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

For the last four years, the service has not based its annual financial planning on risk and demand. Instead, it uses its previous budget with changes for inflation. Norfolk County Council reviews and challenges its plans regularly. This also lets the public scrutinise its plans. Although the service has cut costs recently, this has come at the expense of resilience and capacity. For instance, it lacks capacity in some departments.

More positively, the service uses various working patterns effectively. This means it can match resource to risk effectively. It collaborates in and out of the fire sector. This saves costs and improves capacity and resilience. It also strengthens links with the organisations it works with. And it helps with information sharing. The service’s continuity arrangements are effective.

Norfolk FRS is also good at making its service affordable now and in future. The service knows about the financial climate. It understands financial risks and mitigates their effects. It will meet its savings targets for 2018/19.

It spends its capital in ways that save money. It invests in technology that will improve the service it gives to the public. But we saw some dated computer systems that may increase staff workload. The council holds the service’s reserves. The reserves strategy is sound. The service has a commercial trading arm that invests its profits in community projects. It made a profit of £22,000 last year. But the service could explore more external funding opportunities.

Questions for Efficiency

1

How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?

Requires improvement

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure that resources are appropriately allocated to support the activity set out in its integrated risk management plan.
  • The service should ensure that it makes best use of the resources available to it, including from elsewhere within Norfolk County Council, to increase resilience and capacity.

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 has not shown a clear rationale for allocation of resources to prevention, protection and response. It tried a zero-based budget approach some years ago using demand projections but did not continue with this. It now has a largely incremental approach to financial planning. It has a three-year medium-term financial plan in place. But it bases its budgets on those of the previous year with minor inflationary changes. So the service does not focus on risk and demand in its financial planning.

There is evidence of an imbalance in capacity across the service. Prevention and protection show signs of a lack of capacity. On-call staff have limited involvement in prevention activity such as home fire risk checks. The service should ensure that resources are appropriately allocated to deliver against all elements of its IRMP.

Norfolk County Council leads the service’s financial planning process and monitors and reviews it regularly. The council’s communities and environmental services committee challenges the service’s finances and performance. It also provides robust public scrutiny. The service has an annual budget of £28.243 million.

As at 31 March 2018, the service had 53 operational fire engines, located at 42 stations across the county. It concentrates resources in the north and the east. These are coastal areas, where it can’t rely on the support of neighbouring services. This ensures that the service has enough resources in these areas.

Productivity and ways of working

The service has made reductions in its back office. As at 31 March 2010, there were 134 full time equivalent (FTE) support staff. As at 31 March 2018, there were 72 FTE support staff. This has led to a reduction in cost. But it has also reduced capacity and resilience. We saw some single points of failure during inspection. The service has acted to address these. It is aware that there is more it can do. It should ensure that it makes best use of the resources available to it, including from elsewhere within Norfolk County Council. This will increase resilience and capacity.

The service makes good use of a variety of working patterns to match resources to risk. There is a mix of wholetime, day-crewed and on-call firefighters. As at 31 March 2018, the service had three wholetime fire stations, 34 retained fire stations and five mixed fire stations. The service also makes effective use of ‘tidal crewing’ in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. Rather than resourcing two stations in each location, resources are split each shift to cover a wider area and reduce attendance times. This is more efficient and needs fewer staff than standalone stations would.

Collaboration

The service is exploiting several opportunities to collaborate within and beyond the fire sector. The most notable of these is the joint fire and police headquarters. Fire control will relocate to the Norfolk Constabulary control room within the next few months. This co-location is forecast to save £100,000 in 2018/19.

The service will continue to be part of the East Coast control room consortium with Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and Humberside FRSs. The aim is set up a new mobilising system that will improve capacity and resilience.

The service shares nine of its 42 community fire stations with partners including Norfolk Constabulary, the East of England Ambulance Service, HM Coast Guard, the youth offending team, Norfolk Lowlands Search and Rescue and the Environment Agency.

The service has co-located staff within early help hubs. Staff provide support on subjects like hoarding interventions, restorative justice, modern slavery, and fire safety enforcement and advice.

