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. Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
The service has robust plans for meeting the objectives in its IRMP. It knows the main risks to the public of Cumbria and is working to prevent them.
The prevention and protection teams are highly productive, carrying out almost twice the English rate of home fire safety visits per 1000 population, and over four times the number of protection audits per 100 known properties in the year to 31 March 2018. The service has made good collaborative arrangements with other emergency services, which benefit its partners and the public.
The service has a strong track record of making savings, having reduced its budget by around £5m since 2010. A long period of restructuring means that it currently relies on an unacceptably high level of temporary promotions and overtime, but the new structure should bring more stability. In recognition of these challenges, and the substantial changes that have already been made, the service only needs to make very modest savings in the council’s current mid-term financial plan.
The service has been innovative in introducing new staffing models, including a new shift pattern, although at the time of inspection this was the subject of an industrial dispute. It has ambitious plans to increase productivity by using technology.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
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
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service had a revenue budget of around £16m. Since the start of austerity in 2010, this has reduced year on year by around £5m.
The service is achieving the objectives set out in its IRMP within the budget assigned in the council’s medium-term financial plan. The main risks to the public of Cumbria are primary fires, road traffic collisions, flooding and wildfires. These correspond clearly to departmental targets, which include, for example, over 10,000 annual safe and well visits to tackle primary fires, over 80 annual road awareness events aimed at young drivers, and close working with communities and the environment agencies to develop community flood plans.
Stations also have strategic objectives, and these are communicated to firefighters using a ‘plan on a page’ format that is centrally populated with minimum targets. These plans are monitored quarterly by the three district commands, and the senior leadership team is made aware when targets are not being met. The service is also making effective use of electronic dashboards, which help hold staff accountable.
The service has made significant savings over the past decade, which support larger savings required by the council. As a result, a range of services that were delivered in-house are now provided by the council, including occupational health and human resource support. Sometimes, delays in the services that are now provided centrally have an impact on the quality of the fire service. For example, if firefighters have to wait to see occupational health staff, this can increase the time it takes for them to return to work. Cumbria County Council has recognised this and, as a result, has set the service a very modest savings target of £120,0000 over the remainder of the current medium-term financial plan. This will be met through reduced employer pension costs, which are included within existing budget projections.
Productivity and ways of working
The service is focused on productivity and is challenging traditional ways of working. It compares well with the English rate for prevention and protection activity. In the year to 31 March 2018, it carried out almost twice the English rate of home fire safety visits per 1000 population. It also carried out over four times the number of protection audits per 100 known properties. However, the service is reliant on inefficient paper-based systems to support most of its prevention and protection activities.
The service is safely staffing standard fire engines with four firefighters, whereas many English fire services use five. It is also trialling staffing specific standard fire engines with three.
The service uses flexible working patterns to make the best of its workforce’s time, and to provide fire cover across a large geographical area that presents some
unique challenges. Examples of these include:
- having firefighters working a flexible location system at a standard rate of pay;
- using extra capacity in the protection and operational support department to deploy specialist staff to response duties if required;
- offering part-time staff opportunities to fill short-term vacancies; and
- deploying managers over more than one location to minimise the number of supervisory managers required.
The service does not have effective systems in place to make sure that those working flexibly are taking enough rest time between shifts.
The service is upholding its legislative duty to collaborate with other blue light partners. It has set up oversight and working arrangements to make sure that collaborations are supported by a business case and robustly evaluated.
We spoke to a range of partners, including the police, ambulance service and the office of the police and crime commissioner, who told us that the service regularly suggests new ways of joint working.
Some examples of the collaborative activities the service is taking part in are:
- joint incident command units used by police and ambulance;
- a memorandum of understanding to support the police with searches for highly vulnerable missing persons;
- a trial of joint emergency service officers who can simultaneously act as police community support officers and on-call firefighters;
- participation in daily task and co-ordination briefings with police; and
- co-location of ambulances at fire stations and allowing ambulance staff to use stations for welfare needs.
