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. Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service’s overall efficiency requires improvement.
The service needs to balance how it distributes its staff between its prevention, protection and response teams. Prevention and protection teams are under-resourced and cannot meet their goals. This has followed substantial cuts in funding by the council.
The service has no financial reserves. It does have a capital plan but this is largely unfunded. It does a few things that bring in income, including charging for special services and training.
Because of the staff shortage, fire engines are often moved around the county to provide cover. Engines aren’t meeting their target times for responding to emergencies. Staff are unhappy that they can’t do their work as well as they would like.
Northamptonshire FRS doesn’t use new technology to improve how it works. Its systems are sometimes complicated and inefficient.
The service is working with the police as part of an interoperability programme to help the efficiency of both organisations. It shares three stations, a headquarters building, storage facilities and fleet maintenance. It also works in various joint teams with the police. This saves hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and helps improve the work of both services.
The service has made changes to how it organises its staff to help deal with the shortages. It has recruited new control room staff and started working with Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service to share control rooms. This has resulted in some improvements. However, overtime isn’t being organised centrally, and some staff are worried that their colleagues are working for too long without enough rest. Nevertheless, staff are proud to work for the service.
How well does the FRS use resources to manage risk?
Areas for improvement
- The service needs to show a clear rationale for the resources allocated between prevention, protection and response activities. This should be linked to risks and priorities set out in an up-to-date integrated risk management plan.
- The service should ensure it has clear and robust processes to manage staff overtime.
- The service should ensure it has good business continuity arrangements in place that take account of all foreseeable threats and risks. It needs to review and test plans thoroughly.
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
At the time Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service was inspected (November 2018) it was governed by Northamptonshire County Council. Our findings are based on this governance arrangement. As of January 2019, the service has moved from the county council to the Office of the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner (OPFCC).
The service’s financial plans were under review at the time of the inspection in preparation for the change in governance. Under the old structure, the service was financed as a department of the county council. The service’s priority was to maintain its service to the public during the transitional period.
At the time of the inspection the service wasn’t part of the county council’s medium-term financial plan (MTFP) as it was taken out when the change in governance was agreed in 2018. The service was drafting its own MTFP in preparation for operating within the OPFCC budget. This draft MTFP was due to be adopted in January 2019. It considers costs such as an expected national pay increase for its operational staff and a charge by the OPFCC for support services.
The service recognises that how staff are distributed across the organisation needs to be rebalanced. The prevention and protection teams are under-resourced and cannot currently meet the objectives in the CPP. To help meet the targets for cost saving that were set by the county council, the service has substantially reduced its number of staff. As at 31 March 2016 there were 591 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff.
As at 31 March 2018 there were 453 FTE staff. The county council was subject to a Section 114 notice in July 2018, which limited new spending by the council. This placed considerable financial restrictions on the service.
Staff shortages have resulted in a lack of available fire engines. This has resulted in fire engines being moved around the county to provide cover. Information provided by the service shows an increase in the response times of supporting fire engines (those sent after the first fire engine responds), from 13 minutes and 10 seconds in the year ending 31 March 2013 to 14 minutes and 26 seconds in the year ending 31 March 2018. Operational staff said that they felt hindered by a lack of resources and were unable to provide the level of service they wanted to.
The reduction of staff has had an impact on the volume of work they can do and on the morale of the team. The service planned to lessen the impact of cuts to the prevention team by having operational crews take on more prevention work. However, it was consistently found that on-call stations don’t complete home fire safety checks. Prevention staff said that they didn’t believe the organisation was committed to prevention and was not achieving all that it could in this area.
The protection team expressed similar concerns. Protection staff said that they were unable to inspect all the highest risks identified within their risk-based inspection programme. There are insufficient resources within the department to manage all the re-inspections identified by the database. Because of this, managers are using their professional judgment to decide what work should take priority. The uncompleted work is returned to the database with no viable plan for completing it. Also, the service no longer has a member of staff who can generate reports from the database. Local managers are taking data from the database and manually typing it into spreadsheets to analyse it. This is time consuming and has the potential for information to be entered incorrectly.
Productivity and ways of working
As at 31 March 2018, the service had 453 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. At the same time, 61 percent of FTE firefighters were wholetime. The reduction in the number of staff across the service has affected the amount of work it can do. This is most apparent within the on-call section. The service aims for all on-call fire engines to be available at least 85 percent of the time but has not been able to achieve this.
The service has developed a bank system to address staffing shortfalls at some on-call stations. This system utilises a pool of staff who have offered to work additional overtime shifts. This has seen an improvement in the availability of some on-call stations. The service has also developed an on-call working group to better understand where low availability is most pronounced and how it can resolve this.
Until recently, overtime was also being used to provide cover in the control room. We found that on several occasions in the recent past control room staffing, due to unforeseen circumstances such as sickness, had been reduced to a single control operator. On these occasions the service has provided additional support to fire control by using a senior operational officer. The service requires that a minimum of three staff should be on duty. It has recruited new control staff to address this. However, the new recruits will need time to train and develop. The risk of low staffing levels has also been addressed by the control partnership with Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service. Warwickshire can take all emergency calls for Northamptonshire and mobilise local fire engines.
The service has previously relied on control room staff working overtime to deal with staff shortages. The on-call section is still reliant on staff working overtime to maintain availability. The service does have appropriate policies to prevent staff from working consecutive shifts without a suitable rest period. But we found that overtime was managed at a local level and that the service wasn’t overseeing it appropriately. Several staff raised concerns about colleagues working too many shifts without sufficient rest periods.
