East Sussex 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. East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has realistic and robust financial plans. We were pleased to find that the service has a programme management office, which tracks project progression and benefit realisation. The service has good collaboration arrangements in place. Senior leaders review the service’s collaboration framework.
The service uses its estates well, generating savings by sharing them with a police force and a local council. It also makes savings through its work with Surrey and West Sussex fire and rescue services, and by sharing occupational health services with Surrey and Sussex police forces.
The service has assessed and is monitoring the risks involved in its current fire control arrangement with West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. The arrangement is due to end in 2020.
The service has good business continuity plans in place. This means it can continue to give the public an emergency response even in extraordinary circumstances.
The service is good at making the fire and rescue service affordable, both now and in the future. It has a good track record of seeking to improve value for money, for example through joint procurement and contracting out its IT provision.
The service has robust plans in place for its reserves. They include a continued commitment to sharing its premises with other services. In the near future, the service plans to invest considerably in IT and estates, as well as in innovation. It should also continue to pursue new income streams.
The service needs to make some of its systems more efficient and is investing accordingly. The service should make sure staff understand the logic for setting some of its targets to manage individual staff performance better.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
East Sussex 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 needs to ensure that it allocates its resources appropriately and prioritises activities that address the risks identified in its integrated risk management plan.
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 has realistic and robust financial plans in place. They largely reflect the priorities that the service has identified in its IRMP. These plans are subject to informed challenge through external scrutiny.
A rise in council tax has contributed to the service’s budget increase by £0.9m from 2018/19 to £39m in 2019/20. In its five-year medium-term financial plan (MTFP), the service forecasts a range of funding scenarios and risks over the plan’s lifetime. These include increased firefighter pension costs.
East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has financial contingencies in place. They are funded through reserves and revenue budget. The service has assessed and is monitoring the risks involved in West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s intention to leave the shared control arrangement in 2020.
The service maintains good availability of fire engines to respond to emergencies. It uses risk assessments and maps to inform its resourcing. Despite meeting targets for response times, the service is struggling to recruit and retain enough on-call firefighters. As at 31 March 2014, the service had 231 full-time employed(FTE) on-call staff. This figure fell to 196 FTE by the same period in 2018. The service recognises that this situation can’t continue. It is already starting to address this through its operational response review, which includes examining options for the future of its on-call service.
The service lacks capacity in areas such as fire control and prevention functions. For example, in fire control, the service has been increasing staff overtime to cover shortfalls. The service is already developing a more flexible approach in order to maintain sufficient staffing at its control centre.
According to service figures, it has 253 home safety/safe and well visit referrals that it has yet to make as of April 2019. The service is paying firefighters to complete visits on their days off.
Productivity and ways of working
The service has clear plans to improve efficiency through major change programmes. For example, the services estates strategy, which covers the period 2018–2025, aims to reduce the cost of premises by between 15 and 25 percent over the term of the plan. The service intends to do this by redeveloping or relocating premises.
We are encouraged to find a programme management office in place, which tracks project progression and benefit realisation. The service uses forums so that staff can give their input about change programmes. The service undertakes workplace presentations to communicate change. But some staff told us the service was making too many changes, and that they don’t always understand the benefits of certain ones. The service should ensure staff understand its communication of progress and the outcomes of change programmes.
Some of the service’s systems aren’t efficient. It relies on several paper-based systems, including for recording safe and well visits and updating SSRI. (Staff fill in the forms manually and send them to a team that then loads the information onto computer systems.) The service has recognised this and has a clear set of plans in its IT and capital investment programmes to improve its systems.
The service has set several performance targets through its revised performance framework. The service needs to do more to ensure that staff understand the reasons targets have been set and to improve how it manages individual performance. The service has acknowledged this and has invested in new business and information systems to make sure staff are productive and using their time efficiently to meet IRMP priorities.
