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. Humberside Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency is good.
The service uses sensible assumptions to plan its budget, and has effective arrangements in place to make sure the goods and services it buys represent value. But it needs to improve the balance between its protection, prevention and response work. It aspires to focus on ‘quality not quantity’ rather than setting targets for its work, although without proper consistent evaluation it is not clear how it can be sure it is achieving the aspiration of quality.
The service has introduced new shift patterns intended to help make sure the right number of firefighters are available at any given time. These are popular with staff, and have improved morale. But there is no evidence they have improved effectiveness.
The service overspent on its pay budget in 2017/18 but this was balanced within the wider service budget by the end of the financial year, resulting in a small underspend overall. A similar underspend was forecast for 2018/19.
The protection team has got smaller, so the service can do less protection work. This includes reducing attendance at false alarms and reducing its risk-based inspection programme.
Humberside FRS is keen to work with others, whether it is the sharing of estates or functions such as control, or providing services on a cost recovery basis on behalf of the local police force or ambulance service – for example, a team of firefighters who respond to people who have fallen on behalf of the ambulance service.
The service needs to make sure it plans all these collaborations properly and evaluates their success.
The service also generates income from work such as servicing fire extinguishers and renting out its land and buildings. It is actively looking for other similar opportunities. Its reserves are in line with best practice, and this is expected to continue for the next four financial years.
The service has robust business continuity plans if something happens that directly affects staff or stations, such as power cuts or extreme weather.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Humberside Fire and Rescue Service is good at making best use of resources. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to show how extra capacity generated through shift changes has been used to improve public safety.
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
We found that the service’s allocation of budget and resources supports the work set out in its integrated risk management plan and its strategic priorities.
The service has allocated resources to prevention, protection and response, but has not demonstrated a clear rationale for the levels of work. We found a lack of balance between prevention, protection and response work. This means some parts of the service are meeting their targets but other areas, such as protection, are not fulfilling the expectations set out in the strategic plan.
The service has sensible planning assumptions. It is fully aware of the demands on which to base its current and future budget.
The service has good arrangements in place for securing value for money in its use of resources. Its finances are audited every year. As well as having an independent annual audit, the governance and audit scrutiny committee offers further financial assurance.
The service gave us data suggesting that, since 2010, external funding has fallen by about 40 percent, equating to nearly £11.5m. As a result, the service has made efficiency savings, mainly reductions in the number of firefighters and support staff, through the service’s redesign programme.
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £27.77. 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, levels of deprivation and number of high-risk premises.
The service has a balanced budget through to 2022/23, which means it will not have to use reserves to balance any budget requirements.
Productivity and ways of working
The service uses some flexible workforce patterns. There are two main shift systems, on-call and wholetime. Wholetime staff work a self-rostering system that allows them to work a 24-hour shift. This system started as a trial at one station nearly three years ago and at the time of our inspection had been live at all wholetime stations for ten months.
The system is very popular among the staff who work it. The service told us that the shift system has increased staff morale and reduced sickness and station running costs. The service did not provide any evidence of an evaluation that supported any benefits relating to risk mitigation, increased public safety or effective use of increased wholetime crew capacity.
The inspectors found station work routines that do not maximise time available for prevention work. For example, crews undertake routine station work, and test their equipment during the daytime when there is more opportunity to engage with the public.
We found that the service has a system to manage on-call contracts effectively. There are different pay bandings that offer higher rates of pay for periods that are traditionally difficult to get staff to commit to. Staff in the on-call hub oversee this process.
We found the service had transitioned from home fire safety checks to safe and well visits, and this contributed to a reduced number of physical visits. Physical visits are only conducted for high risk; other methods are used for lower risk, including providing information by leaflet. The service claims to focus on quality, not quantity. However, it wasn’t able to provide evidence to support this approach. Because the service doesn’t have targets for the numbers of checks it carries out, or the quality of its work, the service doesn’t have a good enough understanding of its effectiveness in this important area.
The service monitors its overall performance and reports this to the fire authority on a quarterly basis. The reports cover prevention, response, projects and strategic risks.
It was not clear to the inspectors how this strategic overview translates to daily task allocation for service delivery staff. The service intentionally does not have any target-driven performance indicators.
We found inconsistency in the service’s performance management regime. Station-based staff must fill in a monthly performance sheet to say if they have completed all required work and training. This sheet then goes to the station manager for oversight. It was not clear how much challenge or quality assurance is involved.
The new district delivery model gives the local managers autonomy to allocate tasks in line with the local priorities. The service is introducing a performance management dashboard to assist local managers to prioritise local task allocation.
The inspection team was pleased to see examples of collaborations which are benefitting the community and the organisations involved in the work.
The service is involved in several collaboration projects. The most notable is the first responder scheme. This scheme was developed to support colleagues from the ambulance service to meet attendance times in its identified hard-to-reach locations. The scheme ran as a pilot with a full evaluation. Since this initial pilot in 2013, the scheme has now been rolled out to 14 on-call stations in the service’s area.
