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Gloucestershire 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. Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

The service needs to make better use of its resources. It has met its previous savings requirements, but it needs to have a clearer understanding of how it assigns its resources. It doesn’t allocate resources according to an assessment of risk. In some areas, such as protection, it has reduced staffing levels even though the risk hadn’t gone down.

The service works with several partners to provide its services. It needs to regularly review these arrangements in detail to make sure it is getting the expected benefits. It has documented and tested its business continuity arrangements, but still needs to make them better. The control room is a good example of where testing has led to improvements.

The service needs to make sure it has the skills and capacity to manage future changes. This is particularly the case for its financial plans and its relationship with the county council. It needs to make sure it makes the most of its future working arrangements with the county council. The service would benefit from building on its use of specialist functions such as those established with HR, procurement and finance. 

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 ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration.

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

Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service has a net annual budget of £16.3 million and has achieved budget savings of £3.7 million since 2013. The service has the lowest firefighter cost per head of population in England at £16.42 in the year to 31 March 2018. This compares with the England rate of £22.38 over the same period. This is due to it having cut back office and protection services significantly, as well as the fact that it is predominantly an on-call service. The county council carries out medium-term financial planning. The service supports this with its own process, to help budget planning and mitigate risk to the county council.

The service has been through a period of upheaval. The former CFO resigned suddenly in July 2018. Also, a number of internal audit investigations started following whistleblowing allegations, including some in relation to financial conduct. The service has published several audit reports via the county council and is working on others.

The service doesn’t allocate resources according to the risk outlined within its IRMP. In some areas, it has reduced resources with no evidence that the risk in that area had gone down. For example, between 31 March 2011 and 31 December 2018, the number of dedicated and competent protection staff within the service fell from ten to two. While the service has met its saving targets, it hasn’t carried out a review to see if the reductions are in the appropriate areas. It wasn’t able to give us any assessment of the effect of these reductions.

Prevention has undoubtedly been the focus for the service, and the IRMP is heavily weighted towards the prevention function. As highlighted earlier, this has been at the expense of protection. 

Productivity and ways of working

The service has reduced its support functions. Between 31 March 2010 and 31 March 2018, the number of support staff fell from 79 to 40 full-time equivalents. The service is also operating with a number of temporary promotions across its management structure up to assistant chief officer. As at 31 March 2018, the service had 27 staff on temporary promotion, but more recent data received after the inspection shows this has increased to 53 as at 31 March 2019. Managers have been moving around the service and this has affected the service’s capability and capacity to make major changes. The service needs to make sure staff in important roles have the right capabilities and capacity to develop the service. The current lack of stability is negatively affecting managers’ confidence in making decisions.

There aren’t enough processes to manage the distribution and priority of prevention work. The service uses on-call staff as community safety advisers to carry out safe and well visits. But it hasn’t evaluated whether paying on-call staff to carry out this work is providing value for money, or whether it is reaching the most vulnerable people in its community. Also, while wholetime crews have a target of 20 high-risk safe and well visits a month, to meet this target they aren’t necessarily carrying out visits to high-risk homes.

We acknowledge that the service is using its workforce flexibly. For example, it uses its on-call staff to respond to high-line rescues and water rescues as well as to carry out safe and well visits. In the two main population centres of Cheltenham and Gloucester, one watch manager covers two stations. They will ride the fire engine at either, depending on crewing levels at each station.

Collaboration

The service has several collaborative partnerships in place. It shares:

  • a control room and headquarters building with Gloucestershire Police;
  • a joint private finance initiative (PFI) training centre with Avon Fire and Rescue Service and Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service;
  • telecare with Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group; and
  • concern for safety and co-responding cardiac arrest with South Western Ambulance Foundation Trust.

For the last two organisations, the service carries out cost recovery for the services they provide. The service has done some early case studies and evaluated outcomes. We believe the service should carry out more regular, detailed reviews and evaluation. This will help it understand the benefits for the participating organisations and make sure collaborations are achieving the desired aims.

The costs of the joint training centre with Avon Fire and Rescue Service and Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service are met through a financing model over 25 years. A recent remodelling exercise suggests an £808,000 deficit by the project end. Each service will need to increase its contributions to minimise the risk of this deficit arising. For Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service, this means it will need to find another £200,000, which it currently plans to meet from county council reserves.

Continuity arrangements

The service recognises the need to improve its business continuity arrangements and is in the process of updating its plans. It is doing this with the county council’s civil protection team, which manages business continuity for all the council. The new plans appear more managed and tested than previous ones.

Fire control regularly tests its plans with an evacuation exercise carried out every quarter. We saw evidence of the service using learning from previous exercises to develop the plan. For example, control operators now use a 4G tablet to manage mobilisation as they travel from Gloucester to Stroud. The service has changed network provider to make sure this device has good enough coverage, because of lessons learned from a previous exercise.

The service has developed its own safe and well software. This relies on a single person to maintain and develop the software. The service needs to mitigate any risks from this single point of failure.

2

How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it has sufficient capability and capacity to manage future change.

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

Several internal audit reports have indicated shortfalls in financial and procurement procedures as well as in human resources recruitment and selection processes. In June 2019, when the service initially published these reports, it gave assurance that it was taking (and had already taken) immediate action to correct any major problems and pursuing follow-up actions.

Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service has been able to meet savings requirements through underspends and reductions in support roles. The county council had required the service to reduce its costs by 1 percent (£160,000) in this financial year, but it has since removed this requirement.

As is common with county council services, the service doesn’t hold any reserves of its own apart from those identified for PFI and fire service pensions. If it needs more funding, the service must submit a business case to access county council reserves for any new areas of work. This is a new process for the service. It has established a financial monitoring group that meets monthly to review expenditure and plan future budget forecasting. The service is working with the county council to improve how it manages principal non-pay costs such as contract renegotiation and joint procurement.

The service has its own fleet strategy, but it doesn’t link to the current IRMP in relation to future requirements. The service told us that it will review its fleet strategy when it develops its new IRMP. The county council includes fire service buildings (apart from PFI sites) within its asset management plan. However, there are no fire-specific actions within the plan to assess future changes within Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service estates.

Innovation

The service has decided to upgrade its MDTs and is currently in the process of rolling these out across the service. It has taken the decision to move to 4G-enabled MDTs to improve the data-transfer capability and reduce the costs of the Airwave network. The service told us that the new MDTs will be compliant with the emergency services network when it is rolled out.

Staff use tablets for carrying out their safe and well visits. They can use them to make referrals to other agencies and update records. Staff told us that the service could increase the functionality of these tablets, especially in using the data to produce performance and analytical information.

Future investment and working with others

The service has several collaborations in place. The police and crime commissioner has submitted a business case to the Home Office to take over governance of the service from the county council. The Home Secretary has postponed this decision until after the next police and crime commissioner elections in May 2020. Progress in some areas of joint working with the police force has slowed as a result. But meetings between the assistant chief fire officer and the assistant chief constable with responsibility for collaboration continue to take place to work on collaboration.

The service generates approximately £500,000 a year – on a cost-recovery basis – from its partnerships through telecare and cardiac response. It has no current plans to generate further income.

It is common for county council-governed fire and rescue services to be able to draw on wider county council resources such as HR, IT and procurement. This hasn’t been the case in Gloucestershire. The service has its own support functions, such as operational assurance and risk information, which in some areas are under-resourced and not providing the required level of service. At the time of our inspection, the new CFO has agreed with the county council a new integration plan to align the service more closely to Gloucestershire County Council and use its support functions.