire and rescue services’ procurement group through which it jointly purchases uniform. It has sound contract management with call-off contracts, break clauses and benchmarking used to drive savings. The brigade provided us with many examples of savings such £135,000 for building cleaning and building security and £11,000 for its waste contract.
The brigade sets out its commitment to innovation through technology in its ICT strategy for 2019–22. This is based on four themes: automation, collaboration, insight and governance. The brigade has an in-house ICT team, which provides internal services and is commissioned to provide some services to other partners.
The brigade has a long-standing technology collaboration arrangement with the University of Hull. It has worked with the university to develop MDT software and its command and control mobilising system. The brigade made significant savings through this collaboration as it didn’t need to tender for a new command and control mobilising system. It expects this collaboration to continue to make future efficiencies. It is the national fire sector lead with the university for MDT development and with a telecommunications company for control room communications development.
We saw a range of work the brigade is undertaking with other fire and rescue services to improve ways of working and be more efficient through the better use of technology. It is working with NFCC to jointly procure MDTs and is working with six fire and rescue services to procure software for a new on-call availability system, using a framework from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
Though this collaboration and commitment to technology is positive, we found areas where the brigade could improve its effectiveness and efficiency. For example, only 29 percent of home fire safety visits are recorded using the tablets. Most checks are recorded on paper and manually transferred to computer systems later. And the system tracking the availability of on-call firefighters doesn’t automatically update the mobilising system so has to be tracked and input manually.
Future investment and working with others
The brigade’s reserve strategy compliments the medium-term financial plan, efficiency plan and asset management plan.
In the year to March 2018, the brigade had around £11.2m in earmarked reserves and around £1.6m in general reserves. Total earmarked reserves are due to diminish to about £3.5m at the end of 2022/23. This is mainly through its asset management plan and supporting the operational change to manage budget reductions.
Reserves, external funding, borrowing and capital receipts are being used by the brigade to ensure its estate meets its anticipated operational needs. By investing in its estate now, especially its older buildings, this should remove maintenance requirements, which if not addressed would result in higher longer-term costs. Government funding of £3.9m was secured in 2012 and £2.8m in 2016 to transform the estate achieving annual efficiencies of £257,000. By 2024/25 it should save £11.5m in estates maintenance and £32.64m from crewing and staffing changes.
The service also generates extra income from leasing space in its estate. For example, the NHS pays £12,000 for accommodation at Redcar fire station. It also sells some of its prevention services, generating over £200,000 worth of business within the first quarter of this financial year alone. This external funding will fund the team for the whole year.
Through a loan from the Fire Authority, the brigade established a community interest company, Cleveland Fire Brigade Risk Management Services, in 2011. The brigade told us this is now a profitable company with about 100 employed staff. Its turnover in the year to 31 March 2019 was almost £4.8m. It provides a wide range of emergency preparedness, response and security services to industry, reducing risk in the brigade’s area. It invests its profit into community safety activities including supporting community volunteers. In the year to 31 March 2018, these volunteers undertook 1,400 safe and well visits and fitted 403 sensory loss smoke alarms. The brigade also receives income from loan payments and market rate recharge for premises, equipment and staff.