Hereford and Worcester 2018/19
How efficient is the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from fire and other risks?
Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The service made ambitious plans in 2014 that it has not achieved. These were based on saving money by improving efficiency and making changes to the workforce. The financial plan is good and is based on sensible assumptions. But delays in bringing in the planned changes are costing the service money. This presents a risk. We found that staff do not fully understand the proposed changes to the role of watch managers. The service needs to address this situation.
Progress made in the service’s prevention work is likely to increase workloads in other areas. We found that specialist prevention officers already have a lot of work to do. This is a risk. The service should review the situation and consider how to deal with this problem. In particular, it may be able to introduce a better system for replacing faulty smoke alarms.
The service is good at working with partner organisations. Good arrangements are in in place for joint work with Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service, West Mercia Police and several local authorities. Some of these arrangements are innovative and the service is willing to try new things. The service should evaluate the benefits of these arrangements and make sure they are achieved. The benefits should include providing value for money. There are good arrangements in place to make sure the service can continue to function in all circumstances.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service should assure itself that its workforce is productive. It needs to clarify the role of watch manager and consider alternative ways to manage the replacement of faulty smoke alarms.
- The service should ensure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any future 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
Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service is not operating as efficiently as planned. The service is spending more than it needs to in responding to emergencies. The 2014 CRMP was ambitious in its plans for the service. It intended to reduce costs by operating with greater flexibility and greater efficiency.
One of the main elements of the plan was to reorganise the way the service responds to emergencies by aligning resources more closely to risk. Within this new model, fire engine crews for most incidents would reduce in number from five firefighters to four. However, the combined fire authority later decided to continue operating with crews of five at as many incidents as possible for another two years. It funded extra staffing for this by using £800,000 of the service’s reserves until February 2017.
The medium-term financial plan is good. It identifies the problems the service faces, making prudent assumptions about future income and expenditure. While the budgets are broadly balanced during the four years of the plan through to 2023, this is mainly achieved by using financial reserves . Longer-term action is needed to reduce spending to acceptable levels in line with projected funding available. Had the service implemented its changes as planned in the 2014 CRMP, it would have mitigated some of these problems. The service is considering alternative crewing arrangements together with other cost-saving measures. These include reducing the number of fire stations in the Wyre Forest area and relocating the fire headquarters and control room to the West Mercia Police headquarters.
Productivity and ways of working
Compared with 2010, the service has reduced the numbers of fire engines and staff to save money. More recently, it introduced a range of flexible working patterns to align its response arrangements to risk and demand for services. The new staffing structure removes watch managers from riding on fire engines as part of the crew. This means the service can reduce the number of watch managers at each station from four to two. The two watch managers are employed on a flexible seven-day rota (except at day crewing plus stations). In the new structure, crew managers do more of the day-to-day supervision of firefighters; watch managers manage the performance of a wider group of firefighters and have an enhanced role in local partnership engagement activities. However, because the service has not yet fully implemented the reduction to four riders, or the wider changes to the operating model, we found some staff were unclear about the proposals. While the service has communicated the benefits and reasons for the change to staff and representative bodies, more needs to be done.
The service allocates resources to prevention and protection activities. These activities are designed to reduce the number of fires and other emergencies, as well as manage the risks throughout the area. We found that the specialist prevention officers have a backlog of work. The service needs to review this situation and make any changes necessary to reduce the backlog. It is not clear whether the service is making the best use of response firefighters for prevention activities. For example, we found occasions when the service sent out a full fire crew to replace faulty smoke alarms (in homes where the service previously fitted them). We recognise it is essential that fire crews can be deployed quickly to an emergency, and defective alarms do need to be replaced, but there may be more cost-effective ways of achieving this. This could free up crews to undertake other work, such as new home fire safety checks, where their skills could be better employed.
The service’s fire protection programme of work is risk-based and is increasingly targeted at sites where the risk to community and firefighter safety is greatest. However, this better targeting of protection activity means that inspections are leading to more enforcement and follow-up activity. This affects the workloads of other staff and could soon lead to current resourcing levels becoming stretched.
We found that the service is keen to collaborate both with other fire services and with the wider public sector. However, it is not clear whether the benefits of collaboration, for the fire and rescue service and its users, have been fully evaluated. There are constructive joint working arrangements in place with Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service and with West Mercia Police in particular. There are already several shared police and fire stations. In addition, plans are at an advanced stage to relocate the fire service headquarters along with its fire control centre to the site of West Mercia Police headquarters. The services were successful in a joint bid for government funding of £1.89m to support this move.
