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Essex 2018/19

Efficiency

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

Last updated 17/12/2019
Requires improvement

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. Essex County Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

The service has clear financial plans that balance its budget to 2024 and include making savings. An example is cutting costs by changing the crewing system at four of its fire stations. This is due to be in place by 2020 but is likely to take longer than expected.

The service invests in technology that will improve its service to the public. But we saw some computer systems that may increase staff workload.

There is a lack of planning for allocating resources to prevention, protection and response activities. For example, there is a shortage of fire protection inspectors. The service isn’t using its firefighters to carry out home safety visits. But it states in its IRMP that this is a big part of its day-to-day work.

The lack of annual leave policy potentially enables staff to affect fire engine availability by taking leave at short notice. The service addresses this by using overtime payment for other staff. But this is expensive.

The service has a range of business continuity plans to deal with potential impacts on its ability to provide a service. But most of these haven’t been tested or exercised.

The service has done some good work with other FRSs around joint procurement of uniforms and equipment. This has helped improve efficiency. It plans to work more with other services.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. This should be linked to risks and priorities set out in its integrated risk management plan.
  • The service should assure itself that its workforce is productive.
  • The service should ensure that its business continuity plans are tested and reviewed.
  • The service should assure itself that it makes the most of collaboration opportunities and that they are value for money.

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’s medium-term financial plan is based on good planning assumptions and is subject to robust scrutiny and challenge.

As the risk had reduced in some areas, the service cut the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff by 11.2 percent between 31 March 2013 and 31 March 2018. This followed review of its fire cover provision. Its IRMP states that prevention is a big part of the day-to-day work of wholetime firefighters. This isn’t currently the case. There also aren’t enough protection staff to complete the planned number of audits.

The service recently identified that its operational training programme isn’t good enough. This has resulted in an unexpected £1.4m to pay for additional training. This will be funded from reserves.

The service doesn’t have an effective annual leave policy. This means that staff can book leave at short notice. As a result, some engines may not be available because there aren’t enough trained staff to crew them. As mentioned earlier, this can increase the amount of time it takes to attend incidents because other engines would need to be deployed. These could potentially be further away. Staffing gaps are covered by overtime payments, which isn’t efficient. In the nine months to 31 December 2018, the service spent just over £0.7m on pre-arranged overtime and £0.6m on casual overtime. 

Productivity and ways of working

The service is changing four stations from day-crewed to on-call. This will improve efficiency. The aim was to have done this by April 2020, but it is now expected to take until 2021. Posts have been found at wholetime stations for the staff who will no longer be needed at these four stations. As a result, while the changes are being made, some watches on these stations are short-staffed. These gaps are filled by firefighters being paid overtime.

The service uses pre-arranged and casual overtime payments to keep its wholetime stations available. We were told that uniformed staff from support teams are used to maintain cover at stations. But we found that this rarely happens. Staff told us that on-call contracts lack flexibility. This makes it more difficult to recruit new staff and keep them if their circumstances change, and this affects the cover the service can offer.

The service now does more safe and well visits. In the year to 31 March 2013, it carried out 1.1 visits per 1,000 population. This increased to 4.7 in the year to 31 March 2018. This is still below the England rate of 10.4.

As mentioned before, the service isn’t using its wholetime staff to help meet its targets. A pilot scheme of firefighters doing home fire safety checks in a small number of stations started in spring 2019. It shows that full-time staff have capacity to carry out prevention work. This is under-used.

It is good that operational staff are visiting risk premises to familiarise themselves. But approaches can be inconsistent and inefficient.

The service produces performance reports to help performance management. Staff told us they felt station plans are too generic, and that managers create their own spreadsheets to help them manage performance.

The service could use technology better, particularly the customer relationship management (CRM) software that is slow and unreliable. The service has set money aside to improve its IT. But at the time of our inspection, a solution hadn’t been agreed.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £19.63. This compares with the England rate over the same timescale of £22.38. But many factors influence this cost – for example, the ratio of wholetime to on-call staff. This is partly influenced by how rural the area is.