Despite the challenging financial circumstances, staff said that they were proud to work for the service and serve their local communities. Operational staff have praised the service for extending the day shift by an hour, saying that this has given them much-needed time to complete their administrative duties.
The service is committed to the Northamptonshire Interoperability Programme. This has been designed to increase effectiveness and identify efficiency savings that could be achieved by working more closely with the police. The service currently has three shared stations with the police at Mereway, Rushden and Thrapston (as at 31 March 2018 there were 22 stations, of which 14 were on call, 5 were mixed and 3 were wholetime). The service also shares a headquarters building with the police at Wootton Hall. The service has reported making savings of around £160,000 a year from reorganising how it uses its buildings and land in collaboration with the police.
The service shares the maintenance of its fleet and its storage facilities with the police. The service has merged its two fleet management departments into a single team, which saves £70,000 a year.
The service has recently designed and purchased a new joint command unit. This vehicle contains advanced information and communications technology. This has enabled the service and the police to provide enhanced incident command at major incidents.
Police and fire staff are integrated within combined teams, such as the joint operations team. This has allowed skilled staff to share technical information with each other, which helps to create a consistent understanding of risk between the two organisations and a single method for managing that risk.
The service’s collaborations are supported by an interoperability board. The board considers the feasibility and benefits of proposed schemes before making recommendations to the senior team. It also looks at schemes once it has begun to make sure they are achieving their aims.
The service requires that each head of department is responsible for planning how to maintain their service if something happens that directly affects the staff or stations, like power cuts or extreme weather that makes it hard to travel. Plans are created using a standard template which is then approved by the assurance manager. The service’s policy is that all such plans should be reviewed annually, or when there is a significant change in circumstances. All the plans we checked had been reviewed within the last year.
We found that department heads didn’t always do ‘real world’ tests of their plans to make sure they were appropriate. Where practical testing of plans had been done – for example within the control room – there was no evidence the team had thought about how the plan could be improved.
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 service should ensure it has sufficiently robust plans in place which fully consider the future management of its fleet and properties.
- The service should do more to identify areas where innovation, including the use of technology, can help it improve productivity and develop capacity.
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
In the year to 31 March 2018, the firefighter cost per head of population was £18.81. This compares to the England rate of £22.38 over the same time period. However, many factors influence this cost, for example the ratio of wholetime to on-call staff which is in part influenced by the rurality of the service.
At the time of our inspection, the service was given its budget by the county council. The county council has had to make significant cuts to its spending, and as a department of the county council, the fire service had to contribute to these savings. The service has made the required savings of £4.5m. Its current operating budget is £19.8m. Savings have been achieved by making substantial staff reductions across officer and on-call firefighter posts as well as support staff. As at 31 March 2016 there were 591 FTE staff and as at 31 March 2018 there were 453 FTE staff. The service also made reductions in the support services it paid for through the county council.
In 2015 the service carried out a full review to make sure it was operating as efficiently as possible. The final report identified five key recommendations for improvement. It also said when and how the changes should be implemented. These recommendations have been included in the new CPP 2019–22, which is currently out for public consultation. The recommendations are:
- a full fire cover review;
- a review of current standards of response;
- a review of current working patterns and arrangements;
- a review of asset utilisation including property and vehicle requirements; and
- the expansion of home fire safety checks to include a safe-and-well concept.
The control partnership with Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service has saved £150,000. The service is now planning to combine other departments with the police to increase their capacity and work more efficiently.
The service shows few signs of innovation. Plans are largely based on what has been done before, with some minor changes. The service doesn’t actively try to find ways to improve its working practices. It has purchased systems which don’t always work well with its existing systems. The systems it uses don’t record simple information in the same format. For example, we found that the service uses three different reference numbers to identify the same premises across its systems.
The service hasn’t used technology to simplify the way it gathers data. For example, we found that operational crews recorded risk information on paper forms which were sent to a station manager to be checked. The forms are then sent to the risk intelligence officer to be put onto an electronic system and uploaded onto the MDTs. There is an inherent delay in the process as paperwork is physically passed on to the next person. There is also a risk that this information could be misplaced.
We found that the protection department also uses inefficient practices. Fire protection officers record an audit of a premises on paper. Once the officer has returned to the fire station, this information is input into a database. This means the data is recorded twice, which is time-consuming. It also increases the risk of information being recorded incorrectly.
That said, the service has recently purchased an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) to enable it to conduct safer and more informed assessments of risk at a large incident. The drone is shared with the police and has also been made available as a national asset.
Future investment and working with others
At the time of inspection neither the service nor the county council had financial reserves. The service didn’t have a valid capital plan or any capital funding. The service is prioritising the development of a small reserve and is writing an initial capital plan with support and scrutiny from the OPFCC. This was expected to be in place for January 2019. The service owns its fleet of vehicles and is responsible for their replacement. Without a capital plan it is unclear how it can do this. At the time of inspection, it hadn’t been confirmed who would be responsible for maintaining and refurbishing properties used by the service. The service needs to develop and finance a capital plan to make sure firefighters have the best possible equipment.
In March 2018, the service issued a paper with ideas for how it could generate income. The paper is a high-level three-year strategy (2017–2020) identifying the direction that the service is intending to take in generating income.
A small number of activities are undertaken which generate income, although on a ‘cost recovery’ basis. These activities include operational ‘special services’, such as getting into a building or releasing people from lifts, and operational training, including specialist tactical firefighting training using the cold-cutting lance.
The service has secured income from telecommunications companies for putting masts on their drill towers. This brought in around £177,000 in the year ending 31 March 2017. The service spends this income on maintaining fixtures and fittings at