Hereford & Worcester Fire Service is also part of an innovative collaborative venture, known as Place Partnership Ltd. This includes a number of local authorities as well as Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police. It was set up as joint venture to manage all the partners’ property, facilities and energy management solutions. It is not yet clear that the anticipated cost savings are being achieved. Indeed, costs have increased due to the number of capital projects the service has under way. However, costs are no higher than they would have been, and the service is confident that it now has access to greater capacity and skilled resources in implementing its various estates projects.
The service has also obtained transformation funding for a joint emergency services hub within the Wyre Forest area of Worcestershire. This involves relocating three stations, one wholetime and two retained, into one central hub alongside police services. The fire service has carried out extensive consultation. It has recently agreed a site, bought the land and obtained planning permission. The three fire stations were all located close to each other. The service made a compelling case for creating one central hub serving the area and maintaining acceptable response times at lower operating costs. This has been a difficult process for both the public and staff members affected. Although it has taken longer than originally envisaged, the project is now close to being finished.
Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service has a comprehensive system for assessing and recording business continuity. We reviewed plans across many areas, including plans for the move of fire control. These include detailed plans for before, during and after the move, to ensure business as usual. However, in two of the plans supplied, there was no version control and review dates had not been recorded. The service could not, therefore, reassure us that these plans had been fully agreed.
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 plans to achieve a balanced budget by making long-term cost savings, which will improve value for money. However, over the medium term, it continues to spend more than it receives in funding. It uses its reserves to fill the gaps.The service intends to have put in place sufficient measures to reduce its spending to within affordable limits. The assumptions made on income and expenditure are prudent and cautious. This means that the use of the reserve can be phased to meet the budget shortfalls later in this financial period.
Once again, the delay in implementing the decisions taken in the 2014 CRMP mean that the pace of improving value for money has been slow. There is a risk that the service will continue to operate inefficiently and that the operating model may become unaffordable. This is made more likely by delays in implementing the workforce and crewing changes, and by any delays in some of the more ambitious change projects, such as the Wyre Forest hub and the relocation to the West Mercia Police headquarters site.
Much of the collaboration work to date, although constructive and valued by partners, has not resulted in measurable improvements in terms of value for money. In discussions with the service and partner organisations, it is clear that the main initial motivation for these initiatives was not to save money but because it felt like the right thing to do. The chief fire officer has ambitious intentions to involve fire service staff in much greater joint service provision with other public services. However, these plans are at an early stage. The service is not yet able to show how it can increase its range of activities without affecting its main statutory functions. The service acknowledges it needs to identify the expected benefits at the start, and then monitor and evaluate the outcomes, to ensure these benefits are realised.
The service has shown it is willing to innovate and find creative solutions. We have already discussed the Place Partnership. Another example is the joint programme with Wychavon District Council, which resulted in the council providing a £3.5m purpose-built fire station in Evesham, at minimal cost to the service. The new station was part of the council’s plan to regenerate Evesham town centre, which required the relocation of the old fire station. The service worked closely with the council to achieve the best results for the community and for the service.
The service is planning to improve its out-of-date mobile data terminals with updated software and improved Wi-Fi to allow the devices to function remotely throughout the area. This should ensure crews are provided with up-to-date data, including risk information.
Following the 2014 staffing review, the service identified that changes to workforce models would mean it had too many staff. Through constructive joint planning, staff were seconded to Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service across both operational areas and fire safety. This enabled Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service to manage skills gaps in its workforce without the need to recruit, and meant that Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service could save the salary costs of its extra staff. Staff were also seconded to several other fire and rescue services. Over 50 staff were involved in total.
Future investment and working with others
The service’s reserves are set to fall significantly by the end of this financial period. Reserves are being used to balance the shortfalls in spending over the whole period of the medium-term financial plan. The service is planning to invest £32.6m in capital projects between 2018/19 and 2020/21. This is broken down as follows:
- fire stations/training facilities £19.7m;
- vehicles and equipment £8.5m;
- ICT/minor building works £4.4m.
This will be funded by earmarked reserves and some borrowing.
One of the five fire and rescue authority ICT priorities for 2018/19 is moving the fire control mobilising system to the operational communications centre at the police headquarters. Police and fire controls will be then based from the same location. This project involves both police and fire team members and is led by a fire service manager. In addition, the police told us that they have included fire service requirements in the specification for the new police command and control system. This means that collaborative working should be able to continue in future without disruption.
The service secured funding on its own from the fire transformation fund for the Wyre Forest hub, and for the move to West Mercia Police headquarters. It has also assisted the police in gaining funding from the Home Office for the operational communications centre.
The service has agreed to share incident command units with Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service. These specialist units will increase from two to three across the two services. This will also mean that the policies for incident command will need to be aligned, so that the units can deployed across either service. It should lead to wider collaboration for incident command.