The service has taken proactive steps to discharge its statutory duty to collaborate with other blue-light services. It has a collaboration framework in place, which monitors collaboration arrangements and benefits. Senior leaders review this framework.
The service shares its estates, including its headquarters, with Sussex Police. According to data provided by the service, this sharing generates an annual revenue saving of £150,000. The service also shares Newhaven Community Fire Station, which houses local council and police staff. There is wider collaboration beyond shared premises.
In May 2014, the service established a shared fire control with West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, with anticipated annual savings of £474,000. These savings haven’t been made due to delays in implementing a mobilisation system.
The service collaborates with partners through the Sussex Resilience Forum. It offers occupational health services in collaboration with Surrey and Sussex police forces. And it works with Surrey and West Sussex fire and rescue services on shared recruitment and initial training courses for wholetime staff.
The service has good business continuity plans in place. These plans cover matters such as fire control, IT and loss of staff. They enable the service to maintain an emergency response to the public when faced with extraordinary events, such as extreme weather.
The service tests its plans annually and through no notice exercises. Recently, the service carried out tests such as evacuation procedures for fire control, where operators moved to a back-up control room at another location. This tested the service’s ability to respond to an incident if it loses use of its main control room.
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’s budget for 2019/20 is £39m. This is part-funded by an increase in council tax of 2.9 percent and modest savings of £0.4m. The MTFP recognises funding uncertainty and key financial risks beyond 2019/20. The most adverse scenario identified is a £3.7m budget gap by 2023/24. This is based on a 7.5 percent central funding reduction.
The service has a good record of achieving savings. According to its IRMP, since 2010/11, the service will have made more than £8m of savings by the end of 2018/19. Some of these savings have been achieved by reducing operational posts. As at 31 March 2011, the service had 869 FTE staff. Over the same period in 2018, it had 724 FTE staff.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £22.17. This compares with the England rate of £22.38 over the same time.
The service continues to review non-pay costs to make sure it is improving value for money. For example, it has contracted out its IT provision to an external company. It has saved £190,000 in insurance costs by joining the Fire & Rescue Indemnity Company. It has strategies to drive efficiencies in areas such as fleet. It also carries out joint procurement. And as part of a national personal protective equipment collaboration led by Kent Fire and Rescue Service, the service will make annual savings of £90,000 in 2020–21.
The service has earmarked £9m for investment in IT development over five years, with the aim of creating a more efficient and mobile workforce. One example of this is the replacement of inefficient paper systems (such as the one used for recording fire protection audits) with mobile tablets.
The service’s estates strategy details its investment of £13.8m in redeveloping or relocating its premises. This includes a £4.2m investment in upgrading existing stations to a consistent standard (for example, by ensuring improved workflow to prevent risk of contamination and providing flexible office accommodation).
The service has set £0.8m aside from its service improvement and efficiency reserve to fund innovation. Some of this money has been used by the service to support the development of its resource planning software to generate efficiencies. The service should continue to make sure that it supports innovation, to drive efficiencies and new ways of working.
Future investment and working with others
The service has a reserves strategy with good plans in place for its reserves.
In the year to March 2018, the service had around £17.9m in earmarked reserves, around £3.1m in general reserves and £500,000 in provisions.
Reserves are expected to reduce to £2.66m by March 2023 to finance major transformation projects. This includes partial funding of a £28 million investment in estate and fleet over the next five years. The service also shows continued commitment to sharing premises with other services.
The service is investing earmarked reserves of £9m in IT, with a view to offering more efficient and effective ways of working through improved technology. As part of this investment, the service has given staff laptops and mobile phones to enable them to work more flexibly.
The service has an efficiency strategy that focuses on developing new income streams. In the year to 31 March 2018, the service received £1.5 million from West Sussex County Council towards the operation of the Sussex control room. The service also has primary authority schemes in place with partners such as Eastbourne Hospitality Association.
The service has no plans to identify additional new income streams in 2019/20. It should continue to develop and pursue new income streams so that it can benefit from them soon.