Devon and Somerset 2018/19
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. Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The service covers both urban and very rural areas. The stations are located based on historic levels of fire cover, despite the changing level of risk. For example, there are stations that attend fewer than two incidents a week. The service has recently launched its Safer Together programme to match resources to risk.
The service recognises it needs more resource for prevention. So, it is recruiting another ten members as home fire safety technicians. This will enable the service to offer more targeted resources. The service has been more flexible in the way it deploys staff to prevention, protection and response activities – such as using advocates. Advocates are staff members trained in prevention and protection.
Capacity at wholetime stations was not utilised efficiently. Crews must reach set targets in protection activities, but many weren’t aware of them. Managers recognised that wholetime fire station staff could be more productive.
The service collaborates with Hampshire and Dorset & Wiltshire fire and rescue services. This means it can mobilise the quickest responders across county borders, faster responses to emergency calls and greater resilience and business continuity if systems fail.
The service has shown sound financial management and governance of procurement and tendering processes. All spending over £20,000 must go through an approval process. It has achieved savings to avoid budget pressures. Since 2013, it has reduced the number of wholetime firefighters (FTE) from 670 to 556.
The service has moved to smaller, lighter vehicles, which still hold a significant amount of equipment to ensure an effective response. The service calculates these vehicles hold about 90 percent of the equipment carried in a normal engine. Light response vehicles (LRVs) and rapid intervention vehicles (RIVs) cost approximately half of a standard fire engine and their lifetime running costs are more efficient. The service makes good use of national procurement frameworks to get value for money.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to assure itself that its prevention, protection and response resources are allocated to where they have identified the risk.
- The service needs to establish if operational crews are productive and used efficiently to support prevention, protection and response activities.
- The service should assure itself that it has robust business continuity plans for all aspects and functions of the service.
- The service needs to assure itself that its risk management and control process has a mechanism that allows escalation of risks to the appropriate level in the organisation.
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 allocates resources to prevention, protection and response. But it acknowledges more resources are given over to response. The service had 121 pumping appliances across 85 stations as at 31 March 2018, in areas that range from urban to very rural. These locations are matched to historic levels of fire cover, despite the level of risk changing. For example, there are stations that attend fewer than two incidents a week. The service has recently launched its Safer Together programme to better match resources to risk.
The budget for 2019/20 is £75m. The service needs to make savings of between £8.4m and £14.5m by 2023/24. The service had a firefighter cost per head of population of £23.89 in the year to 31 March 2018. This is higher than the England rate of £22.38 over the same period.
The service’s medium-term financial plan forecasts significant budget pressures over the next five years to 2023/24. To achieve savings, the service has highlighted four main work streams to make efficiencies.
These are: service delivery, people development, fleet and equipment, and digital transformation. The service hasn’t assessed what the financial savings will be or any other benefits. However, the service has made progress on these four work streams.
The service recognises it needs more resource for prevention. So, it is recruiting another ten members as home fire safety technicians, increasing the staff total to 30. This will enable the service to offer more targeted resources. The funding for these posts came from removing some middle manager posts when the service restructured.
Productivity and ways of working
The service has made improvements in its capacity and capability to achieve change and operational performance. The service changed its organisational structure to a model reflecting the functions it carries out. Staff said that there is a lack of understanding and awareness of the new structure. The service recognised that it carried out the restructure with little project governance. Since then, the service has invested in programme management and project officers to ensure any future change programmes achieve the right results. The service has used this approach in the Safer Together programme.
The service has been more flexible in the way it deploys staff to prevention, protection and response activities – such as using advocates. Advocates are staff members trained in prevention and protection. They provide home fire safety visits, business fire safety checks and educational visits. The service can use them on a flexible basis.
The service has also set up a crewing pool. This provides a pool of people who have volunteered to travel around the service and work at stations where there may not be enough crew.
The service allocates resources to prevention, protection and response activities. But capacity on wholetime stations was not utilised efficiently. The service uses community safety technicians to provide home fire safety checks. Operational crews are not required to do any. Their focus is to undertake business safety checks and visit risk sites to get site-specific information.
Wholetime crews must reach certain targets in these activities. However, staff weren’t fully aware of these targets. Sometimes, staff told us that they thought business safety checks had stopped. Managers recognised that targets for business fire safety checks were inconsistent across the service and that on wholetime fire stations staff could be more productive.
Crewing pool staff allocated to work at a station are meant to carry out specific duties there. We found productivity was mixed. Some staff completed tasks allocated to them. Others didn’t. The service monitors this. However, it hasn’t taken action to make sure these staff are productive.
The service meets its statutory duty to consider emergency service collaboration and has a system in place to review existing collaborations. It is an active member of the South West Emergency Services Forum. The forum encourages collaboration across blue light responders in the south west.
The service collaborates with Hampshire and Dorset & Wiltshire fire and rescue services. The three services have a networked mobilising system as part of the Networked Fire Control Services Partnership. Benefits include mobilisation of the quickest responders across county borders, faster responses to emergency calls and greater resilience and business continuity if systems fail.
