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. The London Fire Brigade’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The London Fire Brigade is well resourced. Yet we found evidence of it being wasteful with its resources. It should review how it allocates its resources to activities, based on the risks set out in the London Safety Plan. We found many important projects had stalled, meaning that planned improvements agreed with the public haven’t happened.
While planning assumptions are sound, the current reliance on reserves agreed with the Mayor of London to bridge the funding gap is unsustainable. The brigade needs to make sure that it has strong enough plans in place to address financial challenges beyond 2020. These plans should secure an affordable way of managing fire and other risks.
A lack of detailed consideration of the contracts it has entered into has had a negative effect across the brigade. However, it is now actively renegotiating some contracts to try to improve the services provided and outcomes.
There is no alternative to the current staffing system that applies to all stations. The brigade addresses this by allowing individual staff flexible working arrangements, but this is at a cost.
The brigade has several business continuity plans to deal with factors that could affect its ability to provide an effective service. But staff are less knowledgeable in business continuity planning in operational areas of the organisation than staff in its support departments.
There has been some good work with other organisations to procure uniforms and equipment. There are several shared service arrangements with the Greater London Authority. This has helped improve efficiency. The brigade plans to do more collaborative work with other blue light services. But it should make sure that it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of joint working.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The brigade should make sure it reviews how it allocates its resources to activities, based on the risks set out in the London Safety Plan.
- The brigade should make sure it effectively monitors, reviews and evaluates the benefits and outcomes of any contractual arrangements, collaboration, or other improvement projects.
- The brigade should make sure it has good business continuity arrangements in place across the whole organisation, which are understood by all staff, that take account of all foreseeable threats and risks.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the brigade’s performance in this area.
How plans support objectives
The brigade’s strategic plans are well developed and documented. Strategic plans are subject to scrutiny by the Mayor of London’s office, and by internal and external audit. Planning assumptions are sound and are agreed with the Mayor. But organisational change and individual performance aren’t effectively managed, which has led staff to believe that performance isn’t valued.
There is no longer a clear link between the brigade’s strategic direction and the London Safety Plan. Important projects are either stalled or behind schedule. We were told that the desire and capacity for change had slowed.
Projects that have been affected include reviews of alternative staffing arrangements at fire stations and emergency response arrangements that use specialist equipment and staff. The London Safety Plan therefore no longer fulfils the brigade’s commitment to the public. The brigade hasn’t updated it, or communicated the divergence from the London Safety Plan to the public.
Several reasons were given for these delays, including political challenge, the possible need to respond to any recommendations from the Grenfell Tower independent public inquiry, the cost of change because of the size of the organisation and trade union opposition.
Most boroughs have local plans with priorities to address local risks, but there is no structured approach to their development or effective oversight of performance management. Managers tell us they have software, a range of meetings and methods to help them check station performance to make sure that work is completed. However, we saw backlogs of tasks in station work logs.
The brigade’s budget for 2019/20 is £391.3m. It has made relatively modest savings over the past decade totalling £100m. At 31 March 2019, although the final figures weren’t available, total reserves were expected to amount to £56m. The two largest elements are the general reserve staying at £21m (that is, £7m more than the minimum) and a budget flexibility reserve of £23m. With many important projects stalled, the budget flexibility reserve is being used to maintain the existing level of service to the public, without adequate plans in place to address the shortfall. The financial forecast suggested that by 2023, other than the general reserve and a small balance for initiatives – that is, a total of £23.6m, the reserves will have been used up. This is unsustainable.
Productivity and ways of working
The London Fire Brigade is, in general, well resourced. However, we found evidence of it being wasteful with its resources. Resource allocation is based on largely historical decisions rather than the risks in the London Safety Plan.
The response standards have largely stayed the same over the past decade, and there is a policy for the public to have equal entitlement to emergency response regardless of differences in assessed risks between different communities.
The brigade reports that availability of fire engines always outstrips demand, yet the resource management centre spends two to three hours each day making sure that all fire engines are staffed and available. During this time, most of the firefighters are restricted to work on station unless attending incidents. They can’t do prevention and protection work, such as home fire safety checks or risk visits, while waiting.
Incident numbers could reduce further and create capacity if there was a drive to reduce false alarms. In the year to 31 December 2018, there were 51,186 false alarms – 48 percent of all incidents attended. The average rate for England is 40 percent.
The fire safety department, which is responsible for protecting the public, has introduced efficiencies such as a shortened audit process to increase capacity. However, this isn’t used much. An organisational initiative for firefighters to do fire safety checks in lower-risk premises began in August 2016, but wider implementation has been delayed until April 2020.
The brigade has halted reviews of working patterns to improve productivity and make savings. Firefighters continue to work on the historical wholetime duty system. The brigade has allowed some people to work flexibly, but at an increased cost, because it has failed to provide more cost-efficient organisation-wide alternatives.
It also needs effective performance management arrangements for implementing plans in line with its strategic priorities, and should make sure that the expected benefits are fully realised. This includes the commitments to the public outlined in the London Safety Plan.
The brigade collaborates well with some partners and has several shared services arrangements. These include for internal audit (Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime), firefighters’ pension services (London Pensions Fund Authority, sub contracted to London Pensions Partnership), treasury management (City Hall), and procurement and data warehousing services (TfL). The brigade provides payroll services to the Greater London Authority. They also actively collaborate on prevention and protection with partners in local boroughs. Evaluation of benefits realised, or lessons learned, however, has been limited.
