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Greater Manchester 2018/19

Efficiency

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

Last updated 19/06/2019
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. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.

Although the service has an integrated risk management plan (IRMP) in place, the current operational response model does not reflect this plan. As a result, this has led to staff shortages and the service using overtime to cover significant amounts of its work. It is recruiting large numbers of new staff to ease this reliance on overtime from April 2019.

The service has a good track record of making savings, although the savings identified in its IRMP have not been realised. However, the service is using its reserves to cover shortfalls in funding. This isn’t sustainable. Once the programme for change (PFC) review is agreed, it should be able to make savings and stop relying on reserves. If there are further delays in agreeing the PFC, this may cause the service financial difficulties.

False alarms are a major drain on resources. The service has made some changes by sending only one fire engine initially. However, it needs to do more to reduce this burden.

Staff performance isn’t being managed to meet the demands of the service. Although individuals and teams are set performance targets, their performance against them isn’t being prioritised or monitored.

The service recognises that some of its buildings are underused, and has invested in shared facilities at several locations. The service should do more to evaluate its collaborations to determine whether their expected outcomes have been realised.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service needs to ensure that it allocates its resources appropriately and prioritises activities which address the risks identified in its
    (IRMP).
  • The service should have effective measures to ensure that staff are productive, and using their time efficiently to meet the priorities in the IRMP.
  • The service should ensure there is effective monitoring, review and evaluation of 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

The service is using a combination of reserves (£3.5m) and underspend (£2m) to bridge the £5.5m gap in funding for 2019–20. This gap was caused by cost pressures arising from increased pay and pensions, and after temporarily suspending the changes proposed in the IRMP. The service has provided data showing that it expects to have £29m in reserves at the end of March 2019. If it doesn’t implement the changes in the PFC, reserves are expected to fall to £20m by the end of March 2020 and £5m the year after. The service is clear that this isn’t a sustainable position and is working to implement the savings in the PFC.

Although the service has an IRMP in place, it is not currently resourcing to the levels identified in this plan for protection, prevention and response.

As stated earlier, the PFC is a fundamental review of the service. It includes a plan for how the service should operate, and outlines options for how it can save money.
It also outlines the investment that is needed to deliver change. At the time of our inspection, final decisions about the PFC were expected in March 2019. The chief fire officer is responsible for the programme at board level within the combined authority.

The service is making financial plans for the years 2020–22. The proposed budget includes the expected increases in pay, prices and pensions. The plan considers the effect of different levels of council tax funding and inflation in order to estimate different levels of savings that might be needed.

The service has previously been able to make savings, and it has identified possible savings in the short to medium term. These include a general review of budgets (both pay and non-pay) and a range of changes to the way the service provides operational fire cover. The service has planned savings of £2m, which have been included in the budget for 2019/20. Savings relating to the PFC haven’t been included as, at the time of the inspection, these hadn’t been agreed.

As we highlighted earlier, the service is using overtime to cover the staffing shortfall caused by changes to how shifts are organised. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 December 2018, the service spent nearly £4m for this purpose. The service expects the reliance on overtime to reduce once it has recruited more firefighters. Currently, the overtime is being funded from reserves and underspend, which is not a sustainable position.

Productivity and ways of working

As previously highlighted, the service doesn’t have the resources it needs to carry out its risk-based inspection programme. The way that staff are currently organised means that substantial amounts of overtime are needed to meet the required level of fire cover.

The impact of attending false alarms is known to the service. In the year ending 30 September 2018, false alarm incidents accounted for 42 percent of all incidents attended. The service has changed its procedures, so it now only sends a single fire engine if there is an automatic alarm signal. Even so, false alarms are a major drain on resources. The service plans to implement a new policy for false alarms in summer 2019, subject to approval.

There is little evidence that staff performance is managed in ways that help meet the demands of the service. Targets are set, but they aren’t co-ordinated with the service’s goals, they aren’t challenging and they don’t make sure that staff are completing high-priority activity. For example, firefighters are supposed to make at least one fire prevention visit a day per fire engine. We found that, once this has been achieved, crews rarely make further visits even if they have time.