The service provides emergency medical response from 20 on-call stations on behalf of the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Trust (SWAST). The service uses a voluntary model at these stations. SWAST pays the service when it needs to respond in this way. The call volume for co-responding has dropped significantly since SWAST introduced a new triage and response approach. Data provided by the service shows that in the year ending March 2019, it attended 1,223 co-responder incidents. This was a 73 percent drop compared with the previous year (4,458). Because of this, funding for calls has also declined and is now at a point where cost neutrality cannot be guaranteed. There is currently a new draft MOU being negotiated to guarantee cost neutrality.
The service is working with Devon and Cornwall Police to train on-call firefighters as community responders. This involves training the on-call firefighters as special constables to carry out community engagement in on-call station areas while available for fire calls. Funding comes from the Office of the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner.
The service needs to do more to assess whether there are any benefits (like freeing up more staff or reducing costs) it can get from projects. For example, the service responds to incidents where someone has collapsed behind closed doors to gets access to premises on behalf of SWAST. This reduces demand on the ambulance service. But costs to the fire service are not currently recovered. The service recognises this. It is hoping to understand what benefits will be released from new projects through better programme management and governance.
The service has robust business continuity arrangements for its control room. If for any reason the control room goes offline, calls are automatically transferred to the two other control rooms in the partnership. This guarantees that engines get to incidents without any interruption.
The service has appointed a business continuity manager. After an internal review, the service saw that current arrangements were not as robust as they should be. The service identified record keeping and training as issues. There are limited plans in place for some functions and locations across the service.
The service uses an innovative risk management approach. It records risks it identifies as an issue on directorate and service plans. This approach is designed to put risks at the right level in the organisation where action can be taken to mitigate them. The service only takes risks to the corporate risk register if they can’t be managed or mitigated at the service or directorate level.
Inspectors reviewed some service and directorate plans and found no way to score the risk or any guidance on taking the risk to the corporate risk register. This could lead to significant organisational risks remaining at the department level, with no oversight from the corporate management team or the fire and rescue authority.
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
Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Authority is about to consult the public on significant changes to how it provides services to improve what it offers and meet financial pressures. The service anticipates future budget pressures. These include unfunded pension costs, inflation, increasing pay, a continued freeze in council tax and reductions in government grants.
These factors, plus continued challenges for on-call firefighter availability and a desire to make better use of its wholetime staff, are driving a new service delivery operating model. Proposals include changes to working patterns for both on-call and wholetime stations. The service is forecasting that changes to the operating model and crewing changes could provide between £0.388m and £2.925m of annual revenue savings and £3.325m and £5.725m of one-off capital savings.
The service has shown sound financial management and governance of procurement and tendering processes. All spending over £5,000 is reviewed by the procurement team and spending over £20,000 must go through a procurement process. The service organises procurement resources to focus on specific areas of spending. This allows managers to focus time and activities on in-depth market analysis so better decisions are made. A recent audit found compliance with standing orders and no significant issues. This provides assurance that adequate controls are in place.
The service has achieved savings to avoid budget pressures. Since 2013, it has reduced the number of wholetime firefighters (FTE) from 670 to 556. Some of these reductions were achieved by changing crewing arrangements in the Plymouth city area. In 2018, the service introduced rapid intervention vehicles. These enabled better access to locations and the ability to operate with smaller crews.
The service wanted to move to smaller, lighter vehicles, which still hold a significant amount of equipment, to ensure an effective response. As a result, the service introduced RIVs and LRVs. The service calculates these vehicles hold about 90 percent of the equipment carried in a normal engine. LRPs and RIVs cost approximately half of a standard fire engine and their lifetime running costs are more efficient. The service is the national lead for the response vehicle procurement programme. It makes good use of national procurement frameworks to get value for money.
One of the service’s six strategic themes is digital transformation. In 2014, the service did an internal review. It found its information technology strategy lacked vision, with no cost visibility and no formal approach to managing data and information. It also found operational crews thought the service information computer technology (ICT) was disjointed and hard to use.
Since then, the service has re-restructured the ICT department. Its focus is now on how the end user will use the software. The service has now developed its own products – including an app that manages premises risk information. The home fire safety check process has been fully digitised. The service has identified other areas where it can streamline business processes and be more efficient through digital applications.
Future investment and working with others
The service has a published reserves strategy. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service had balances of earmarked and general reserves of £29.8m, as well as provisions. This is 47 percent of its net expenditure budget as at 31 March 2018. Most of the reserves are earmarked for future spending on capital and to fund ‘invest to save’ proposals. A general fund balance of £5.3m, around 8 percent of the net budget, is held to cover unanticipated events. The level of reserves is planned to reduce to £17m by the end 31 March 2022. Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Authority has set up a trading company. It is overseen by members of the fire authority, senior staff from the service and independent people who together make up the board of directors.
The company provides services to other fire and rescue services, the public and the commercial sector. Services include access and rescue, maritime, fire safety, first aid and driver training. Also, it offers subcontracting, stand-by rescue and consultancy services. Some staff from the service work with the company and the service provides the company with premises and equipment. The service recovers the full costs of the staff and other support. This amounts to about £300,000 a year. At the time of our inspection, the company owed the authority £555,000 and was finalising a business plan to address this liability.