The service is part of the emergency services collaboration board. The board monitors and evaluates the benefits of collaboration. This year it will evaluate projects about forced entry and about drones.

Continuity arrangements

The service has effective business continuity arrangements for fire control and its wider information technology (IT) infrastructure. It has a secondary fire control facility. Staff train for and exercise the fall-back arrangements on a regular basis. Fire control’s business continuity and resilience will be further improved once the East Coast control room consortium transfers to the new mobilising system.

We saw evidence of regular testing. And there were recent ‘real’ activations of the continuity plans for fire control and the IT system because of a small fire.

The service has effective disaster recovery and back-up arrangements for its IT systems.

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

Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service is good at making itself affordable now and in the future. But we found the following area in which it needs to improve:

Areas for improvement

  • The service should ensure it makes the best use of available technology to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency.

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 understanding of the financial climate in which it operates. It understands the financial risks that it is facing. And it is mitigating their effects.
An example of this is that it factored in arrangements to cover the additional costs of fire service pension employer contributions in its 2019/20 budget.

In the year ending 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £19.28. This compares with the England rate of £22.38 over the same period. Many factors influence this cost, for example the ratio of wholetime to retained staff. This is in part influenced by the rurality of the service.

The service has a medium-term financial plan for the period to 2020. This is based on sound assumptions. The service delivered savings of £110,000 in 2017/18 through:

  • changes to its operational support structure;
  • redeployment of some wholetime staff; and
  • reducing the operational training budget.

Further savings of £490,000 are forecast for 2018/19 through estates collaboration. The service doesn’t need to make any further savings within this period. The service has a forecast overspend of approximately £0.6 million in 2018/19. This is mainly due to one-off costs including the increased demands over the summer. In the past, this overspend would have been covered by a ‘spate reserve’. But the county council has taken this reserve back into the wider budget. So the overspend will be covered from underspends elsewhere within the communities and environmental services department.

A service level agreement is in place for fleet servicing by Norfolk County Council communities and environmental services fleet support. This is an efficient arrangement for servicing the whole of the department’s fleet. The service is transferring its fleet servicing to Norse Group Ltd, which is wholly owned by Norfolk County Council. The service expects further improvements and efficiencies as a result. But it is as yet unclear what the scale of these efficiencies will be.

The service is making effective use of capital expenditure. For example, it is making savings in revenue spending through fleet replacement to avoid leasing charges. Purchasing also lets the service determine the exact specification of vehicles.

The service plans to continue and expand its estates-sharing collaborations. It is a key partner in the one public estate programme. It is looking to further share and consolidate the estate across the public sector in Norfolk.

Innovation

The service has a considerable fleet replacement programme and investment in new technology of £5.2 million planned over the next three years. This is in line with its IRMP. It includes:

  • 13 traditional fire engines;
  • five light-weight alternative vehicles;
  • one aerial ladder platform; and
  • replacement mobile data terminals for its fire engines.

The service feels the procurement arrangements are flexible enough to meet the needs of a new IRMP.

The service has invested in technology such as incident command simulation software and virtual reality road safety equipment. It has also invested in a drone and a new mobile command centre. These support both firefighter safety and an enhanced response to incidents for the public. But we did see evidence of manual systems and dated computer systems that were increasing the workload of staff. The service should ensure that it fully explores and exploits changes in technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Future investment and working with others

The service has a sound reserves strategy. Reserves are held by the county council. They are clearly earmarked for the service and made available to it as and
when required.

Norfolk Safety Community Interest Company (CIC) is a commercial trading arm of Norfolk FRS. It employs four of its own staff and uses other service staff on secondary contracts. It provides standard and bespoke training packages including fire safety, health and safety, risk assessment and first aid. It made a profit of £22,000 in the year to 31 March 2018. As a CIC, it reinvests all profits into community interest projects like youth engagement and fire safety activities for vulnerable people.

The service has had limited success in securing external funding. It has obtained funding from the Rotary Club for smoke alarms. And it generates some income from communication masts on its buildings. The service should ensure it takes full advantage of opportunities to secure external funding. This will allow it to generate income to improve services and increase efficiency.