Collaboration

The service led a programme to develop a common standard for fire engines in the region. By working with Bedfordshire FRS on fire control procurement, it saved £84,300 between 2014/15 and 2018/19. It also works with the Essex Emergency Services Collaboration Programme. This involves ambulance crews and Essex Police using certain fire stations and their facilities as strategic bases. 

The service works with Essex Police to improve community safety work in schools. It is also developing plans to work together in areas such as fleet, estates, control rooms and training facilities. The service is aware that it needs to work with others more, and with a wider range of organisations – for example, around business safety.

A good example of collaborative working is the service’s role in the Safer Essex Roads Partnership. Data from the partnership suggests that Essex’s roads have become safer. The number of people killed or seriously injured in Essex almost halved between 2005 and 2017. This was from 350 to around 200 per million vehicle miles.

But the service doesn’t routinely review and monitor opportunities to work with others.

Continuity arrangements

The service has business continuity plans to make sure that it can provide critical services during times of disruption. But, other than fire control evacuation, these haven’t been tested or exercised. At the time of inspection, some plans were out of date and some key staff couldn’t find relevant plans for their area of work.

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

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service 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 service needs to assure itself that it is maximising opportunities to improve effectiveness and efficiency through the better use of technology.

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 understands its finances and financial pressures. Its annual budget for 2019/20 is £73.8m. This is down from £79.5m in 2014/15. It is using £2.4m from reserves to address a gap left by higher than expected costs from pay settlements and delays in converting four stations to on-call.

In the year to March 2018, the service had around £5.5m in earmarked reserves, around £6.8m in general reserves and £848,000 in provisions. 

The service’s financial plans balance the budget until 2020/21. Although it has explored a wide range of potential options, it isn’t clear how it will make savings after this. However, it is confident that it will achieve the savings needed to 2024.

The service reduced its workforce (FTE) by 11.2 percent between 31 March 2013 and 31 March 2018. And consultancy costs dropped from £1.1m in the year to 31 March 2016 to £0.7m in the year to 31 March 2018. It is also reducing casual and temporary staff costs.

The service works with others to procure uniforms. This is expected to save around £215,000 a year until 2027. Similar joint procurement projects are making more savings. These include personal protective equipment. The service also led on the procurement of ‘working at height’ equipment on behalf of the national procurement board.

The service has a good fleet strategy. The aim is to ensure best value by using national, regional or collaborative frameworks when procuring new vehicles.

The service doesn’t have an overall estates strategy, but it uses premises scorecards which show the efficiency and effectiveness ratings for its properties to help the service make improvements.

Innovation

Essex County FRS has invested in technology to help staff deal with incidents better. The demountable MDTs give staff information about vehicle safety systems at road traffic collisions.

Operational officers use tablets to get information while at incidents or in meetings. They can also use them to see multi-agency plans for dealing with major incidents.

The service has been slow to use other technology to help it work better. Many of the systems it relies on, such as the CRM software, are slow and not interoperable. The service is aware of this. It has identified the issue on its risk register and has around £1m set aside for improving IT.

Future investment and working with others

The service reviews its reserves each year. This is to make sure that there is flexibility in how they are allocated.

The service is working with both Devon and Somerset FRS and Kent FRS to set up a procurement hub and build national procurement capability. The service secured £220,000 of fire transformation funding in 2015. This helped it establish the Fire and Rescue Indemnity Company Ltd. This is an innovative and collaborative approach to risk protection and insurance. It involves eight other FRSs. The project is expected to have saved over £2.8m across the nine FRSs by 2025.

The service’s subsidiary company, EFA (Trading) Limited, carry out its trading. The company sells training and engineering services. It also sells off end-of-life vehicles and equipment.

The company doesn’t employ people directly. Instead, it uses off-duty staff on secondary contracts. It made a small profit of around £25,000 for the year to 31 March 2018. Profits go into a community foundation, with grants that can come back into the service. The service is reviewing its trading arm and looking at how other services operate theirs. The aim is to make it more profitable.

The service will generate more capital when it sells the 25 houses adjacent to its day-crewed stations. This will be once they have been converted to on-call.