Strategic leaders say there is a desire for more blue light collaboration across Greater London. A collaboration board has been established that includes fire, police and ambulance services, with a statement of intent agreed by their strategic leaders. The London Safety Plan refers to plans to develop a single call handling service, and to jointly support and develop shared back office services including information technology (IT), legal and the sharing of estates. Most of these collaboration projects have stopped or stalled. However, there is limited sharing of estates.
The brigade has measures for continuing to operate during a disaster or an unplanned interruption of service, and to recover normal services as quickly as possible. These present a mixed picture. There are business continuity plans for several support departments including IT. There is a plan for complete shutdown of the software system for mobilising fire engines. This was recently tested and found to need improvement in some areas. The brigade is also investing in improvements to its cyber defence systems. This isn’t replicated in operational areas of the brigade, where we saw limited understanding of business continuity planning.
How well is the FRS securing an affordable way of managing the risk of fire and other risks now and in the future?
Areas for improvement
- The brigade should make sure it has strong enough plans in place to address financial challenges beyond 2020, and secure an affordable way of managing fire and other risks.
We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the brigade’s performance in this area.
Improving value for money
The brigade has made some savings in recent years. Two main areas of operational savings were closing 10 fire stations in 2014/15 (leaving 103) and reducing fire engine numbers in 2016/17. Despite this, in the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £28.33. This is the second highest in England – the average rate is £22.38.
The brigade needs to give greater consideration to the contracts it signs. Its failure to do so has had a negative effect across the brigade. We heard of several instances of suppliers’ contracts not giving the quality of service expected. Examples came from property and facilities management, training and development, and IT, including the control room system that mobilises emergency resources. We were told that business cases are strong, decisions are taken for all the right reasons and contracts are managed effectively. But the number of occasions of contractual failure gives a different picture. We did see, though, some recent examples of active contract renegotiation in these areas to try to improve the benefits and outcomes.
There were examples of working with others to improve value for money through procurement, with firefighter protective clothing procured through the Fire and Rescue National Framework. This generated £300,000 savings for the brigade. Also, staff uniform was procured through a framework agreement developed by the Metropolitan Police Service. There was joint procurement for a service helpdesk IT system with the London Ambulance Service.
The medium-term financial plan in November 2018 forecast a budget gap that would steadily increase to £24.5m by 2022/23. This is considerably more than the £10.2m forecast a year earlier for the same period.
Since November 2018, additional funding has been agreed with the Mayor of London: just under £30m over the period 2018/19 to 2022/23. This increase in funding, along with some other minor changes and the use of around £23m from a budget flexibility reserve generated from earlier efficiencies, reduces the recurring budget gap to £15m over that period.
This approach is inefficient. It reflects the political will to maintain the service to the public in its present form, irrespective of whether this provides value for money. Contributory growth factors include additional costs arising from the Firefighter Pension Scheme and from the review of lessons from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which will widen the budget gap.
The brigade and the Mayor’s office are aware of this position and have agreed the use of reserves to bridge the gap. This is a short-term expedient. The brigade regularly does scenario planning for staffing levels, the number, availability and location of fire stations and fire engines, etc. It is ready and able to recommend alternatives whenever the appetite for reform is greater.
In recent years, innovation has been stifled. There is no track record of service redesign or finding efficiencies in operational areas, because the Mayor of London has given extra funding to maintain levels of spending. Staff report a lack of organisational desire for change and we found many improvement projects had been stalled or, in some instances, reversed.
Cost savings are being made in non-operational departments. There are IT, fleet and estates strategies, and the brigade is investing in new technology – for example, extended aerial ladder platforms to increase reach to high-rise premises; smoke hoods for the public when escaping from buildings; and drones to improve operational awareness at incidents.
However, the software to mobilise fire engines doesn’t yet work as planned, and there is a large backlog of property maintenance in the brigade’s ageing building stock.
Future investment and working with others
The brigade has collaborated on procurement, provision of some back office services, sharing estates and joint work with partners. Scope for further collaboration on the back office is being considered. We weren’t convinced, though, that there is a real enthusiasm for collaboration, with a tendency for staff to offer reasons why it isn’t feasible or hasn’t worked.
Few options for income generation are in place. Income from other fire and rescue services has stayed relatively consistent over the past few years. However, in 2018/19, this increased to £420,000. The brigade’s trading arm, London Fire Brigade Enterprises, was established in 2015. It entered a ‘dormant phase’ from 2019/20 and the income budget was removed. Revenue had been decreasing. In the year to 31 March 2018, £117,000 was reported, following a high of £276,000 in the previous year.
The brigade has been active in securing funding from other sources for initiatives as well as for its principal budget gap. This extra funding increased to £51m in the year to 31 March 2018 (compared with £34m in the year to 31 March 2017). This included Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act income (£26.4m), government grants (£14.0m), commercial rental income (£3.6m) and telecoms income (£2.0m).
The brigade is innovative in redirecting resources to meet emerging risks. For example, acid attacks at tourist sites have become increasingly prevalent, and the brigade has provided training to hotels and restaurants in these locations to enable them to help victims of such attacks. The brigade is also doing 2,000 home fire safety checks to houseboats with funding from Gas Safe.
The brigade has granted £2m from previous efficiencies to housing associations to fit fire prevention equipment in their properties.
The capital programme is between £14m and £40m each year. Plans include a new training centre at Croydon, low emission fleet replacement, and fire station improvements or replacements.
The capital programme is planned to be funded mainly by the sale of brigade properties and Mayor of London funding, with some borrowing forecast in the later years. There is a risk that the revenue from the sales of properties may not materialise at the level or time needed, and the brigade recognises that this would result in more borrowing.