The service does make sure that its collaborations benefit its partners and the public. However, the collaborations it has entered into are not always providing better value for money for its partners than for the service itself. The service may wish to consider this in establishing any future partnerships.
The service has a range of business continuity plans to mitigate the impact of unexpected events, including loss of staff, premises, supporting infrastructure and service control. These plans are tested on a regular basis, sometimes using no-notice exercises.
Joint continuity arrangements are also in place, and tested, with businesses responsible for nuclear installations and military defence bases in the county.
These plans have been developed using an easy-to-follow template and staff are familiar with the actions they would be expected to take.
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
The service has a track record of making savings and its IRMP details how it spends public money. As part of the county council, its financial arrangements are made alongside the council’s medium-term financial planning arrangements. Most back office functions are provided by the council.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the service had a revenue budget of around £16m. This has reduced by around £5m since financial restraint on public services was introduced in 2010. Most savings have been made by reducing staff numbers. The workforce has been shrunk by 17.1 percent between 2012/13 and 2017/18. Over the same time period, back office staff have reduced by 66.7 percent. Wholetime firefighters have reduced by 8.3 percent to 199 (full-time equivalent) and on-call firefighters have reduced by 10.4 percent to 320 (full-time equivalent).
In the year ending 31 December 2018, the service attended 3,810 incidents. This is a 17 percent reduction compared with the year to 31 December 2012.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £23.82. This compares with the England rate of £22.38. However, it should be noted that the service serves a relatively small population spread over a very large land mass.
The service has mainly absorbed staff reductions by reducing the number of firefighters on a standard fire engine from five to four, management reductions and changes to staffing models.
These changes have led to an unacceptably high level of temporary promotions and an increased use of overtime to fill staffing gaps. Uncertainty has been compounded by a rapid turnover of chief officers taking the service in different directions.The current chief officer, who has been in post for two years, is the longest serving over this time.
However, we are satisfied that the new structure proposed for the service will
provide stability to staff as well as making sure fire engines are available when they are needed. Once the new structure is in place, it will reduce the number of temporary promotions and current high level of overtime spending.
In recognition of these challenges and substantial changes that have already been made, the council has asked the service to achieve only very modest savings in the current mid-term financial plan.
The service is innovative and open to new ways of working. It has a fleet of fire engines of varied sizes, capability and cost, and this has allowed it to reduce maintenance and capital replacement costs. It has been innovative in sharing some of its fleet with council partners – for example, it has all-terrain vehicles that it uses as wildfire units during the summer and snow ploughs during the winter.
It has also introduced innovative and different staffing models. For example, at Penrith, it employs firefighters to carry out other support and administrative roles. It is in the process of introducing revised shift patterns at full-time stations that will reduce the duration of night shifts. This will mean that firefighters will require less rest time, freeing up capacity and increasing productivity. At the time of inspection, this change was the subject of an ongoing industrial dispute.
This year, the service’s emergency reserve equipment will be moved to Kendal on a trial basis. This should mean that the equipment is available 24 hours a day, as firefighters are working the new shift pattern. This should provide a more efficient distribution of essential equipment across the service.
Future investment and working with others
The service is working well with others and exploring opportunities that will provide improvements for the public in the future. It is using central government grant funding to build a blue light hub with police and ambulance colleagues on the Furness Peninsula, which will lead to closer collaborative working. The service has also commissioned detailed feasibility studies into providing similar facilities at Kendal and Whitehaven.
The service estimates that it has saved approximately £200,000 per year by sharing fire control with Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cheshire fire services. This has provided it with a level of resilience that it would not be efficient for it to maintain alone. It has raised revenue through providing training and assurance for the industrial fire teams that operate within the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. The service is also looking at future potential commercial opportunities.
The service is making effective use of technology to allow on-call staff to clock on and off duty using mobile phones. It also has plans to introduce mobile tablets at full-time stations that will replace the time-consuming paper-based systems currently used to deliver prevention and protection activities.