The PFC is ambitious and wide-reaching. It outlines a range of possible savings and the investment required to deliver the change the service needs. Many of the service’s financial and organisational plans rely on the PFC being implemented successfully and in a timely manner. The service recognises the importance of successful change management and is planning to increase the size of the PFC team. There is a dedicated programme and business change team to support delivery of the PFC, reporting to the combined authority via the chief fire officer.

Collaboration

The service has a number of shared fire stations. For example, it shares a fire station with police and ambulance at Irlam. It has invested in a new purpose-built community fire and ambulance station at Wigan. It has adapted Philips Park and Whitefield stations and now shares them with the North West Ambulance Service. These joint stations haven’t yet been evaluated to see if the expected benefits are being realised.

The service has shared its fire control function with Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire fire and rescue services since 2014. This has been formally evaluated and saves the service £500,000 a year compared with having a dedicated control function.

Continuity arrangements

The service has continuity plans in place for critical areas such as IT and fire control. These describe what will take place if something happens that directly affects the staff or stations, like power cuts or extreme weather that makes it hard for staff to get to work. The plans clearly define roles and responsibilities for managers and staff if there are IT system failures or staff shortages, and give clear guidance for cyberattacks and other threats. The plans are regularly reviewed and audited.

The service is able to mobilise fire engines from a back-up fire control location. Both staff and equipment are tested regularly.

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

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 good track record of making savings. It provided data showing that, of the £15m savings planned for 2016–20, £8m was saved up to the point where the savings plan was put on hold in 2018/19.

The savings laid out in the IRMP 2016–20 (now on hold) are well documented. It has detailed plans for savings, defines accountability and sets appropriate timescales.

The service has specialist staff to manage its procurement. This team also handles procurement for other organisations across the GMCA. The service provided information that showed a saving of £395,000 in 2017/18. This was achieved by carefully checking procurement requests, searching for the best prices and working with other organisations to save money by buying in bulk. For example, when purchasing software licences, the team looked carefully at the requirements of the users and was able to save £55,000 while still meeting their needs.

The service has also used benchmarking data to reduce costs and renegotiate contracts.

In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £18.77. This compares with the England rate of £22.38 over the same time period. However, many factors influence this cost, for example the ratio of wholetime to retained staff which is in part influenced by how rural or urban the service is. 

Innovation

The service has a three-year plan for its IT development. This strategy is fully costed and prioritised. The aim is to create a more mobile and flexible workforce.

The service has previously set aside money for innovation. This funded schemes under categories such as digital, green and partnerships. Staff could submit ideas supported by a business case. This has been replaced by an innovation fund of £3m controlled by the mayor, although staff weren’t clear how they could access these funds.

The service is working with a company to develop a product that can count people in and out of high-rise buildings. It does this using domestic electronic devices that connect to the internet. This will provide real-time information about how many people are in a building, which will help in the event of a fire. They are currently examining whether it is possible to ‘tag’ a firefighter to track where they are in the building. The service has also made use of drone technology to support incident commanders in their decision making. This was used at incidents at Christie Hospital and the moorland fires in 2018.

Future investment and working with others

The service’s reserves have recently been used to cover gaps in its budget and maintain fire cover rather than to support efficiency. The service plans to use its reserves to make the investment outlined in the PFC. However, if agreement on the PFC is delayed, the service may have to borrow money, which will be more expensive than using its reserves.

The service has completed a survey of the buildings it owns and has developed a financial plan to deliver improvements. This work is now underway.

The PFC includes an ‘income and assets strategy’, which identifies opportunities for the service to generate income. For example, the service is looking at opening the Bury Training and Safety Centre to other fire and rescue services.

In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing and the recommendations of the Kerslake Report, the service is working with a developer on a secure messaging system. This will allow first responders to communicate securely in real time.