We also saw evidence that other collaborations had been scoped and evaluated to ensure that the initial objectives had been satisfied. We did find, though, that this standard approach had not been applied to all collaboration projects.
The service doesn’t generate profit through its collaborations: it provides services on a cost recovery basis. For example, the NHS ambulance trust reimburses the service for every call the service attends under the first responder scheme. The service works with the Hull Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to provide a 24/7 response to people who have fallen in their homes. The CCG commissions this work, and it is cost neutral for the service. It benefits the CCG by releasing resources previously used to attend these incidents. It also allows the service to redeploy up to ten operational staff who in the short term are no longer able to carry out full firefighting duties.
As a result of the work with the Hull CCG, the new East Hull fire station has been relocated to the Hull integrated care centre. We found that this new collaboration has the potential to increase engagement with at-risk groups such as the elderly and people with disabilities, but it was not yet working to its full potential. We look forward to seeing how this collaboration develops for the benefit of the community.
The service has also created a shared vehicle workshop with Humberside Police. The service told us that this has resulted in an annual recurring £30,000 saving for the service, increased resilience of the mechanic team and a reduction in the time taken to repair equipment and fire service vehicles.
Humberside Fire and Rescue Service and Humberside Police have entered a legal agreement under the Police and Crime Act 2017 to create a shared estates management team. This partnership has now been implemented. The service was able to outline the benefits of this partnership, but it has not yet fully evaluated them.
The service is part of the East Coast and Hertfordshire Control Room Consortium (ECHCRC). The project provides the opportunity to develop a resilient mobilising function across the four fire and rescue services – Humberside, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Hertfordshire. The project was funded by a £7.2m grant from the Department of Communities and Local Government. The service anticipates that this function will go live during 2019.
We found that, while the service monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any collaboration, it does so inconsistently.
The service has robust business continuity arrangements in case extraordinary events affect its ability to provide an effective service to the public. These arrangements cover all areas of the service. While the service has tested its plans for ICT and fire control, it could do more to make sure its continuity arrangements at all locations and functions are tested regularly.
During our inspection, we found that the service’s protection department had had to use its continuity arrangements to cover a staffing shortfall. The impact this is having on the service’s protection work is covered earlier in this report.
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 budget for 2017/18 is £43.3m. This is down from £43.8m in 2016/17. The planned budget for 2018/19 is £42.5m, comprised of grant funding £17m, business rates £3.5m and council tax precept £22m. Since 2010, the service has removed approximately £11m from its budget; the service is now 20 percent smaller than it was in 2010.
The service is piloting a shift pattern at full-time fire stations with the aim of making sure it always has the optimum number of full-time staff available. Under the previous system, there were periods when there were either excess firefighters or too few staff on duty. The new shift pattern helps the service better match resources to demand and reduce staffing costs. The service uses retirement profiling to predict future staffing needs. However, in recent years, the service has inaccurately predicted the number of staff retiring. As a result, it has recruited more people than it needed to. The service was anticipating a 2.67 percent overspend in its operational pay budget in 2018/19, and had overspent its pay budget in 2017/18. However, pay and non-pay overspends have been more than offset by additional income above that budgeted for, so that the service generated a small revenue underspend in 2017/18 and a similar amount was forecast for 2018/19.
The service has reserves of £9.9m which are in line with best practice guidelines. It has earmarked approximately £5m to fund insurance, invest in collaboration and innovation, provide capital funding and increase the resilience and efficiency of the service. It also draws on reserves to support building maintenance, purchase new personal protective equipment and fund vehicle replacement programmes.
The service used to replace its vehicle fleet on a rolling programme. We are pleased to see the service is now making best use of public money by only replacing engines and vehicles when needed.
The service is actively seeking to reduce the cost of borrowing by identifying other sources of funding and controlling capital spend. This is necessary because of the budget reductions it has faced in recent years. Since 2012, it has reduced the amount it borrows from £18.3m to £14.7m in 2018.
The service has an ICT capital programme of £600,000 per year. Examples of digital improvement include MDT updates, agile working for staff, the introduction of Office 365 and updates to its data centre. The introduction of agile working and Office 365 allows greater flexible working and should make staff more productive.
Future investment and working with others
We found that the service is actively exploiting opportunities to generate external income. It currently provides a team of firefighters who respond to people who have fallen in their homes. This consists of ten firefighters who are paid for on a cost recovery basis by the CCG. The team works a rota system to be able to respond under normal road conditions to people within the Hull CCG. This work reduces the burden on the NHS and offers opportunities for operational staff some of whom in the short term are not fit for full firefighting duties.
While the service doesn’t operate a trading arm, it has links with a community interest company (CIC), Humberside Fire and Rescue (HFR) Solutions. The CIC has articles of association that allow it to provide grants to the service and it pays the service approximately £65,000 a year in rental income.
The service generates income from work such as servicing fire extinguishers and renting out its land and buildings, including training facilities. The CIC also provides training to the service and offers opportunities for service staff to join them on secondment for career development. The CIC provides funding to support community projects such as the sponsorship of training and equipment for two fire detection dogs, and community defibrillators at rural stations throughout Humberside.